The Ryan Lambie column: the death of the arcade

A trip to Great Yarmouth should have had Ryan glued to an old Operation Wolf or Asteroids coin-op. Things, however, did not go to plan...

The seaside amusement arcade. The crimson carpets peppered with cigarette ash, the smell of stale smoke in the dingy air. The flickering of a sea of monitors and the cacophony of a dozen tunes and sounds all fighting for attention. The clatter of coins, the occasional cheer of jubilation.

I love seaside arcades, which is why I drove to Great Yarmouth last week for a visit. It may be 2008, but somewhere, on that endless gallery of establishments that stretch along the sea front, a few classic coin-op games still remain – or at least, that’s what I thought.

I visited the arcades that ran along the pier first, and was comforted to note that the dingy lighting and crimson carpets still remained – though the cigarette smoke had gone. I was greeted with a sea of fruit machines, and not a proper game in sight. Unperturbed, I continued my exploration elsewhere, and found yet more fruit machines, punctuated by the occasional racing simulator like Daytona USA. A place called Joyland had a lonely looking Lethal Enforcers cabinet, possibly one of the worst gun games ever, and the oldest machine I found all day.

The story was repeated across the whole sea front – one-armed bandits, grabby hand machines full of stuffed toys, even a rather surreal Elvis themed music machine – but no classic arcade games. I saw Pac-Man, but he’d morphed disturbingly into one of those dreadful coin pushing contraptions. In fact, the only games left all had steering wheels or guns strapped to the front: Time Crisis 3 & 4, Mario Kart Arcade GP 2, Silent Scope, to name a few. There’s nothing wrong with these of course, but if you’ve played one Time Crisis game, you’ve really played them all.

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In my youth, video games and seaside visits were virtually synonymous; I rarely got to play arcade machines at any other time than the summer, when the horrendous British weather would give me the perfect excuse to get off the hurricane-swept beach and have a go or ten on Final Fight, Space Harrier or Rolling Thunder.

I barely noticed the gradual erosion of games, not at first; even by the early nineties, there were plenty of arcade machines to play, most of them Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat cabinets. It was only when we entered the new millennium that the paucity of coin-op games became apparent; the Jamma cabinets of old were gradually replaced by gun games or racing games, and the early classics from the 80s became increasingly difficult to find.

I suppose my failed gaming expedition shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise – the humble arcade machine has been in decline for over a decade after all. Even so, it was a strange feeling, wandering among row after row of one-armed bandits without seeing a single Operation Wolf or Puzzle Bobble cabinet.

It’s progress, of course; we’ve got games on our consoles and computers now, so there’s no need to waste our time hanging around dingy, smoky arcades in front of a two ton chipboard machine. We don’t need to get our initials on a highscore table in Skegness, not now we can play online and compare scores with a gamer in Brazil.

Even so, I still sort of hope that, tucked away somewhere in a little seaside town, there’s an old-style amusement arcade, a retro game nirvana just waiting to be discovered. It’ll have a big flashing neon sign outside, and it’ll be called Golden Nugget or Caesar’s Palace, and there’ll be all my favourite games inside: Shaolin’s Road, R-Type, Green Beret, Bubble Bobble, Galaga.

In a fit of nostalgia, I even consider buying an old arcade cabinet and putting it in our spare room, perhaps with some fag-burned crimson carpet to go underneath. I could turn the game’s sound up so that it makes my ears hurt, and maybe light a few cigarettes.

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I suggested the idea to my better half just now, and her eyes began to narrow, and I thought I detected the faint smell of burning. Hmm, I think, perhaps I won’t bother. This is 2008, after all.

Ryan Lambie writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.