Friday, January 25, 2013

Glory Days

Ah, memories! The glory days of video arcades, and I lived in that time! From Computer Space to Asteroids, I was there.

This was fun to read (tip to Instapundit):

The years between 1978 and 1982 saw unprecedented growth across the entire video game industry. A January 1982 cover story in Time magazine noted that the most popular machines were pulling in $400 a week in quarters and the number of dedicated arcades in the United States reached its peak with around 13,000. Video game cabinets also appeared in grocery stores, drug stores, doctor’s offices, and even in school recreation centers. The arcade chain Tilt began opening locations in the growing number of shopping malls across America. Beginning with Space Invaders in 1978, a string of now legendary games (see graphic above) were released in rapid succession. Simultaneously, the home console business blossomed: from the primitive Magnavox Odyssey in 1972, the concept of home gaming erupted with the Atari 2600 and the Apple II in 1977, the Intellivision in 1980, the Commodore 64 and ColecoVision in 1982, and the NES and Sega Master System in 1985.

It was 1980’s Pac-Man, the most successful video arcade game of all time, released by Midway in the United States, which had the most lasting effects on the industry and the American psyche. The colorful, pizza-inspired Pac-Man and the ghosts who chased him inspired enough branded products to rival Hello Kitty, including lunch boxes, clothing, a Saturday morning cartoon and a 1982 Billboard hit, "Pac-Man Fever," which sold more than a million copies (for reference, the top-selling single of 1982, Survivor’s "Eye of the Tiger," was certified platinum with sales of two million copies that year). Unlike previous video games, which seemed to appeal primarily to male players, Pac-Man appealed to everyone, allowing the hardcore player to mingle with casual gamers.

It is funny to read about the seedy reputation of arcades. Indeed, I played Computer Space in an arcade that was in the front part of an indoor gun range.

This was Computer Space:

It was freaking amazing at the time. My entire allowance went into that game every week after school. The processing power was so small that the alien ships moved in tandem and the player ship was slaved to the single shot you could have on the screen--so if you turned your ship to evade, your shot turned, too. I learned to use the feature to guide the shots. Winning got you extra time to play and the black and white field went negative (white background and black pixels) You had to be careful not to roll over your score or the simple processor would not know your score had not gone back to zero. This should have been an early warning on Y2K, eh?

In college, I got hooked on Asteroids and got really good at it. I never "lurked" (which some players did to take advantage of the fact that alien saucers could not wrap their shots across the screen edge the way the player could). I simply went through rack after rack of rocks. Crowds would form around me to watch me play. Sometimes I'd just blank out when my ship would find itself going thruster-end into a swarm of rocks and friends watching would tell me my ship was just a blur of turning and shooting and then I'd emerge unscathed. I honestly did not remember those moments. A friend called it a "hypno-high."

I could play hours on a single quarter. I won a t-shirt for my efforts.

My grades weren't that great in those days. To be fair, I was a computer science major before I accepted my true calling in history. It all worked out, in the end. The Flipper McGee t-shirt is long gone. Although I think I still have a company folder somewhere.

I ended up working in the arcades and experienced the end of the Golden Age from that perspective. People stopped playing and got bored fast with new games. It was a struggle to be a manager, as I was, and turn a profit. The first laser disk game, Dragon's Lair, honestly sucked. And players quickly got bored when they memorized the moves. Space Ace was the follow-up which allowed you to convert the now-unused Dragon's Lair console. That was the last gasp before home consoles took over.

There were lots of arcades, and I worked at Flipper McGee's, Tommy's, the Cross-Eyed Moose, and Mickey Rat's. The golden age of arcade names, too. All but Flipper's were seedy. I had a knife pulled on me and a firearm pointed at me (by a police officer), and was constantly on the alert for thieves, drug dealers, and general thugs. There was a reason we kept a sawed off Foosball handle behind the desk. I only had to demonstrate it once in the years I worked in arcades.

It was always humorous to see a young man drag a date into the arcade on a weekend night, who would stand nearby bored to death as the young man played whatever they were addicted to for a while. Female gamers were rare. I married one, actually.

Today's home consoles are so much better. But nobody will ever call this the Golden Age of Video Games.

Asteroids Deluxe sucked. I hated it all the more in contrast to the simple elegance of the original.

I was there from the best game of the start of the 1970s to the best game of the end of the 1970s. I turned out all right, no?

Hey, this is my blog. I can go on about the old days if I want. I now resume regular programming.