When I was young my parents participated regularly in bowling leagues. They rolled some nights at Carolier Lanes in North Brunswick, New Jersey. On other nights they went just down route 18 to Mid State Bowl in East Brunswick. Sometimes they reluctantly dragged my brother, Matt, and I along when they couldn’t find a babysitter. This was before smart phones and tablets. It was even just before the 1989 release of Nintendo’s hand held gaming system, GAME BOY. They needed something to keep us occupied or it would have made for a long night for them.
My brother and I fought a lot, so there wasn’t much consistency on the babysitter front. Sometimes my aunt Angela or my cousins Billy or Jamie would watch us. Sometimes there was no one available and it was off to the the bowling alley we went. Each bowling alley had its own sweet assortment of arcade cabinets that kept us busy for awhile on those nights. Dad would give us a roll of quarters to split. If we were really lucky we’d each get a roll of our own.
Depending on the game, one quarter could last an eternity. On some nights an entire roll of quarters would be gone within a half hour.
I think fondly over my time spent with Ms. Pac-Man, Bubble Bobble, and Toobin’. They were just some of the games I played at the bowling alleys. They were so simple, yet so elegant in their colorful designs and increasing difficulty as we progressed stage after stage.
I recall Off-Road. Those Micro-Machine looking yellow, blue, and red monster trucks that went in circles around the various dirt tracks. There was steering wheels on the arcade cabinet that allowed players to simulate driving a decade before I actually could. I remember picking up the nitros on the track and avoiding puddles.
I remember not being very good at the game. I needed to drive a fairly perfect line to have any hope of winning and standing atop the winner’s podium. It didn’t happen very often.
I remember the bowling video game at the bowling alley. Players spun a white roller ball to control the curve and direction of the ball as it careened down the lane. There was a similar golf cabinet, but it never drew my interest.
I reminisce over pumping quarters into Rampage. Matt would choose George and I would select Lizzy. We would climb up the sides of those buildings and smash out windows and eat the soldiers who tried to slay us. We would celebrate when all the buildings were destroyed and we got to progress to the next level.
Rolling Thunder, Final Fight, and Smash TV were other examples of classic action games that you might find us playing away into the hours of the night. I played a bit of Skee-ball and Pop-A-Shot basketball as well. Rarely would I do as well on those as I did on the games with the screens, but a few stood out as solid experiences. Pinball became more fun as my coordination and attention span improved. The Simpsons and South Park were my favorite pinball tables of all time.
Eventually my parents split up. That ended the visits to the bowling alleys and their arcades. I no longer haunted these establishments with my quarters and speedy subsequent lack thereof. I was getting older and becoming a young man. My interests were changing as well, but not my desire to pump quarters into my favorite arcade cabinets.
Another spot where I found an arcade was the roller rink.
I must have been around twelve or thirteen by then. I wanted to skate with girls, but I didn’t know how to engage them. I wore thick framed, thick lens spectacles. I was just getting acne and I was described as husky on more than one occasion. I skated pretty decent with my boys, but I didn’t stay on the floor for long. Eventually I would make an excuse about my feet hurting and I would slip off the floor to make my way over to the nook that held the video games. Golden Axe, The Simpsons, X-Men, and Superman were some more of my favorite cabinets to mash away at the buttons while at the rinks.
I came to terms with my dork-dom. I stopped pretending I was an athlete or that I had a shot with those blossoming preteen girls, so I stopped going to the roller rinks altogether. I found the arcades that didn’t pretend to be more than they were. They were havens for geeks like me. The Brunswick Square Mall and Menlo Park Mall both had exactly what I needed. Thus began my mall rat days.
I had a lot of pent up aggression and adolescent rage. In between bothering store employees and mall security, my boys and I dipped into the arcade. Becoming what I was, fighting games spoke out to me.
I look back on tons of arcade fighting games. Street Fighter II was a classic. I can still hear the “Haduken” and “Yoga Flame” in my mind. Blanca’s electricity, E. Honda’s “Hundred Hand Slap,” Chun Li’s super fast kicks were all so simple to execute. You just had to mash one kick or punch button.
On the other side of the quarter, the ball-topped joystick made some moves incredibly difficult to pull off. Zangief’s pile drivers and Dhalsim’s teleportations are excellent examples of moves that required a smooth direct touch. I never had it, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching others glide effortlessly through the characters’ lesser-known repertoire of programmed skills.
Later the complex button inputs evolved into ten hit combinations in Tekken and Marvel vs. Capcom. The binary code produced visual art. I hoped to achieve competencies at some of these skills, and bought the games for some of my later owned home consoles. I was only able to pull off a minute percentage of what I attempted.
I remember lots of violence included for my twenty five cent price of admission.
I remember Time Killers. I always chose Mantazz at the player selection screen. Mantazz’s arms were blades. They were very effective at lopping off the arms and head of his opponents. There was a lot of mutilation in that game and there was a whole lot of blood.
Then there was Mortal Kombat. The Pit, Goro, Shang Tsung; I remember all of it. All the violence. All the publicity. All the rhetoric. There was Marilyn Manson and Tupac. I recall how Beavis and Butt-Head had made some kid throw a bowling ball, or maybe it was his brother, off a bridge into oncoming traffic. I remember Dan Quayle talking about it and blaming everything except society and parents. I remember my father similarly confiscating my Green Jello (or Jelly) CD because of the song “Shit Man.” He had no idea the kind of shit, man, I was getting exposed to in video games.
I dabbled a bit with sports games, but not many held my interest for long, except for NBA JAM. NBA JAM blew my mind. “He’s heating up!” “He’s on fire!” The ball actually caught on fire. It was so cool! Gamers learned the initials and birth-dates to enter that unlocked hidden characters. Rumors amassed about whether or not Michael Jordan was available to play.
In the real world I couldn’t do what I wanted.
I didn’t have control of my life or all these new desires. In those arcades I sat in the driver’s seat. Games like Hydro Thunder, Cruising USA and it’s sequel, Cruising World, allowed me to simulate the control I was lacking. Top Skater allowed me to mount a skateboard for a timed run. I would kick-flip off ramps in ways I would never have the discipline to achieve in the real world. Alpine Racer let me ski big mountains while I stood on the game’s two feet pads. These games were almost worth the four to six quarters I had to spend on them.
Titles like Area 51, House of the Dead, Virtua Cop, and Time Crisis were the best shooters at their time. Plenty more shooters, driving simulators, and fighting games kept the die-hards like myself returning to the arcades, but the increase in quality and accessibility of the home video game experience inevitably led to the demise of nearly all those arcades. Eventually Brunswick Square Mall and Menlo Park Mall in East Brunswick and Edison, New Jersey, saw their arcades close for business.When I arrived to college in Boulder, Colorado there were two arcades and a pool hall with video games on the university’s hill. One by one those shuttered their doors as well.
Good luck trying to find a mall that has an arcade in it today.
As the arcades closed the games stayed at home with the gamers. The advent of high speed internet and headsets where you could speak with your squad or opponents allowed nerds like myself to be as connected to our games as ever. We were also more alone. I couldn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with a Japanese kid who would whoop my ass at a fighting game.
No longer could I get the experience of putting my quarter up and calling “Next.” A few game cabinets and simulators can still be found at movie theaters. Dave & Buster’s and Chuck E. Cheese’s remind me somewhat of the good old days, but something on an emotional, limbic level is missing. Plus the cost of gaming in those places is outrageous.
Arcades have gone the way of vinyl records and 35mm film photography. Today a few hipster and niche arcades still exist, but the good ones are rare. Most are hollow shells of the memories I hold dear.
I reminisce over those good old days, but maybe it’s better this way. If I added up all the time and money I spent I’m sure it would have been a small fortune I squandered away. Then again, it was a probably better alternative to the way kids shut themselves out of the real world today only to see the sun and people when they break from their games like Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto V, and Fortnite to go to school.