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The Nostalgia Cabinet

Even today, an arcade system can really capture the eye.

By Andrew JohnstonPublished 3 years ago 3 min read
The Nostalgia Cabinet
Photo by Ben Neale on Unsplash

Was that a Galaga cabinet?

I did an earnest double take as I crossed in front of the pizza place. It was my usual joint, one I patronized at least once a week and passed by so frequently that it blurred neatly into its surroundings. Any other day, I'd only have acknowledged it as a minor landmark on my walk home, barely perceived over the pages of my latest library acquisition.

It was the new addition that wrenched my eyes away from the text. Sure enough - Galaga, the arcade classic in its harshly radiant glory.

There was a time when any pizzeria worth its salt contained a collection of arcade cabinets...he says, as though he had any personal recollection of that age. It's true - I didn't misspend any of my youth or my quarters in a makeshift pizza joint arcade. However, I do remember when arcade machines were a regular fixture inside buildings and business of various types, and I especially remember that pizza place in Colorado with the broken cocktail cabinet, the one I insisted on using as my table at every visit.

Galaga also happens to be one of my personal favorites among the arcade classics - a triumph of design simplicity, demanding equal parts tactical awareness and skill. I am not the lord of Galaga, I'm sorry to say, but I have some feel for the game. Perhaps that's why I noticed the machine: It called to me.

Even today, the arcade cabinet has a special kind of appeal - this I observed first-hand on my next visit. People pause as they walk by to size the thing up, eyes filled with this spark of wonderment that's some distant echo of what another generation saw when these things were new. Children flock to them and pretend to play; strangers pull in a little bit closer in hopes of seeing some new record broken. For most, though, the cabinet is an icon of nostalgia best observed from a comfortable distance with beer and slice in hand.

Where's the fun in sitting idly by, though? It is an interactive device, after all - and merely a quarter a play, easily obtained in change after ordering the week's slice. The coin makes that satisfying mechanical dink as it passes through the slot, a sound with an arcane character that lets it produce nostalgia even in those who've never laid their hands upon such a machine. There's a high score already - someone's taken the maiden voyage already, though their skill is far from exceptional. With the place as full as it is, I'll have ample time to make my own mark.

Over the next year or two, I'll watch that high score change as the machine is reset and everyone struggles to plant their flag at the top. Sometimes it's me, but never for long - I'm waiting to be dethroned by a stranger, perhaps a passer-through, perhaps a face that's familiar even if the name behind the initials eludes me. An arcade machine is a permanent competition among friendly rivals, most of whom will never meet. It's likely that we have nothing in common, save a talent for one specific game.

I certainly didn't play that machine every time I stopped in for a slice, though I certainly fed it a few times. On occasion, I'd be so lost in the quest for high score glory that I'd miss my order being called. A small price to pay - after all, isn't that why ovens exist? And who can think of things as petty as tomato and cheese when the wave counter is approaching triple digits?

Such is the nature of video games, that they distract you from more important pursuits...except that I hadn't been thusly distracted in a long time. The sophisticated titles get old after awhile, but leave it to something that predates my existence to hold my attention so tightly that I can't hear my own name over the blips and bloops. That's the magic of Galaga, I suppose, and perhaps old-school arcade systems in general. Deep down, we all still want to be king of the arcade, even if only for a day.


About the Creator

Andrew Johnston

Educator, writer and documentarian based out of central China. Catch the full story at

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