Monday, March 09, 2009

Arcade Nostalgia

Once when our family was visiting my grandparents I discovered a weathered catalog with a blue cover from Auto World, dated 1967. I was 10 or 11 when I found this publication, and I spent hours poring over it. This place in Scranton, PA didn’t just sell and ship every model car in existence (from floor models to “show cars” like 007’s Aston Martin, The Munster’s Dragula, The Man From UNCLE’s Piranha, and of course everything with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s name on it), they also sold every conceivable accoutrement relating to model cars.

I recently mentioned this catalog to my uncle, and this provoked some curious memories from the mid-to-late 60s, when he was an adolescent. When my grandfather drove into the city, he’d drop my uncle and a couple of his friends off at a slot-car derby — an arcade-type establishment where a kid paid 75 cents an hour to run his slot-car on a huge, elaborate track that filled the room. These cars were of a different scale than the ones I was familiar with: mine were no larger than a Matchbox car, while my uncle’s required two hands for proper placement on the track.

My uncle had a cheap model called “La Cucaracha” (purchased from this mail order outfit) which eventually earned the reputation for being the fastest thing on the track. An older brother of a schoolmate dropped a bunch of money on the most expensive model in the catalog, determined to beat my uncle. He didn’t realize until the model arrived that much of what he was purchasing was “detail work” — all sorts of fiddly bits and pieces that contributed to the model’s “authenticity” but did nothing for the car’s potential velocity.

When it came time to race, this kid brought out his expensive car and pitted it against “La Cucaracha.” Unfortunately for my uncle’s nemesis, “La Cucaracha” was a single-molded vehicle which ran low to the ground and hugged the track like a coat of paint. As both cars took the first hairpin curve, “La Cucaracha” fishtailed and sent the fancy car flying off the track. It hit the floor and shattered into dozens of little pieces. The older lad gathered what was left of his formerly fine car, then slouched out the door.

My uncle’s story has come to mind because Boing-Boing has been linking to nostalgic recollections of video arcades, the slot-car derbies of my youth. In the late 70s and early 80s downtown Winnipeg was the living embodiment of a hippie’s bad acid trip. From Eaton’s to The Hudson Bay, Portage Avenue was chock-a-block with arcades, record stores and head shops (which not only had video games, but rock ‘n’ roll and drug paraphernalia, and skids and skids of porn). I can only recall a few of these establishments — there was Circus Circus, a creepy, filthy place with too much light for good gaming; the Pirate’s Den, which was painfully loud despite its wall-to-wall carpeting; and Mother Trucker’s, which somehow acquired the distinction of being “drive-through drug city.”

I can’t begin to account for the hours and money I spent in these places, which were all billed as “Family Fun Centres!” Out of a perverse desire to prove the point I’d occasionally cajole my dad into joining me (which he did out of a perverse desire to bond with his son) and dropping five dollars for 30 minutes of noise and mayhem. The proprietors treated him the same as anyone else, but at 40-plus he was easily double the age of any other patron in the room. I got a kick out of how the twittering, chirping, buzzing pandemonium that hit him at the door always seemed to catch him off-guard.

My friend liked to initial his high scores with “DDT.” I chose “ZAP”; when I later spotted someone else using that, I switched to “ILK.” We were both jealous of our friend “KAZ” — a uniquely truncated version of his last name, which also served as his nickname. When a game called “Commando” allowed for longer high score entries, I underwhelmed a potential girlfriend by entering, “I ♥ JAYMIE D!!” My fruitlessly saccharine missive placed 10th in a list of gutter obscenities.

Some guys manage to dovetail their video game addiction into true love. Last Christmas a neighbor was given a vintage “Asteroids” game, from his wife. That woman dropped serious coin on eBay, but it’s a matter of record her husband outdid the “Nintendo response” come Christmas Day. That’s a “first year of marriage” gift: at our stage of the game (15 years next month), if my wife were to present me with a vintage cabinet I’d take it as a pointed cue to book the marriage counselor. A mutual gift of new living room furniture, on the other hand, is the sign of a healthy, happy marriage. Well ... that and a boxed set of some kind.

These memories are certainly pleasant, but I can’t say I’m especially nostalgic for video arcades. Every senior centre on the continent has a billiard room where the menfolk go to remember the glory of their youth. A video arcade in my future retirement centre would be a waste of space. The consoles and games of today beat the simple pleasures of the 80s by a very wide margin.

And yet, and yet ... a couple of years ago KAZ sent me a disc loaded with MAME versions of arcade games. I booted it up and showed my daughters a few favorites, including Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins. I found that even after I tweaked the controls I couldn’t get any further in the game than I could when I was 19. Twenty-five years later, I still suck.

So why is it, in this age of Wii delights, the girls occasionally nudge old ILK in the ribs and ask him to fire up GnG and play with them?


Tom said...

To be fair, Ghost 'n Goblins is still considered to be one of the most difficult arcade games around.


Tom said...

I still sometimes look around for a cheap steering wheel and pedals combo that will work on my PC and allow me to play Spy Hunter or Road Blaster on MAME. I am not a well man!

Whisky Prajer said...

I should have got you to fact-check this before I posted. Even now I'm not 100% on some of these names: was it "Pirate's Den" or "Long John Silver's"?

I was wondering if you'd got any further with your cabinet making.

Anonymous said...

Some slot-car-racing places still exist, but video game arcades have all but vanished.


Whisky Prajer said...

I saw one such place in San Jose a couple of years ago. I thought it was rather telling that most of the clients there were either my age, or my uncle's. And their sons, of course.

The closest a kid can get to video arcades, however, is a place like Chuck E. Cheese's. Which I don't recommend. Ever.

Joel said...

Video game arcades are still popular and plentiful in Japan. Unfortunately, I've never been a fan of the selection. They're almost all tournament fighting games, or shooting games. It's very hard to find the old scrolling games I grew up on--maybe because those games have all gone to private home consuls and gameboys.

Whisky Prajer said...

I get the impression (solely from my viewing of Lost In Translation) that Japanese arcades are venues of social interaction. Is that accurate? I never considered the arcades of my youth that way. It was more fun when you went with friends, but I had no trouble spending an hour solo.

Joel said...

Yes and no. It is a big social thing, and you often see groups of young people hanging out there. and often, in a Japanese city, there's not a lot else for young people to do. There's no driving up and down the strip, so the arcade centers become sort of the pick up zone.

But, you see plenty of people going there solo as well.

Tom said...

cabinet is still in a state of flux...

hmmm.... Pirate's Den or Long John Silver... they both sound right!