Why sonny, your old gramps might tell you as you try to concentrate on leveling your warlock in World of Warcraft…
…when I was your age we didn’t have no fancy game consoles. We had to walk all the way uphill barefoot in the snow to the arcade to play video games – and pay a quarter each game for the privilege! When color displays came out, we about fell over in shock.
How to convey the culture of the arcades of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s? Video game arcades at one point spread to every other street corner in every major city. You can still find the token few games at a movie theater or the beach-side pier Fun Zone right by the skee-ball lanes, but the landmark movement has definitely died down. At their peak, video game arcades looked and sounded like this:
Rather than being an accessory to pizza or miniature golf as they are today, arcades were an actual outing in themselves. You got together with friends, grabbed snacks at the snack bar, and cashed out a $20 bill in quarters for a few hours of play. Especially in the 1980s, arcade games kept the public interest in computing high, at a time when the moon landing was old news and home computing was yet limited to a few college students chatting over Compuserve.
Arcade Games Pushed Technology Forward
Dedicated arcade cabinet machines at the time simply blew away anything on the home market when it came to graphics and sound. However, they were limited in processing power. Since games had to be enticing enough to spend money for them on the spot and bring gamers back for repeated plays, games had no choice but to be inventive and creative in game design. Unlike games of today, they also weren’t afraid to be difficult. Even impossible. Most games gave you three lives, and if you lost them all in the first minute trying to clear the first room and had to spend another quarter, so much the better.
But throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, arcade games had an arms race over the cutting edge of technology. Vector display, the RGB color standard, continuous background sound, speech synthesis, laserdisk video, and 3-D graphics all got their commercial start in arcade games.
And yes, the infamous Pac-Man popularized the maze game genre. In fact, you can trace almost any game genre back to this time period: Pole Position for racing games, Donkey Kong for platform games, Gauntlet for top-down dungeon crawling, and so on. But getting back to Pac-Man, 1982 saw the Billboard Hot-100 hit “Pac-Man Fever,” a song that would get its artists Buckner & Garcia about fourteen and a half minutes of fame.
That’s how big arcade games were in 1982. There was a hit song about a video game and nobody thought there was anything geeky about that. That same year, then-president Ronald Reagan sent a letter of congratulations to an eight-year-old for breaking the record high score at Pac-Man. Citation right here.
As today, arcade video games also responded to popular culture in other media. So when a movie got big, an arcade game was sure to follow. The original Star Wars arcade game is barely recognizable today (I’m shooting flowers?), but the Tron series looked much more true to form. Then there was the music crossovers, such as Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker…
Yes, that happened. Because why not fight off an army of golden robots and switchblade hooligans by dancing them to death to the tune of “Billie Jean”?
Of course, many video game producers and franchises you recognize today got their start in the golden arcade age, notably Sega and Nintendo. This is the lineage of Mario in the arcade: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong, Jr. Donkey Kong 3, Mario Brothers, Super Mario Brothers. After that Mario jumped to the console, and in fact one of the key selling points of the NES was that Super Mario Brothers looked, sounded, and played identically to its arcade cousin, such that a free copy of SMB was distributed with each console sold.
How To Recreate This Era Today
If these reminiscences have made you misty-eyed with nostalgia, recovering the golden age of the arcade is actually a lot easier than you’d think. There’s a thriving culture of hobbyists who auction, trade, and refurbish arcade game cabinets of every variety.
First off is the long-running MAME project . MAME is the “multiple arcade machine emulator” and through the use of “ROMS,” which is to say software dump from circuit boards, one can feed just about any arcade game ever made to a desktop computer and try to make the keyboard interface work with the game controls. Easy-peasy with Pac-Man. Nigh impossible with Spy Hunter.
When you really want to know how a civilization was feeling, look at what they did to amuse themselves.
MAME is available for multiple platforms, but if even that’s too high a commitment for you, head on over to the Internet Archive where they host a live MAME set-up and multiple video game ROMS right there on site, playable in your web browser.
A word on ROMs: Most arcade-era video games fall legally into the gray, slushy area of copyright law known as “abandonware.” That is, whoever made the game hasn’t responded to any contact nor been heard from in years, so it’s almost like public domain. Peppered through the arcade cabinet ROM scene are a handful of companies that viciously protect their copyrights, even on a dusty old platform game that nobody’s wanted to play in four decades. Tread carefully.
Now then, for the full cabinet experience, The Internet Arcade Museum is the main hub for cabinet hobbyists. Not only does the museum include “Videogame and Arcade Preservation Society,” but they’re a 501c nonprofit to boot, making the preservation of video game history into an act of commonwealth. Basement carpenters are eager to welcome you into the fold of arcade cabinet restorers. Here’s just a few videos:
As you might gather, the average restoration story runs to picking up the hardware and cabinet on eBay or Craigslist for $200 to $600 and up, then crafting it into a modern playable machine. It’s not only surprisingly accessible, but even pretty affordable for middle-class garage carpenters.
It is very fitting that preserving arcade game history is a recognized public service to the point of being a 501C. Video games are dismissed by the serious arts, and yet as an entertainment culture they tell a deeper, more interactive story of the zeitgeist than any other medium. We have now had several generations weened on video games, from the arcade to the desktop to the console to the tablet and phone. Our games are our history, plain and simple. When you really want to know how a civilization was feeling, look at what they did to amuse themselves.
Read more articles by Pete