Death of the Arcade Part 4 - So What to Do?

As arcades become more and more corporate-owned and homogenized, it becomes clear that the arcade culture of the past will soon have faded entirely and probably will not be back. Fortunately, there are some options available to those of us who wish to relive the halcyon days of youth drooling in front of coin-op cabinets.

Emulation - Naturally, the route that most people go when they seek to repaly games of yesteryear is through the wonders of emulation. Powerful emulators such as MAME can provide a faithful reproduction of almost every arcade game made before 2000 or so. Unfortunately, this is analogous to watching a concert video. The media is there, but the experience isn't.

It's missing the sound of other machines bleeping and booping , the atmosphere just isn't the same, and obviously one is playing with a keyboard instead of standing in front of a proper cabinet with joysticks. More dedicated retro-gaming enthusiasts will build MAME cabinets consisting of hollowed-out stand-up cabinets with the interior replaced by a computer running emulation software. This certainly takes care of the cabinet problem and makes other nerds drool with envy, but it's still not the complete classic arcade experience.

I'm hoping to market a special arcade atmosphere emulation enhancement kit. The kit will come with a looping audio CD of atmospheric arcade machine noises, as well as general murmuring and shouted expletives. Also included is an aromatherapuetic essence which, when poured into the included humidifier, will fill the room with the aroma of fermenting Twizzlers, industrial carpeting, B.O. and general nerd whiff. Add to this the bottle of my patented Joystick Funk, a solution of melted candy and potato chip grease, which, when applied liberally to your cabinet's console, faithfully imitates the tacky film that perpetually coats and gums up the mechanics.

Conventions - Thanks to alert reader Jen's heads-up, this weekend I will be attending the CA Extreme Convention at the San Jose Convention Center, which will be chock full of hundreds of classic arcade games set to free play all weekend long. I expect to spend a lot of time by the Two Tigers and Cliffhanger machines. Oh man, I am so there. I consider myself extremely lucky to be living in the same city that hosts this event, and I will be spending all of Sunday burning holes into my retinas with glee.

The only other classic arcade convention I've seen so far is the Philly Classic, which seems to be a general classic gaming convention, but has a collection of stand-up arcade machines as well. So if you don't happen to live in the Bay Area, it must really suck to be you. I've never been to one of these before, so I'll try to document the experience as best as I can, but I doubt I can put into words how much fun I will be having while you are not.

There is plenty of debate as to the legality and morality of using the arcade ROMs to power your MAME experience, but my take on it is, if you couldn't otherwise possibly find another way to repay the creators of the game for enjoying the game, go for it. Besides, I think I put enough freaking quarters into Burgertime to earn a few free plays on my computer.

Actually Going to an Arcade - There are actually still a few havens of arcade goodness remaining. I can only speak about what's around here, but we have Special Effects in Scotts Valley which is the arcade I would visit every Thursday as a kid. While my mom went to Long's to deliver handmade signs, I would head over here to spend my allowance money. It's still the same today, down to the early 90's posters high up on the wall, and the trompe l'oeil graff mural of someone skateboarding through a brick wall. The only differences are the games, and the fact that almost every time I go in there, it's nearly deserted. Sometimes I have the place to myself. There are few more saddening moments than standing alone in an arcade, dropping tokens into a Raiden machine, the only other person around a 15-year old girl minding the counter and talking on the phone.

There is also Nickel City, which has two locations in San Jose and works on a different and much cheaper pricing scheme from the typical arcade. It costs $2 to get in, and from that point on, you only need nickels. The games are all set to take those, and even the most expensive machine only costs 15 cents. Many older games are set to free play. Of course some machines are not in exactly what I would call pristine condition, but what do you expect for a nickel a play? Plus it feels a lot like the arcades I remember from being a teenager. Trouble is, they're typically full of today's teenagers, who are much rowdier than the sullen, pale misfits I recall arcading with. Dang kids.

DIY - You know what? I'm a grown up now, and I'm allowed to make my own decisions. I can decide what's important enough to spend money on, and what's not. If I feel that I really would rather have a cocktail Ms. Pac-Man table than a real table, then I can probably make that happen. After all, people spend thousands of dollars on a nice couch, or a dining room table. Why can't I spend a couple hundred on a piece of furniture that takes quarters? I might even be able to make some money off of it.

You're more likely to find an auction in your area than an arcade game convention where the point is to play. Typically you can pick up a machine for as little as $100. Of course, that all depends on what game you're looking for. There will be an auction coming to San Jose in December, and I'll definitely have to check that out. I think I may have been good enough to earn a Christmas present.

So there are a number of options to those with the time, money, and dedication to seek out a menas of re-creating that arcade atmosphere. Many people are still satisfied with today's larger arcades, but for me, it's simply not the same. It's fine and all, but it's not the same.

Maybe the commercialization of arcades is sending gaming on a path to mainstream mediocrity, or maybe I'm just an old fart who is eternally convinced that nothing is ever as good as it was when I first enjoyed it. Either way, it cannot be denied that things have changed in the arcade scene. As video games become more and more accepted by popular culture and are slowly elevated to the entertainment status typically held by film and, to some degree, bowling, it becomes more clear that it will never be quite as simple as before. Whatever the outcome is, I hope that today's budding gamers hear the same promise in a pocket jangly with quarters that I once did, and that I might hear it again.


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