The Decline of the Arcade

Many arcades are unplugging their machines, shutting their doors, and turning into Payless Shoe Stores...

When I was a child/teen in the 80’s and early 90’s, there used to be this wondrous place that drew an instant smile to my face as I stepped through the door. This magical place was dark, smelled like day old pizza and was filled with kids of all ages, having fun and debating the most important topic of our generation: how to reach the next level of the game. You could spend hours and hours in this place, never move more then a few inches from a single spot and still leave a sweaty, tired mess. It was glorious. It was life changing. It was called the arcade and now, it is dead.

For those out there who are too young to remember, an arcade was a place filled to the brim with gaming machines of all kinds. You had your classic pinball machines lining one wall, while PongPac-Man and Space Invaders lined the other (usually in the back). The prime locations usually saw your Tekkens, Street Fighters, Mortal Kombats and a plethora of shooting games like Time Crisis and House of the Dead. Any type of game you wanted to play was right there at the tip of your finger.

Kids would go to their favorite games and wait their turn to play. For the really popular games, we used to place quarters on the machine to call “winner” and make sure we got next game. You knew who was going next, but you didn’t know how good they were and that was exciting. Many games were so hard that it was nearly impossible to beat it without spending A LOT of money, but it didn’t matter, because it was fun at its purest. For those who say money can’t buy happiness, I say to them, grab a handful of quarters and hop on down to an arcade.

I was always a Street Fighter 2 fan, but for me, 1992 was the year everything changed. One day I walked into my local arcade to play a few rounds of the classic fighter, when I noticed a huge crowd had gathered around this new machine. There were so many people, that I couldn’t even make out what it was. As I got closer, I finally saw what had gained the attention of all the gamers in the room. Mortal Kombat had arrived and it was glorious. I stood there watching as the two fighters on screen grappled in a bloody battle for supremacy and then IT happened. Player One was playing as Sub-Zero and as he drained all the life out of his opponent for the second time, the words “Finish Him” appeared on screen. The teenage wunderkind working the controls proceeded to push some buttons and right before my eyes, Sub-Zero ripped his opponents head clear off his body, spinal cord still attached. I was speechless. I couldn’t believe the awesomeness that had just occurred in front of me.

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After that fateful day, I spent hours and hours and hours in the arcade (not to mention huge amounts of quarters) playing Mortal Kombat and its sequels. It always turned into a kind of king of the hill situation. You’d have some unbeatable kid who thought he was hot stuff and won ten matches in a row. Everyone wanted to beat him and everyone thought they would be the one to do it. It didn’t even matter if you won or not. It was about the camaraderie and talking smack. You were surrounded by kids who all loved the same thing you did. You had just as much fun playing as you did watching. Talking with friends, getting your name on the leader boards, eating, drinking soda, laughing, screaming and having the best time of your life, all while standing around a seven foot tall black box.

Up until the mid 90’s, arcades were king. You simply couldn’t match the power of an arcade machine on a home console. Nintendo and Sega (I would mention Jaguar and Neo Geo, but no one could afford them so who cares), systems up to that point, weren’t powerful enough to replicate or come anywhere close to matching what was being offered in arcades. But then, a funny thing happened. The consoles started getting serious. It started slowly at first, with a near perfect port of Mortal Kombat on the SNES. Although it didn’t have blood due to Nintendo’s objection to the violence, it was still as perfect a port as you can get. (For all you Sega fans, I am truly sorry, but blood or not, the Genesis version was terrible). Now I didn’t have to go to the arcade and spend my week’s allowance on the game. I could simply sit home and play it all day and night.

Soon, home systems started getting even more powerful with the release of Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation. These systems could not only rival the arcades, but also blow them away in every way. By the time the PS2 and Xbox 360 came out, anyone could have their own arcade machine in their very own home, with hundreds of games at their fingertips.

According to a January 12, 2012 Business Week article, the Arcade industry was generating revenues of up to $7 Billion a year. Now that’s a lot of quarters! By 1999, with even more powerful home systems debuting, Arcade revenues fell to an all time low (for the time) of just under $2 billion. As a March 2012 article from the East Valley Tribune stated, by 2004 arcade revenues had dropped to $866 million and with that drop, the death toll rang. Why travel to arcades anymore, when we could have just as powerful systems in our own homes? The Arcade as we knew it became obsolete. With the Internet becoming faster and more accessible, we even started to see online multiplayer becoming a standard. We didn’t need to stand around an arcade machine with our friends anymore, all we had to do was sit on our couches, put on a headset and BAM, we were connected with friends and strangers alike, locked in a heated battle for as long as we wanted.

The thing is, for all consoles offer, they can never truly replace the arcade experience. Sure, I can play with my friends no matter where they are, but there was nothing like standing with a group of people, everyone yelling and screaming and laughing together. That moment, when that wunderkind pulled off the move of the century, everyone cheered as if, for that one brief moment, he was an arcade God. It’s akin to the movie theater experience.

Arcades didn’t just offer games, they offered experiences. No matter how good a home system is or how fast your Internet connection becomes, you can never replicate that atmosphere at home. Didn’t matter who you were, the arcades offered even the shyest kid the opportunity to become King of the Castle and for one brief moment, you were on top of the world. Kids today will never experience that and for that, I mourn the loss of the arcade.

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But wait; there is a dim light at the end of the retro tunnel. For those clamoring for a fantastic arcade experience, there are still some great ones out there. New York City still boasts some wonderul locations. Dave & Busters offers experiences for young and old and China Towns Video Game Land offers a classic arcade experience. For anyone who hasn’t yet plunked a few quarters into a machine, I say to you, please, just once, try it out. I know, it’s tough to get off the couch sometimes, but trust me, it’s worth the trip.

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