How Arcade Games Temporarily Changed My Neighborhood
Arcades had been around since the first businessman realized everyone was willing to part with their pockets change if it involved putting it into a machine. All sorts of machines, from the boxes that played the first motion pictures, to the first record players. Or perhaps you would rather get your music from a nickelodeon, which was a robotic machine resembling a piano with various musical instruments attached that was programed to play tunes. Before there was an FDA to put a stop to them, arcades were full of machines that supposedly cured all sorts of ailments, usually using electricity. Of course the government didn't have the authority to stop the coin operated scales that gave out printed horoscope predictions based on your weight. At least that machine gave you your weight. The machine with the mechanical swami in a box only gave you a useless horoscope. The first vending machines, gumball machines and coin operated horses originated at arcades.
But perhaps the most successful machines were the ones that played various games. And no mechanical ncoin operated game was as successful as the pinball machine. Pinball would be the king of the arcade for at least 50 years, even being popular enough to leave the arcade and populate bars and pizza parlors across the country. Arcades went from penny machines to niclkel machines to eventually quarter machines. By that time just about the only place you could find an arcade was at an amusement park, which there still were plenty of in the 70s. There, along with pinball, you found air hockey, mechanical shooting galleries, and mechanical driving games. There was a mechanical helicopter in a glass box you tried to land on a bullseye. And another machine where you looked for ships through a periscope and tried to sink them. Another where you controlled a miniature tank to drive it over targets. And the Killer Shark game seen in the movie Jaws which used a projected film of a real shark.
But the oddball of the arcade was always the early video games. Giant pixels and no color. No music, only beeps. There were attempts to emulate the mechanical arcade games, but the video games were never as good. The only one worth playing was Pong, but only because there were no mechanical games like it. My prognosis at the time was that video games were just a novelty that would never take off. The mechanical games were way better that anything computers could recreate. How was I to know that someone was inventing Space Invaders?
It wasn't the more advanced graphics that made Space Invaders a hit. It was because while you watched someone else playing it for the first time, you thought you could do so much better. Just hide under the silos a lot and dodge the alien's weapons. You were convinced you could easily clear the screen on a single life. And then you actually played the game and didn't even clear the first screen. So you put another quarter in and tried again. And tried again. And again. And eventually you were able to clear a screen and move on to the next level. By this time you were hooked.
Space Invaders was a major advance in video game technology. Smaller pixels allowed better graphics. The sound improved beyond the usual bleeps. The noise the aliens made in this game was somewhere between a drum beating and an army marching. It was even in color, although this was due to some tricks using mirrors and color filters on the monitor screen. It was the first arcade game to attract a small crowd. A store in my town installed a Space Invaders, and almost immediately after it was always mobbed by five to ten kids, one playing and the rest awaiting their turn. This all came to an abrupt end when the store the Space Invaders was in went out of business and permanently closed. Unfortunately the rest of the store wasn't as successful as the video game in the back.
Meanwhile computer technology was still advancing. Pac Man had better graphics with real color, better sound that allowed music and the replication of police sirens, and more sophisticated game play. The computer running the game not only kept track of every dot the Pac Man ate, but acted as the AI for the four ghosts chasing the PAC Man around the maze.
And then came Donkey Kong to make Pac Man look dated. This was the trinity of the 80s video arcade era. Space Invaders, PAC Man and Donkey Kong. There may have been a few games just as popular, but these were the games who's success begat not just the games that followed, but brought the arcade game out of the arcade and, for a while, into nearly every store in America.
Our town had only two arcade games, period. One bar had a pinball machine, and a pizzeria had the town's other pinball machine. There was that brief period at the tail end of the 70s when that one store had Space Invaders, bringing the total to three, but then it was back to just two pinball games. The closest thing we had to an arcade was a mini arcade located in the lobby of a movie theater in a neighboring town.
That all began to change when the pizzeria decided to replace their pinball machine with Space Invaders. They knew how much of a sensation it had been in that other store a year earlier, and realized the crowd of kids and teens it attracted would be smelling the pizza all day long, and eventually each buying a slice. Not to mention the money the game itself would be making. However, the pizzeria owner soon found out that obtaining a Space Invaders was not that easy. None were available at the time. But they could get their hands on another video game called Space Chaser. It was a forerunner of Pac Man where a space ship traveling clockwise through a maze had to gobble up all the dashes while avoiding the enemy space ship traveling counter clockwise.
There were many complaints. This was around the time when the American auto industry was suffering due to Americans buying Japanese cars. Conservatives made it an issue, reminding everyone how Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, and whipping Americans into an anti Japanese rage not seen since the second World War. Of course this drama carried over to the pizzeria. How could they replace pinball, a game that is truley Americana, with a video game which was Japanese. ( The company brand for Space Chaser, Taito, was prominent on the game's cabinet, if there was any doubt the game was Japanese. ) So the pizzeria expanded their entertainment nook so there would be both a video game and pinball machine side by side.
The Pizzeria eventually replaced Space Chaser, but not due to any protests. It was because no one was playing it. It was swapped out for Asteroids, which the kids did play. The pinball machine? No one touched it after Astroids showed up. It was eventually replaced with Defender. This time no one complained.
My town had three pizzerias. And once pizzeria A got Astroids, pizzerias B and C, who didn't previously have any arcade games, both got their own video games. Then the ice cream parlor got three video games. On the edge of town was a railroad station, and next to the staircase to it's platform, a newsstand. At the end of the 70s the railroad discontinued service to the station and the newsstand lost it's foot traffic. It was on its way out when a door that had been shuttered for decades and blocked by a magazine rack was suddenly unblocked. The newsstand had a back room we never knew it had, and that cramped back room suddenly had three video games jammed in. It was a very tight fit in what was supposed to be a small storage area, but kids jammed in to play the games. By the end of the year, every store, restaurant, bar and service station in town had at least one video game. The lone hold out, Woolworths.
To top it all off, our town got an arcade. It may not have been much at only eight machines, but up until that point a full arcade outside of an amusement park was unheard of. They could have probably fit more games, but had to adhere to a silly rule. Our town had a ban on arcades. It was actually a ban on penny arcades that dated back to the 1800s. The town council back then concluded that arcades were unchristian. The easy way around that rule was to claim your store was something else. The arcade was supposed to be a 24 hour convenience store. To prove it, there was a cooler in the back corner with some milk and orange juice, and a small rack next to it with a couple of loaves of bread. There was a cashier, but he was really there to change dollars into quarters, and make sure no one was vandalising the machines. For it to qualify as a convenience store, the arcade games needed to take up less than a quarter of the floor space. Which is why the arcade had those machines spaced apart and never attempted to fill the center of the store.
For the next year the streets were empty of children as every kid in the neighborhood spent all their playtime standing in front of an arcade game. A fortune in allowance money was eaten by those machines. We converted everything we had into quarters and spent it all playing the games. And when we ran out of quarters, we spent the rest of the time watching others play. Some became addicted. They would run through their quarters, then would beg others to allow them to play one of their games. Then they got so addicted that they would begin grabbing the joystick from someone playing to show them how to win, then refuse to give the joystick back.
One morning, out of nowhere the Kid rode into town. Then again, maybe he always lived in the neighborhood and nobody noticed. But one day he just showed up out of nowhere at the ice cream parlor and began playing Phoenix. The kid was a pro at the game. On a single quarter he played the same game all day, never loosing a ship, and thanks to all the points he amassed, built up dozens of bonus ships. I had left for dinner, came back a couple of hours later and he was still there. Witnesses confirmed he was still on the same quarter, and the enemy still hadn't blown up a single one of his ships. Eventually it was closing time for the ice cream parlor. They had no choice but to give the kid a quarter refund before they sent him on his way and shut down the arcade games for the night.
He was back the next day, and the next day, and every day that followed. On a couple of occasions I saw him standing in front of the parlor, waiting for it to open. He was always the first to grab Phoenix, and once playing it, hogged it to himself until closing time. He never lost a ship, or even a dime as the parlor had to refund him every closing time. It was the parlor that lost. Not only was the Phoenix no longer generating money thanks to the kid hogging it, but the owner of the machine that had placed it in the parlor was entitled to half the coins the machine collected. That meant the parlor was loosing money on the game, and that's not counting whatever they were also paying on the electric bill for that machine.
Video games were owned by vending machine companies, who would get 50% of the profits. Usually they were the only ones with the key that opened the box where all the coins ended up. When they did that, they divided the coins on the spot, giving the store half. The vending companies were well aware of the kid, and many more like him, who mastered their favorite video games, making each unprofitable when they hogged them. To prevent this they instigated a shell game where each machine was moved from location to location. No store had the same game for more than a month. Just when you were getting good at a game, it was gone, replaced with a different game. But this did little to prevent players like the kid, who with little doubt searched for another Phoenix in a different store once it was moved. He certainly didn't become good at the game immediately, meaning he had played it before at a couple of other locations, and once it disappeared from the ice cream parlor, so did he.
But even without someone as good as the kid mastering their favorite games, the rest of us built up the eye to hand coordination skills needed to successfully play the games. It no longer took tons of quarters and weeks of playing to finally clear the first screen. We could spend an hour on the same quarter on a game we played for the first time. Which meant that the video games were making significantly less money. And when they started pulling in less money, the stores began seeing the crowds of kids hanging around the machines as annoyances.
The ice cream parlor went out of business. It quickly became the most popular place to play games, even drawing bigger crowds than the arcade did. But none of the kids bothered to buy any ice cream while they were there. So while the parlor made a lot of money on the games, it wasn't enough to offset the losses of a failed ice cream parlor. The arcade closed soon after, although no one knew why. It had been open 24/7 non stop since it's opening day, and then one day it was shuttered. The newsstand got rid of it's games. And then everyone else except for the pizzerias and bars began removing arcade games from their establishments. This all happened with a few weeks. Just as suddenly as my neighborhood had been transformed into an arcade, it had all vanished just as fast.
Pizzerias didn't tolerate crowds of kids around a video game. If you weren't playing, then you were often told to buy something or get out. And bars were still off limits. So playing video arcade games stopped being a pastime. Once again the streets filled with kids.
As of the date I write this article, it has been 40 years since Space Invaders invaded my neighborhood. Some time next year begins the 40th anniversary of the neighborhoods video game metamorphosis. I could probably comment on how time flies. One day you are a child pumping quarters into Space Invaders, then before you know it you are a middle aged man writing online articles. But that pales in comparison to how quickly the video games took over, how short a period of time the fad lasted, and how abruptly it came to an end. Arcade video games continued to be made, but it seemed as if the best ideas for single screen games were used up by 1983. There would be advances in computer technology that would later allow games like Double Dragon, Mortal Kombat and Crazy Taxi. But there would never be another golden age for arcade games.
The pizzerias in my town continued to include nooks for one or two games. Then somewhere around the late 90s or early 00s the pizzerias began replacing the nooks with extra seating. But it wasn't the end for arcade games in our town. Mega laundromats began popping up with at least six in my town alone. Each had mini arcades which usually included four video games and a claw machine. I walk by one of them every day, but there is never kids crowded around the games. The only ones who use them are waiting for their clothing to finish washing and drying. Today Nintendo, PlayStation and Xbox allow us to play games in our own home that are as good as or even better than whatever is in the arcades. Today's kids share their experience via the Internet.