Going to the Arcade is My Favorite 80s Memory
To hell with Disneyland, give me an early 80s arcade
There was nothing as wonderful and magical as a video game arcade when I was a kid. I remember them from some of my earliest memories. Walking into an arcade was exciting, breathtaking, and just pure fun. Talk about sensory overload. We loved everything about it.
I don’t remember the names or a ton of details about certain arcades we visited or went to on a semi-regular basis. The memories are mainly the games themselves. I can think back to so many awe-inspiring titles and still see the cabinet art of many of them in my head, some 40 years later.
I have to give credit to my dad as far as the introduction of video games into my and my brother’s lives. Even before we were given an Atari 2600 when I was in 5th grade, we were well-familiar with video games themselves. My very earliest memories started with home consoles.
Many people my age or older have heard of Pong. It was a basic game played on your television in which you basically bounce a dot back and forth with a longer icon, much like Ping Pong. Each player had a controller and you’d move your icon up and down to try to hit the dot and get it past your opponent. As basic as this sounds, it provided a lot of entertainment at home, back in the 70s.
We had some store-version of a gaming console called Tank if I’m not mistaken. It may have been made by Sears or some other store like that. If you’re familiar with the Combat game cartridge for the Atari 2600, Tank was similar to that, but probably even more basic than Combat. I’m relying on my memories of it when I was likely four or five years old.
While I do remember playing it and enjoying it, the magical period of gaming for me started when my dad would take us to the local arcades. This wasn’t some regular thing for us. Money was tight growing up. My Dad took us to arcades maybe once a month or two. Oh man, when we got to go, however, it was truly incredible.
My earliest days of arcade gaming were so memorable. At the time we first started going, games like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Frogger, and Centipede were brand new. The cabinet art alone was so cool to look at. It was like watching a cartoon and it could draw you into playing it just from looks alone.
There were older games that were fun as well. Space Invaders, Asteroids, Galaga, and a number of others were cool to see and play with. I can remember a pizza place we’d go to here and there had a tabletop Asteroids game. It was truly nothing fancy, but it was so sweet to be able to eat your pizza, and drink your Pepsi, all while playing these flat, table-styled games.
I remember those flat tabletop games also having Pac-Man, Q-Bert, Missle Command, and Centipede on them. Centipede was especially cool, as it used a track-ball controller to move your main shooting icon. If you were really good at moving that ball accurately, you could ring up some pretty high scores.
We were pretty young when arcades first were popular. Consequently, we’d run out of our quarters far sooner than my dad would. He would give us however many he could afford to spend for his two boys up front, and we’d run off to play whichever games seemed the coolest.
Inevitably, we’d both run out of quarters before he would. We learned to check the coin return slots on machines that weren’t being used, and once in a while, we’d luck out and find one. Then it was a mad dash to the Missile Command, Ms. Pac-Man, or Joust machines. Getting one extra free play felt like winning the lottery, back then.
At some point, we’d give up on mooching quarters and find my dad playing a game. It was still fun to watch him tackling the aliens on Space Invaders, or running around the mazes of Pac-Man. We definitely picked up whatever decent level of hand-eye coordination from him.
Almost any video game arcade back then would have a solid selection of pinball machines as well. I loved pinball almost as much as regular video games. There was something about the side buttons for the flippers, the digital scoreboard that would seemingly score a huge amount of points, and of course that silver ball.
Most of the pinball machines had a brand or theme to them. The art on the machine was often really cool as well. I can remember ones with bands, movies, TV shows, and other pop culture references on them. I was intrigued by all the moving parts, the lights, and the sounds.
That was yet another aspect of our monthly arcade visits. The NOISES. Not only did you have the sound effects of the games that you’d hear over the players shouting, but you’d often hear the demo music to them when they weren’t being played.
This could draw you over to any given machine and investigate what the game looked and played like. It was pretty smart of arcade game manufacturers to make their console art stand out and look so appealing to children. Having a catchy theme song cranked as loud as possible was also good for business.
As a few more years passed, the games only got more fun and more appealing. Graphics improved greatly, as did gameplay. There seemed to be no limit to the creativity of the programmers who came up with the next big deal games that we’d end up having to wait in line to play, often.
I remember starting to go to Chuck E. Cheese and playing all sorts of newer, more fun games. Titles like Moon Patrol, Crystal Castles, Dig Dug, and so many others became our new favorite games. Oh, and the day we discovered Dragon’s Lair. Talk about a game-changer.
Dragon’s Lair wasn’t like all the other regular games. It was basically a laser-disc video game, so it was pretty much like playing a cartoon. The graphics were the best we’d seen, and you’d control it by making the right choices with timing on the buttons and joystick. It was basically like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book but in gaming form.
If you mistimed the pushing of the buttons or didn’t move the joystick at the correct moment, you’d get a scene of Dirk the Daring either falling, being burned, electrocuted, or a number of other hilarious outcomes. The control aspect of it was actually pretty choppy and difficult to master. It was the first arcade game that cost 50 cents per play, so it was pricey to progress on it.
I stuck to my favorites and some pinball action any time we went. After a number of years of seeing all that our local arcades had to offer, we did finally get an Atari 2600. We loved our first gaming console. Even though the graphics were pretty basic and crude compared to the arcade games we loved, we still had a blast with it.
As arcades and arcade games surged in popularity, so did the number of locations you could play your favorite arcade games. We loved going to restaurants with my parents whenever we had the opportunity to do so. Not only just for the rare treat of getting to eat out but because many restaurants started putting little game rooms into their places.
It was perfect for people who had to wait to be seated. Or a fun little place you could send your kids off to while the adults kept bullshitting with each other after the meal was done. We’d often go out to lunch after church with someone from my dad’s congregation he’d pastor, and it was so much fun if we had other kids to play those 80s games with.
The very best arcade and family entertainment place we ever visited was in the late 80s, while we were on vacation in Southern California. My uncle had a bead on a place that he was certain we’d love to check out. I think it was named Malibu, or Malibu Grand Prix. The place was cutting edge back then.
Not only did it have a 3000–4000 square foot arcade with the newest, hottest arcade games, but it offered so much more. I recall there being race cars you’d drive around a track, a water boat area that you’d zip around and shoot water at your friends and family, a lot of ticket-based skill-type of machines, and a pretty damn good snack area.
We went to Disneyland, Universal Studios, and a Dodgers game during that trip. However, Malibu was our favorite activity of that action-packed family vacation. I’ll never forget all of the flashing lights, the over-the-top sounds, and all of the laughter and excitement we shared with our cousins during our visit to the best arcade we’d ever been to.
After Malibu, the magic of the video game arcades seemed to diminish. As we became teenagers and started buying gaming consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Genesis, and Super Nintendo, the draw of the arcade machines seemed to dull. The graphics were improving on the home systems. This kept us gaming at home more so and focused on the games we’d buy, rent, or trade with our friends.
Sure, we still visited the arcade at the mall here and there. We became obsessed with newer, fancier games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Street Fighter 2, and Mortal Kombat. But those games and the fancier, more improved ones after that couldn’t hold a candle to the memory of our childhood experiences in those early 80s arcades. &:^)
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