The Wasteland that is the Modern Arcade

What has happened to the arcade?  I love games.  I love board games, video games, card games...pretty much any kind of game.  When I was young I would look forward to trips to the mall so I could head to the arcade with my friends and playing Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and more!  We would spend hours feeding quarters (actual quarters!) into these machines and having a great time.  A birthday party at Showbiz Pizza meant playing skeeball, basketball, pac-man, and enjoying the animatronic show.

While much is the same, much has changed.  I have children of my own now, and they also want to go to the arcade and have pizza birthday parties.  My children are getting a much different experience, however.  A walk into a modern arcade will confront you with bank upon bank of skill crane and chance games intended to eat tokens for the scant chance of a payout in tickets.  There may be two skeeball machines tucked in a corner, but chances are good they are down for maintenance.  Worse, my kids (and their friends) aren't even interested in the rare game we might find.  Instead they simply look for who can turn their tokens into the most tickets the most quickly.  I haven't even walked away from feeding my $20 into the token machine when the first child is back with an empty token cup and a small handful of tickets.  In no time we've run through $60 and the kids are anxiously caching out for stickers, plastic rings, and cheap candy that will probably get lost in the seat cushions on the ride home.

Unfortunately, the only thing that has remained constant about my arcade experience is the quality of the food, which has been consistently and universally bad.  We do have a Dave & Busters nearby, and on the one occasion when I took my oldest son we did have a good time challenging each other to top scores in Galaga, Ms. Pac-Man, and Centipede.  This was all on a small, multi-game unit tucked away in a corner.  Walking around there were plenty of flashing lights and cool graphics on display, but the machines could hardly be considered games.  There was a Star Wars AT-AT simulator (cool, but it was more of an experience than a game).  There was an immersive 'ride' that had fans and hydraulics to augment the image on the screen.  There were dance pads, guitars, and lots and lots of guns in various shapes, sizes and colors. Joysticks, on the other hand, were in short supply.  The days of button mashing appear to be behind us.

Of course, I do realize that there are a number of factors that have lead to the sad state of today's arcade.  The home gaming console really hurt the small arcade in the mall or the unit at the local pizza shop.  Why make the effort to get to an arcade and pump quarters into a machine when you can have the same experience in the comfort of your home?  With fewer people coming through the doors arcades had to either close their doors or find an alternative to survive.  Enter the skill crane.  Cheap to maintain and impossible for a child to avoid.  So when a game unit needs repair, just replace it with the crane.  Too many cranes?  Install some ticket vendors and a small booth full of cheap tchotchkes to help parents turn those $20s into ten cent toys.  Some, like Dave & Busters, have made an effort to install modern games, but they feel compelled to offer something you can't get at home.  Either a simulator or giant apparatus that you couldn't have at home on your console.

The arcade could be so much more. Sure, I could have my friends over to play games on my home console with graphics that rival anything you might find in the arcade.  I could play online with millions of strangers.  The arcade is the perfect environment to meet new people face to face.  To see the look in their eye as you pummel them, or to stand at the side and learn from a master.  It doesn't matter if I could play the same game at home, it is the social element that really makes the arcade appealing.  Surprisingly, it is the friendly local game store that has taken over this opportunity from the arcade.  My local shop has a weekly game night where the public is invited in to try the latest in table top games and meet other people who enjoy gaming.  It is a blast!  I look forward to these nights each week.  I'm sad that arcades have become the wasteland that they are today, but I'm glad to have an oasis in my local game store.


Jade Mason