Throwback Thursday: Video Arcades (Late ’70s-Early ’90s)

What: Video Arcades

When: Late 1970s to Early 1990s

Starring: Pac-Man, Galaga, Pole Position, Double Dragon, X-Men, WWF WrestleFest

The Reason for the Throwback: You mean besides the fact that I grew up in the ’80s when arcade games were at their apex and I miss judiciously deciding which games were worthy of my time and effort and which games were a complete waste of time? I’m looking at you Street Fighter II — you and your crafty combination of joystick turns and button patterns that I could never commit to memory.

If you’re of a certain age (read: 30+) and into video games, there is a good chance you shared this same experience. Trips to the mall weren’t just about finding new shoes for school or placating your mother as she dragged you from store to store trying on clothes that you really didn’t like. That was the work, but getting handed a couple bucks — or saving your allowance if you were so fortunate — and being turned loose in the arcade was the reward.

Usually tucked away in a corner of the food court, this is where parents deposited their kids when they wanted to shop in peace before the world went crazy and you couldn’t let your kids out of your site for more than 12 seconds at a time in public. (Thanks a lot, crazies of the world!)

As kids, it was also where you knew you could (a) meet up with your friends if you were all going to be at the mall on the same day, (b) put your skills to the test against the top scores or whatever unsuspecting victim dared challenge you at your game of choice, and (c) maybe even catch the eye of that cute girl that sits two rows up and three rows over from you as she and her girlfriends play the odd game of Ms. Pac-Man and look your way.

Yes, I’m a nerd and hoped that my proficiency at video games was going to help me with the ladies back when I was a kid. I doubt I was alone.

Arcades used to be ubiquitous in malls and a bank of cabinets could be found in any numbers of places from the late ’70s to the early-to-mid ’90s.

There were a couple knock-off titles in Zellers, three table-top options at the burger joint your family always went to on Saturday night’s after your older brother’s hockey game, and a collection of five or six shop-worn games no one had ever heard of in the back corner of the racetrack or arena to distract anyone that didn’t like the ponies or the puck.

The movie rental joint near my high school was smart enough to put an X-Men game in when it came out and made far more money between 11:00am and 2:00pm Monday to Friday thanks to a throng of students than they would have without the game. Same goes for the convenience store around the corner from my house, where a trip to get four sour keys, a Twix and a Mountain Dew wasn’t complete without dropping a few coins in the Marvel vs. Capcom machine wedged between the rack of chips and the cooler where the random frozen entrees lived.

Note: Yes, I understand that SF2 and MvsC had identical combinations. I never mastered them on either game and always walked away frustrated, though it never stopped me from returning.

For me, the video arcade was more than just the spot to meet my buddies before we went to check out the hats at Champs Sports and cruise the aisles in the music store.

The only game console I owned growing up was a ColecoVision, which was the not-as-good version of the Atari. How do I know it was not as good? Because you could get an expansion module that let you play Atari games. When you have to find a way to use the competition’s titles, you’re the clear runner-up.

As the next-gen consoles started coming out, my parents opted to go with a personal computer instead; first it was a Commodore 64 and then a run of the mill PC.

While my friends played Mike Tyson’s PunchOut and RBI Baseball, I was trying to remember DOS commands for loading Sporting News Baseball and lamenting being the only kid whose parents didn’t love him enough to buy him a Nintendo or Sega Genesis. In hindsight, it turns out learning how to type at an early age has proven to be useful.

The arcade was my chance to satisfy my video game fix.

Sure we had a few games for our computers, but I also had an older brother than commandeered time on both machines using the standard “I’m older” rule and my parents didn’t exactly want us spending hours on end trying to beat umpteen levels or finish a football season in one sitting.

So a trip to the mall invariably meant some time mashing buttons and making moves on the games of my choosing and as a kid, it was one of my favourite experiences. I loved video games growing up and still do to this day, though I don’t own a gaming system and the only games I play are on my phone. (Damn you, Candy Crush!)

But I miss those days and the rush of racing passed A&W and New York Fries, into the dimly lit my sancutuary from looking for my Sunday Best with my mom and immersing myself in the action and adventure that came one quarter at a time.

I hope video arcades make a full-scale comeback.

For now, a throwback will have to do.

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte is a freelance journalist based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, where he lives with his wife and dog. In addition to his work here, he writes about sports for Complex Canada and covers the UFC for various outlets. His mom also still tells him what to do on a regular basis, even though he’s nearly 40. He tweets from @spencerkyte.

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