The arcade was a place of refuge for the outcasts of adolescent social circles, where time would be spent dumping quarters into some dumb machine instead of studying or playing ball hockey or parking their ass in front of the TV like every other kid. Communities were built among the cabinets with their sticky buttons and overly wobbly joysticks. The Street Fighters, the co-operative adventurers, and the high score champions basked in the glare of CRTs inside these dimly lit, stuffy caverns. Before the home console and PC effectively took hold as the ruling game platforms, this is where gaming lived.
While I can’t say I cut my teeth on games like Galaga and Pac-Man, my earliest arcade memories are of Captain Commando, X-Men, Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. Though my fondest memories are of the times spent with SNK’s Samurai Shodown II, a game that was almost impossible to get my hands on at my local arcade due to it sharing a Neo Geo cabinet with Bust-A-Move, a game as annoying as its easily enraged players.
Due to the amazing advances in home electronics, modern day arcades have since evolved into theme parks to maintain interest in the attention deficient. I saw it coming when the Sega Playdium arrived in Mississauga back when I was in high school, where there was a strange fixation on giant-sized arcade cabinets with attachments for water skis or a snowboard. Arcades have always been populated with games that had light guns, but even they were outnumbered by the racing games with actual cars or motorcycles to ride. Or rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution that seemed to capture the attention of people who would have never looked twice at an arcade game. The arcades had become embedded in movie theaters and would rather rent cabinets of Golden Tee or some generic racing game because they’re immediately accessible by those with only a passing familiarity with games. Though most importantly, they provide short play sessions and meet the requirements of a time-wasting distraction. The face of the hobby had changed; the “real” games and gamers were at home playing their set-top consoles. What happened to “Winner Stays, Loser Pays”? The friendly (or violent) rivalries? What happened to the arcade?
I think the advent of co-operative play on the home console was a sign that the arcade was losing ground as the premiere social video gaming activity. While it wouldn’t be until 1992 when Street Fighter II appeared on the SNES to reintroduce arcade culture, gamers had been playing Contra and Double Dragon co-operatively for almost four years. The multi-million dollar ad campaign surrounding the home console release of the arcade smash Mortal Kombat in 1993 once again bridged the home and the arcade — no longer were these exclusive experiences limited to prescribed locations.
During this time, another kind of multiplayer was evolving on the PC. Not the same as sharing a keyboard or hotseat play, but two separate computers actually communicating with each other. In the years that followed Doom and Quake, it would be commonplace to challenge someone in another time zone as if they were in the same room. Though Clans (or competitive teams) were soon formed between strangers and real life friends, there was still an underlying feeling of isolation. Playing with someone across the globe seemed miraculous at first, but it wasn’t the same as them sitting next to you to openly mock or cheer with. As online gaming is adopted by consoles like the Xbox Live! service, it seems to be contributing to an impersonalized multiplayer gaming experience — occasionally anonymous contact that may as well be a computer-controlled competitor.
Internet cafes have done their best to combine the best of both worlds, and it’s a great option for those that don’t have access to the latest in computer hardware. But for someone who could just as easily play the games at home for free, it’s a lot like what’s happened to the arcade.
To prevent this from sounding like a declaration of the arcade’s obsolescence, I submit that they are a testing ground for the future of games. Many of the polygon-pumping processors and system architectures found their way into home consoles in some form eventually, and the need for these hulking machines to display the latest graphics technology gradually diminished. However the unique arcade games of the recent past have created a blend of physical and virtual activity — a concept that Nintendo hopes to capture with the Wii later this year. There also seems to be a demand for more co-operative play in games, creating the need for more meaningful interactions between players. As for the communities that result from games, they’re still thriving and farther reaching than ever. They just have a new home: the Internet.