Nothing beats some of the memories I have — of dimly lit arcades in seaside towns… my home town. The noise would be a cacophony created by an electronic orchestra; plastic reels driven by unseen cogs or belts; melodic chiming blaring from within flashing cabinets and the clatter of coins that added a percussion. A patter of bass would thump above our heads as pool balls skittered across green felt and thundered into pockets. The smell of vinegar mixed in with burnt sugar and flooded inwards from the street.
The machines around us would have smoothed patches in the facades from the many fingers that drum or thump across buttons. Burns in the plastic lingered from forgotten fag ends; the smoker distracted by a jackpot or a trip to the counter for change. We’d pick idly at notches in the plastic or the flaking stickers, as we wait our turns.
Piles of coins would sit on top of the cabinet or lined along the bottom edge of the screen for whoever was next to play. This was where I fell in love with games. Among families dropping two pence pieces into pushers, hoping for a return — years before they were crammed with cheap plastic toys. Through the worn carpet corridors, showing only threads, there was a corner for games. A section already being depleted because of the popularity of gambling and the fact that videogames were moving from the arcade halls and into our living rooms and bedrooms. We were full tilt into the 32-bit age.
Happy coincidence meant that our favourite machines sat together, or maybe we were limited for choice and never wanted to stray far. Most cabinets would often have lines of boys, a few girls, waiting for their turn to play. The kids that had bunked off of school during the week were here to show off the skills they’d honed while others sat in packed classrooms. Our pockets were dented from coins. There was a constant level of excitement which bubbled beneath the laughter and name calling. Eyes lit up if a new game arrived and we’d hang our heads if the best machines were out of service. We jostled each other, elbows in ribs, goading our peers into challenges. And then our moment would arrive; a gap in the crowd, our coins at the head of the queue.
The familiar music would ring out, the colours assaulted our eyes and bathed us in a glow that comforted. We forgot about sibling rivalry, arguments with parents and homework set by teachers who would never understand us. Collecting our coins, we rolled them down chutes that tripped sensors, causing electrical flashes asking us to choose our fighter.
I always chose Ken, or Akuma — always a Shoto boy, my best friends always chose Ryu or Adon, occasionally Sagat. We cursed anyone choosing Birdie. This wasn’t just any version of Street Fighter 2, this was Alpha 2. The version of the game that allowed for ludicrous combos to be strung together, even if you were there to mash the buttons. Our fingers began to grow calluses from holding the control stick; from rolling the quarter circle that had become muscle memory. There was competition between us — a tally of wins under names on paper worn soft from handling over the preceding weeks.
This was all before High Definition televisions and always online consoles. Before leaderboards and achievements. Before XBOX was even a thing and the battle for home entertainment was still a threeway fight between SEGA, SONY and Nintendo.
I wasn’t particularly good at Street Fighter. My name had the least tally marks, but I was there for the game and the atmosphere. The spectacle was something I’d not experienced before. The mixture of pixel art and anime style burst from a screen larger than I, or any of my friends, could afford. It was something to behold and it was something that only arcades could offer us. We had PlayStations at home, nestled beneath our televisions. Alpha 2 was available, but we couldn’t afford fight sticks and even when we all bundled into our bedrooms, four of us on the bed, more on the floor, we could never capture that feeling we got on a Saturday morning.
Now, Street Fighter matches are often played online, only a certain few meet up to test each other. Games are no longer the driving force in arcades across the UK, many machines are too expensive to repair when they inevitably break down. Arcade owners have to weigh up the balance between keeping a game active, or abandoning it for a few fruit machines, perhaps a ticket spitter based off of a popular App store game. Nobody can blame them, games in arcades have to be something special now; they have to be larger than life, offering new technology, cameras to show the others playing or over the top effects in an attempt to immerse the player.
Purchasing a cabinet of House of the Dead 4 will set you back around £3,750 inclusive of VAT. Fruit machines, on the other hand, are often rented for a set fee, which usually includes any service charges. It’s known for some machines to bring in around £500 per week and while that is very likely a best case scenario — maybe a service station off of a motorway — it doesn’t take much to work out what will deliver the best value for the proprietor. One website I looked at offered a 50/50 split on all money in the machines, that’s not a bad turnover for less square footage of the aforementioned House of the Dead 4.
Money isn’t the only driving force. Sadly, in the UK and many other places the special quality that was always there — the camaraderie between players and limited accessibility — has been replaced by online gaming in the home and the hundreds of titles released each year. Those who lined up to play, now sit in online lobbies waiting short times for games to begin. I can’t blame them; why would anyone seek out an arcade, to thumb 50p coins into Guitar Hero for a stunted experience? The UK never embraced arcades like the US or Japan. Holidays at bracing British seaside towns were often the only way to play. Although, remember the heady golden days of SEGA World in the Trocadero London?
There’s this idea that you want to, or perhaps have to, get something for your money. In an age driven by microtransactions and cheap App Store games, when we put any amount of money into something, we want a return. The 2p pushers are now brimming with prizes that cost less than what you invest and fruit machines are always a gamble, but the odds might be in your favour on the day. It’s the thrill of winning something. Anything. Especially when we consider that many of the games that do find homes in arcades cost a lot to play and very likely never get completed. That idea of playing games in the way I did as a teenager is strictly limited to nostalgia now. The arcade scene in Stranger Things gave me a pang of sadness.
Sat next to Street Fighter was perhaps my favourite arcade game of all time, and one that had a home release, but would never rival the real thing. Even with the wonderful G-Con light gun and a home made cardboard pedal blu-tacked to a controller in the second port; Time Crisis just couldn’t come to life in our houses. This, and its many sequels, was another game that called out for competition, but one that also forced us to work together as friends. We’d each memorise sections of the game, calling out locations of enemies for the shooter in play. We wanted to get further than each other or lose less lives than friends, but we wanted to do it huddled around that vast CRT screen.
I still remember the first time I completed it. I was the first of my friends to do so. I’d skipped playing the previous week in order to save some extra coins, as well as just watch the game play out. I knew when the red enemies would pop out from behind cover. I learned which positions terrorists took around the limousine. I began to learn reaction times to the ninja who jumped all over the screen throwing knives. When I held the gun, with active recoil, in my hands I knew I would get to the end. And I did. There was a moment of silence and the screen flashed black momentarily, allowing me to see my friends stood behind me, grinning. When I laughed, the tension was broken and we all cheered, clapped a little and threw out high fives.
We stood for a brief moment discussing where I could have gone wrong or where I’d taken hits that they would be aware of when their turn rolled around. Someone opened a can of Coke, suggested a lunch of hot dogs or chips from the seafront. Behind us more coins lined up along the screen and the calls of ‘I got next’ rang out.