There’s a new game coming soon, based around the idea of running your very own arcade. Arcade Paradise, from Nosebleed Interactive and Wired Productions, is a game that I’ve had my eye on for over a year now. Fingers crossed, I’ll be reviewing it soon-ish too (#ShamelessFreePlug).
Anyway, my excitement for Arcade Paradise got me reminiscing over the good ‘ole days when the arcade was king. To the point where I decided to write an article to remember and celebrate those good ‘ole days of my growing up in and around the arcades of the 80s and 90s. This right here is that article.
Being born in the mid-seventies and growing up, as I did, in the 80s, allowed me to be in the midst of the arcade gaming boom. I began my gaming journey in the late 70s when we, as a family, got an Atari 2600. I may not have fully understood what gaming was back then as a young 4-year-old but I knew that I enjoyed it. Part of the mass appeal of the Atari 2600 back then was the fact it had several really good arcade ports. The likes of Space Invaders may not have been arcade perfect on the 2600, but the simple fact that we could play arcade games at home was awesome.
See, I grew up in Birmingham, England, which is part of the Midlands. And it’s called the Midlands because it is slap bang in the middle of England. Being in the middle of the country pretty much made it as far removed from the seaside as you could get. This was an issue because, well, the seaside was where most arcades tended to be back then. Being a hundred or so miles away from an arcade meant I had to rely on the 2600 ports for me to get my arcade gaming fix. In fact, I played pretty much all of those classic arcade games on the wood-finished beast that was the Atari 2600. The likes of Frogger, Pac-Man, Asteroids, et al were all first played on our family 2600 before I ever played them in their natural habitat.
There was the rare occasion I would get to venture into an actual arcade though. We had family on the coast in Ramsgate, Kent. Now and again, we’d have a summer family holiday in Ramsgate and when I got bored of building sandcastles or crabbing, I’d venture into an arcade with my older brothers. I remember being quite envious that the arcade games always looked and sounded better than they did on our 2600. I was too young to understand hardware limitations and such back then. I just wanted to know why Galaxian looked so much better in the arcade than when I played it at home.
Those early 80s of the arcade were where my love for gaming began to grow. As I got older, gaming quickly became my main hobby. Building sandcastles or going crabbing became secondary to visiting an arcade with each successive family holiday and with each year I aged. There was something special about the sounds of the arcade. You’d be walking along the promenade with some seaside fish & chips in your hands, then the all too familiar sounds of Pac-Man’s ‘wacka-wacka-wacka’ would call you into the nearest arcade, like a siren enticing a sailor… only not to your death but to your idea of heaven, an Arcade Paradise if you will (#StillAShamelessFreePlug).
I have a very vivid memory of walking around an arcade with my Nan while on a family holiday. As we walked among the many cabinets, Gorf called out ‘insert coin’, though the Votrax speech chip made it sound more like it said ‘insert cloin’. Anyway, when my Nan heard that, she just stopped in her tracks, looked at the cabinet and said: “Is that thing talking to me?”. She kind of sounded both surprised, impressed and insulted that a machine had dared speak to her. Those sounds of the arcade are little nuggets that have been inserted into my brain for eternity. I hear Pole Position say ‘Prepare to qualify’ now and the hippocampus and neocortex in my brain work together to pull a memory from 40 years ago of my older brother’s obsession with trying to get his name at the top of the high score table… then 6-year-old me would have a go, crash into a billboard and I’d think it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
1983s Dragon’s Lair was another game whose sights and sounds spark off memories too. It was the first time I ever heard my older brother swear. He would’ve only been about 12 himself at the time. But when we walked into an arcade and saw Dragon’s Lair… wait, technically we heard it first. There were the usual blips and bloops of the other arcade machines of the day. The occasional very rough speech sample that, in your memories, sounded crystal clear but when you hear them now, you realise how low-quality they were. Anyway, in among all of those very early 80s arcade noises was the always very loud, LaserDisc powered, perfect stereo quality speech of Dragon’s Lair. The booming voice of the announcer drew you to the cabinet, even when it was the other side of the arcade. Me and my brother walked towards the cabinet and the crowd that had amassed to gaze at the game’s beauty. When we saw those Don Bluth animations, that was when I heard my brother say “fucking hell” for the first time.
We also spent a lot of time in Barmouth, Wales for family holidays. That was amazing as there used to be three arcades all within walking distance right there on the seafront. Those three arcades were where my brothers and I would spend most of our holiday money. We’d pretty much live in them for the week we were there. In terms of arcade memories, Barmouth is where most of them stem from and where I played a lot of games for the first time. Paperboy with its handlebar controls and the music that I can still sing (or ‘do-do-do’ to anyway) beat for beat today. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was one of the games I would play often. I was a huge Indy fan back then, to the point that when I grew up, I wanted to be Indiana Jones. To be honest, I only ever really wanted to play the minecart chase bit of the game. I became a bit obsessed with it and I would purposely die when nearing the end of the level so I could stay on the minecart bit as long as I could.
My brother would play Karate Champ and he was really bloody good at it too. I could never get to grips with the whole double joystick controls thing as a kid and would just jump around or pull off moves that were nowhere near a connecting hit, until I got knocked out or time ran out… and I lost. Then there was Ghosts ‘n Goblins. I didn’t understand at the time just how fucking hard that game was. The idea of a game being unbelievably difficult ever entered my mind back then, I thought I was just missing something and that was why I kept dying. On the first stage, very near the start, there’s a bit where you can go up a ladder and there is a plant that shoots at you. To the left was (what I thought was) a shield pick-up. I got it into my head that you had to grab the shield to help you against the projectiles that the plant shot at you. So I’d spend most of my time trying to perfectly time the climb up the ladder and run to the left to grab the ‘shield’. Of course, it was just a bonus pick-up for extra points and all you had to do was shoot the plant. But my younger brain refused to accept that and I kept dying trying to nab that ‘shield’. I never did get past that part of the game, even after pouring stupid amounts of 10ps into it.
OutRun, I can’t explore my growing up in arcades without mentioning OutRun. I was obsessed with this game as a kid. For me, this Sega classic is still one of the greatest games ever made. It is arcade racing perfected and rarely ever beaten. I loved Ferraris as a kid (who didn’t) and I used to have a big Testarossa poster on my wall, one daydreaming that I’d own one when I was older. Being in the arcades circa 1987 was the only way I could experience driving around in a Ferrari Testarossa back then. Everything about that game just clicked. The graphics, the sense of speed, the sunkissed scenery and of course, that immortal music that you can hear in your head no matter where you are. Being on a summer holiday made playing OutRun just that little bit more special too. There is something that can be said for playing a nice sunny game on a hot summer day that adds to the feeling of the game. And if you were lucky enough to find one of the deluxe sit-down cabinets with the hydraulics and all that. Man, that was the only way to play OutRun properly.
Double Dragon, I really must give this game a name-check here as it was the first arcade game I ever finished. It was hard too as I didn’t know of the old elbow spamming trick back then. I honestly couldn’t tell you how many 10ps I had to put into this one before I got to the end. There was actually a little bug/trick during the big fight before the credits. You could get hit/thrown up to the area where the big boss would stay while his henchmen would beat the crap out of you. But while you were up there, the enemies couldn’t hit you and the big boss was ‘technically’ out of the game, so wasn’t programmed to attack from there, you could just beat the crap out of him and he’d do nothing. Still, getting to that point was bloody hard. I’ve always had a soft spot for Double Dragon as it was the first arcade game I got to the end of.
There was one game that brought me and my two brothers closer together, whilst making us bicker and argue at the same time, Gauntlet. I still remember the first time I ever saw that 4-player monster of an arcade cabinet back in Barmouth as a kid. The stunning artwork on the sides with the four characters battling monsters. The four joysticks in front of the larger than normal screen was unreal. My oldest brother Rob, he’d always play as Merlin the wizard. Graham, the middle brother, favoured Thor the warrior and I’d play as Questor the elf. Nobody ever wanted to be Thyra the valkyrie. Even today, if I ever play the original Gauntlet, I just instinctively play as Questor. The fact we had to work as a team in the game made us appreciate each other as we played… the fact you could shoot the food caused many an argument, especially when the game was telling us that “Wizard needs food… badly”. This was unlike anything we had played before and a summer holiday in Barmouth just was not complete without us spending a large chunk of our holiday pocket money on Gauntlet.
Honestly, I could sit here and type thousands upon thousands of words about arcades in the 80s and yes, I know I’ve not named a great many fantastic games. But I need to move on as I still have the 90s to cover yet. But before I do, I really must mention Dayvilles. This place was an ice cream parlour famed for its amazing selection of ice creams, thirty-two flavours to be precise. Anyway, a Dayvilles opened up in my home city of Birmingham in the 80s and as great as the ice cream was, it was what was under Dayvilles that impressed even more… an arcade. My oldest brother discovered it one day as it wasn’t really advertised and if you were just walking past, you’d never know that underneath all of those thirty-two flavours of that ice cream was a basement arcade. This meant that I didn’t have to wait until the annual family summer holiday to get my arcade fix as this one was a 40-minute bus ride away. Whenever my bother would go into town, which was every weekend, he’d take me along with him and every weekend we’d go into Dayvilles, down the stairs and spend hours playing arcade games.
Being in the basement, the Dayvilles arcade was a very dark and grim place. There wasn’t a great deal of room down there either and the selection of games was a bit slim. I’d say they’d have maybe ten or so cabinets. But to us, it felt so much bigger. It lacked the sunny seaside appeal of going to a bigger arcade during a summer holiday but still, this little underground arcade in the middle of the concrete jungle that was Birmingham City centre was better than a swift kick in the nards. It was where I first played R-Type and my love for the series was born. By the time the latter part of the 80s rolled around, the arcade scene really began to grow too. More and more city arcades began to pop up and there was a handful in Birmingham where I grew up, arguably ‘better’ ones too. Still, there was something special about that Dayvilles arcade, the fact it was hidden away underground made you feel like you had discovered a secret only a few knew of.
Anyway, the 90s. By now, gaming had exploded and the home market was quickly catching up with what the arcades could do. Home consoles such as the SNES and Megadrive were capable of giving us gamers almost arcade-perfect ports and sometimes with a few extra bells and whistles. I mean, the Megadrive port of Golden Axe was pretty damn great eh? Arcades had also grown and more began to appear too. The 90s was the point where gaming really began to be seen as less of a ‘dirty’ pastime. Oh don’t get me wrong, there was still a bit of a stigma attached to the whole gaming thing, but it was lesser than it used to be in the 80s. We used to take the family dog for a good run at a place called the Lickey Hills. It is this huge park in the middle of the countryside, a few miles away from the city centre of Birmingham. If you grew up in Birmingham in the 70s, 80s and 90s, then you knew of the Lickey Hills. We spent hours there as kids in the 80s and yet, it wasn’t until the very late 80s or early 90s when I learned that it had its very own arcade. This wasn’t some dark and dismal basement-dwelling either. The Lickey Hills arcade was huge, it was like the kind of arcade you’d find at the seaside… only not at the seaside. I’ve only just learned, while researching for this very article, that not only is the arcade still there (changed a lot over the years) but it has been there for a hundred years and has been owned by the same family for all that time too.
All those times that me and my brother would go into the city centre and spend hours underground cramped in at Dayvilles, there was this much bigger, more open arcade with many more games and only a few miles from where we lived at the time and where we often took the dog for a walk. I have no idea how we missed it for so many years. But I guess that was just how it was back then, arcades were not advertised and you only really know of them via word of mouth. Then there was the fact that arcades were most definitely more of a summer holiday thing. You’d expect to find an arcade when on holiday and on the coastline, but not so much a few miles from a major city near a big park in the countryside.
Fletcher’s Arcade (as it was called back then) was where I spent a lot of my teenage years. I turned 14 in 1990 and was well into my gaming by then and on my way to becoming an adult. This was where I first saw and played Street Fighter II. I remember it well because it wasn’t a ‘normal’ arcade cabinet, as is the standard kind of stand up arcade cabinet you’d usually see. It had a much bigger screen than the normal cabinet. Then it had an angled bench where you didn’t quite sit down, it was more a case of that you leaned back whilst standing up, resting your arse on the angled bench. It was glorious.
Street Fighter II is a perfect place to bring up the beginning of the death of the arcades, because it was when the home ports came out that we gamers realised that the arcades were becoming less and less of an attraction in the early 90s. I mean, the SNES port of Street Fighter II was so damn good that you really didn’t need to go to the arcade to play Street Fighter II anymore. This was the era when arcades had to do something bold that was hard or impossible to replicate at home.
8-player Daytona USA, as an example. I mean a home port of Daytona USA wouldn’t exist for a few years anyway and even then, it wouldn’t be 8-player. So yeah, the early and mid-90s was when the arcade tried to lure us console gamers back into the arcade with technology that you just couldn’t get at home. Sure the Terminator 2: Judgment Day home port was decent enough…. but you couldn’t match the awesome original arcade version with the 2-player, twin uzis. In a way, the early 90s of the arcade were going back a decade to the early 80s, by trying to entice people in with interesting cabinets and peripherals. Terminator 2: Judgment Day was basically Operation Wolf and while we may have had light guns at home, they didn’t have the force feedback as they did in the arcade. The sit-down racing cabinets of the 80s were now the multiplayer sit-down cabinets of the 90s. But it wasn’t just about rehashing old tech as new. Old game ideas were also being updated in an attempt to lure folk back into the arcades.
Sega’s Time Traveler was really nothing more than a more modern take on Dragon’s Lair… only now with holograms. It was the same (but improved) laserdisc technology, with the same QTE styled gameplay. But instead of hand-drawn animations, it was now ‘live action’ actors displayed using 3D holograms. I mean, both Dragon’s Lair and Time Traveler were designed by the same man, Rick Dyer. It was an interesting age of the arcade, seeing a lot of the older 80s ideas being brought back for a new audience. Sometimes, you could find a real beaut of an arcade cabinet too. Like the full scale Ridge Racer in Blackpool (I got to play this in its heyday). This truly was a thing to marvel at. You sat in an actual Mazda MX-5 (or Eunos Roadster if you’re from Japan) and the controls of the car worked to play the game on three massive screens. You used the actual car radio to select music, the gear-stick changed the gears and the air con threw air in your face as you raced. The full scale Ridge Racer was amazing and was a perfect example of what arcades were doing to try to keep people coming in.
Anyway, the great thing about Fletcher’s Arcade was that it sat between two pubs. As I got older, the family summer holiday gave way to hanging out with my friends, going to the pub for a few beers, popping in the arcade, going back to the pub for some more beers and rounding the day off with some more games in the arcade. But even so, around the mid-90s, it was fast becoming clear that the arcade was slowly dying out because the home market was not just catching up with the arcades but quite often exceeding it. Fletcher’s Arcade was great, it was big, it had everything covered. Older retro games and the latest cutting edge games too. I could pop in and play some Ghosts ‘n Goblins and still not finish the first level. To then go and play some Virtua Cop 2 just by walking a few feet. It really was the best of both worlds in terms of an arcade. But you know what it didn’t have? The likes of Resident Evil, WipEout and so on.
The ‘PlayStation era’, the 32-bit generation of home consoles, that was the nail in the coffin of the arcade. I mean, I could play Tekken at home now and with a load of extra stuff the arcade version just didn’t have. But I couldn’t play Final Fantasy VII or Grand Theft Auto in the arcade, could I? By the time 1995 rolled around, the home market had all but won. Sega had released its Saturn console and that was more than capable of playing all those great arcade hits. Sega Rally, Virtua Cop, Dead or Alive, RayStorm and so on. Tip-top arcade games that we could now play at home, why would you want to go to the arcade anymore? When the PlayStation became so dominant and popular, the arcade really didn’t stand a chance.
My visits to the arcade became less and less frequent as it was easier to stay at home and play arcade quality games (and more) instead. Of course, the arcade pretty much all but died out over the next few years in the latter part of the 90s. You could find specialist arcades though, the likes of Sega and Namco created their very own arcade entertainment venues to try and keep the arcade alive… but they just weren’t true arcades. They weren’t those dingy basement dungeons that felt secretive and as if you were an exclusive member, they weren’t the seaside escapes that you used to get away when you were bored of making sandcastles and crabbing. They were loud and brash ‘please look at me, I’m still an arcade… honest’ things that certainly had the games to keep you entertained, but they lacked the appeal of the 80s and 90s heydays.
It’s kind of sad to walk along the beachfront here in the UK and see what passes as an ‘arcade’ these days. We took a little family holiday last summer just for a week to Torquay. Myself, my lass and our two young kids. Our daughter is now the age I was when I first got into gaming and arcades. I thought it would be great to take her to a classic arcade and show her the games I grew up playing from 40 years ago, the games I played as a teenager and the ones I played as a young adult in the mid-90s. Could I find one though? Nope. I found loads of ‘arcades’ with claw machines and all that crap. Those semi-fixed machines that spit out tickets, which you can then swap for a shit cuddly toy that you could just buy for £5 anyway. Man, it was depressing to think that crap is what is considered an ‘arcade’ these days.
Still, it’s not all depression though as there are some great retro arcades out there, if you know where to look. Most of them with the business model that you pay a fixed amount for a set time, and you are unleashed on many classic arcade cabinets (set to free play) from the good ‘ole days. They may not be the seaside attractions they used to be, but they do still exist.
You see ladies and gentlemen, this is why I’m so looking forward to Arcade Paradise (#YupStillMostDefinitelyAShamelessFreePlug). It’s a chance for me to relive the glory days of the arcade, to revisit my youth and all, rather ironically, by not having to leave the house. Using the very method that killed the arcade in the first place to enjoy the arcade once more that I sorely miss. But seriously though gentle reader, if you are a fan of those classic arcade days, get Arcade Paradise on your radar, ‘cos it really does look awesome.
And if you enjoyed this little trip down gaming memory lane, grab yourself a copy of my book 66 Of The Most Important Video Games Ever! (According To Me) from Amazon. Look, if I’m going to plug Arcade Paradise for free and just because I think it looks amazing, I’m gonna plug my own work too.