On Saturday mornings I usually had $5 in my pocket from allowance. I worked hard taking out the trash every week and that $5 reward was all I needed for a hit…an arcade hit. $5 dollars meant I got to play 20 arcade games at 1001 Plays in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1001 Plays was my crack house and it’s where my foundation in gaming was built. It was the foundation of my arcade history.
I was a snob when arcade games were released for console, but I still loved video games and playing at home was just another avenue to satisfy my love for this hobby. The arcade however, was the place to experience new games and technology that you weren’t going to see anywhere else. The life of a video game started in the arcades. It was the platform for all game makers to strut their stuff. Developers had to design new graphics and tech to manifest their ideas. So whenever new games hit the arcade, it was mind blowing. The arcade is where I had many watershed moments that are forever etched into my memory.
I started console gaming on my grandfather’s Fairchild F system. I was 6 years old when the system came out. My grandfather showed it to me and I was filled with joy! It had these crazy controllers that looked like something out of a cockpit of a fighter jet. I can remember playing Baseball, Black Jack and Spitfire relentlessly. It was all I wanted to do when I went to my grandparents house.
Sometime later in 1977, the Atari 2600 was released and competed directly with the Fairchild F. My friends dad picked one up from Sears. He bought Space Invaders with it and my friend and I went crazy. Every day after school we were playing Space Invaders until we mastered it. I LOVED console gaming but it still took a back seat the the real arcade experience.
My dad took me to my first arcade when I was a kid. I have no idea how old I was, but it was before consoles existed. MIT had an arcade with nothing but pinball machines. It was amazing! I had fallen in love with pinball machines, but there was no way those were ever going to end up in my bedroom. To walk in an arcade and see nothing but pinball machines is something that I’m very glad I got to witness. I’ve always appreciated it, but it was just the beginning of what was to become a fiendish hobby of mine.
1001 Plays was the first arcade I ever fell in love with. Walking into the arcade was like stepping into another world. The loud noises, smell of the carpet and bright colored lights took me away from reality. I’d rush to the change machine to cash in my $5 and then I’d go at it. My right pocket was jingling with 20 quarters which to me, was going to last me hours!
1001 Plays is where I had many arcade firsts. It was where I first played Karate Champ, the worlds first 2 player versus fighting game. Ironically, it’s also where I first played Capcom’s Street Fighter. Both games were super hard to play and I was happy if I could just get past one fighter. My first experiences with Spy Hunter, Gyruss, Mr. Do and Sinistar were also at 1001 Plays.
Sinistar was one of the first games that talked to you. I can never forget hearing, “I hunger!” as I walked toward the game for the first time. This boss literally talked shit to you and then blew you to smithereens. Sinistar was a new take on the “Asteroids” theme except this time, you destroyed the asteroids to mine Sinibombs to use against Sinistar.
1001 Plays was a launching spot for some great tech in gaming. It was where I played my first laserdisc game, Dragon’s Lair. Dragon’s Lair was mind blowing to everyone because it wasn’t a traditional sprite or vector based game, it was all hand drawn animation. It was a cartoon. It was hard for me to conceptualize when my cousin Perry first told me about it. He kept saying, “It’s not graphics, it’s a cartoon!”. Not only was Dragon’s Lair the first laser disc game, it was also the first game with 2 screens and the first upright game that cost 50 cents to play. It was daunting and intimidating.
Gamers were getting decimated left and right and since this was new technology, EVERYONE in the arcade was watching! That second monitor that sat up high on the machine was for onlookers to be able to see the game play. It was a new level of fear to drop two quarters into this game and have 15-20 people watching you play. When I first played, I died right away. I was lucky enough to get through the brick wall and then died again shortly after 2 more times. My 50 cents was gone and I didn’t even last 5 minutes.
About a year later, Nintendo’s Punch-Out showed up at the arcade. It also had two screens and was just mind blowing. It was the first time anyone had seen a boxing game like this and it was using Nintendo graphics. Punch-Out was a brutal quarter muncher. The bosses were super hard at first, but once you learned their patterns, you could easily beat them. It was learning their patterns that was the tough part. Punch-Out was a great take on the sport and it was very addicting. Sometimes it was just great to watch other people spend their money and beat the harder bosses.
I was big into Atari’s vector based arcade games. Battlezone, Asteroids and Quantum were just a few. I cut my teeth on Space War and Omega Race, but I lost it the first time I saw Atari’s Star Wars arcade game. It took vector graphics to a new level by using scaling to emulate 3D space. The game took place inside the cockpit of an X-Wing fighter during the battle of Yavin. It had space battles against Tie Fighters, Death Star surface attack against towers and then the final trench run to take out the iron clad planet. It had synthesized music taken straight from the movie and voice samples to boot! It is still to this day, one of my favorite arcade games.
My cousin dominated the highscore charts on every Star Wars game in Cambridge, Mass. His initials P.O.M., were on the top of the high score list at 1001 Plays, MIT and various sub shops in Cambridge. He would go back and forth swapping high scores with this Japanese girl from MIT. He could play for 2hrs straight with 50 cents while I spent my $5 getting wrecked throughout the arcade. He played for so long one night, we closed the arcade. They had to kick us out, which meant he had to kill himself just to put his initials up on the high score board.
The second laser disc game released was called Cliff Hanger. It was hard to play, but more forgiving than Dragon’s Lair. It was the first anime based laser disc game. At the time it was released, I didn’t know it was made from the Miziyaki film, Castle Of Cagliostro. They basically took the entire film and turned it into a laser disc game. It worked out perfectly! Many years after first playing the game, I rented the movie on VHS.
1001 Plays later changed its name to America’s Game. It closed some years later after I moved to San Diego. Now that I was in the west coast, I was exposed to many of the arcade games coming directly from Japan. Yellow Brick Road in San Diego was one of those testing spots for many of the new Japanese games. They always got new games from Capcom, SNK and Sega. It was the one and only place I played the arcade version of Techromancer. I also played Samurai Shodown III and Virtua Cop first at this arcade. I still believe to this day that people started using two guns to play Virtua Cop after watching me play it. I’m a big fan of John Woo movies and holding two guns to play Virtua Cop was a dream come true.
I saw many great releases throughout San Diego arcades big and small. Street Fighter II, Strider and Samurai Shodown were all introduced to me in San Diego. I never really hit LA arcades, but Las Vegas had some incredible spots. The Luxor had a Sega arcade and it’s where I first played Crazy Taxi and Virtua Fighter. Virtua Fighter was the first 3D fighting game and I think I dumped like $10 into it the first time I played. Virtua Fighter made a big splash in the industry and spawned games like Tekken, Toshinden and Street Fighter EX.
Being a part of arcade history is being a part of video game history. I believe that being there from the beginning puts the industry into perspective. I value what today’s developers do for home consoles and PC, but I wouldn’t have the same appreciation for it without the experience of the arcade. Sometimes I wish that gamers today could have some of those experiences that I had. Maybe if they did, they would view gaming a bit differently. Walking into the arcade and seeing something new and amazing is sadly, an experience of the past. Today social media is where we get to see games first. Instead of appreciating what we have, games are often taken for granted because gamers lack the knowledge and experience of arcade history.
I miss the arcade. I miss the smell, the competition, the sounds, the lights…all of it. Thankfully there are great emulators available so people can experience some classic arcade games. And with efforts from Capcom, Konami and Sega, we have some great collections available for PC and console. One thing is for sure, gaming today would be nothing without the advent of the video game arcade.