WARNING: INCLUDES DETAILS ARCADE AFICIONADOS MAY FIND DISTRESSING.
We’ve wanted to speak about the death of arcades a while now and it’s becoming more and more obvious that there are hundreds, if not thousands of factors as to why they are so sparse. So here is Keith’s prologue to our “What Killed the Arcade?” series. If you enjoy this, please follow us on Twitter and/or Facebook.
Arcades. To gamers over the age of 25, the word alone is enough to bring a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat and generate the kind of wistful look into the middle distance reserved usually for parents of small children remembering what it was like to have a lie-in on a weekend….
But it’s time to look past the sepia tinged nostalgia. Over the last few weeks, I’ve experienced both sides of the arcade ‘scene’ as it exists in 2018. Earlier in August, Dylan and I attended the inaugural London Play Expo, and a fun time was had by all. There were over 100 arcade machines present including deluxe versions of Outrun, After Burner and Power Drift, and a large selection of pinball tables. Aside from the queues and sorry condition of a few of the cabinets, it really was like stepping back in time. The lights were deliberately kept low to re-create that dingy old arcade feel, with the only light coming from the flickering screens and colourful marquees, and groups of people huddled around cabinets to watch strangers play. It was a beautiful sight to this thirty-something gamer, and the huge number of people in attendance was heartening.
Sadly though, events like this are the exception rather than the rule. Although retro gaming events like Play Expo are gaining popularity and becoming more frequent, they don’t reflect the true ‘arcade’ experience for most UK gamers today. I touched on this in my Play Expo preview, but aside from one or two VERY notable exceptions such as Bury’s Arcade Club, and Croydon’s Heart of Gaming, the traditional video game arcade as we knew it ‘back in the day’ no longer exists. As a case in point, I recently returned from a family holiday to the east coast of Yorkshire, and I always make a point of exploring every single amusement arcade I can find, just to see if there’s any old favourites lurking in the shadows. I should know by now not to hold out much hope on these little expeditions, but a combination of the bright lights and noise, coupled with a dose of good old nostalgia always means I get my hopes up, only to have them dashed within seconds of entering the building. Claw machines, slot machines, 2p machines and ‘games’ centred around winning tickets that you can redeem in exchange for cheap tat dominate these places. This year I managed to find a 2 player Sega Rally 2 cabinet that had serious issues with both screens, and completely knackered steering on car 2. I also found a very cool Ghost Busters pinball table which I sunk a few quid into (Note to self – I suck at pinball). But that was it. Aside from the odd Jurassic Park/Pirate/Transformers themed Raw Thrills machine (you know, the sit down cabs with the 2 guns mounted inside), there were no proper GAMES to play, old or new.
Now there is one big exception that I must mention. In the pretty but unassuming little seaside town of Bridlington, in the Forum arcade on the seafront, they have a full 4 car, 8 driver Outrun 2 cabinet. It’s humungous, with the rear end of 4 different types of Ferrari lovingly recreated in what must be almost full scale. It truly is a sight to behold, and to play it is a real treat. Outrun 2, in all its forms is one of the best driving games ever made (Yeah I said it. Fight me.) and being able to play it on a full size machine, face to face against other human beings, is one of the best times I’ve had in an arcade in about 20 years. I’ve not seen a full size setup like this anywhere else, so if you want to play it, make the trip to Bridlington, it’s totally worth it. (This article was in no way sponsored or paid for by the Bridlington Tourist Board…)
Anyway, moving on from the Outrun love-in, I know what you’re thinking – you’ve heard all this before, I’m just another old gamer saying “arcades used to be great, now they’re rubbish.” Which is partly true. But I also wanted to approach it from a slightly different angle. Now, the conventional wisdom says that the arcade was the place you went to experience games you couldn’t play at home, and that once home consoles caught up (and overtook) what arcade machines were doing, arcades as we knew them became obsolete. We didn’t NEED them anymore.
Now consider this: Of course we don’t (or didn’t) NEED arcades anymore, but whilst we look back and mourn the death of what was, for most of us, a place filled with amazing memories and pure, unbridled joy and excitement, perhaps we should look at ourselves and consider what role we as gamers played in the demise of the arcade. It’s easy to blame the inexorable forward march of technology and wave it off as something we had no control over, but perhaps it’s a little more complicated than that. Were we complicit in killing off the beloved video game arcade?
Look, of course the improvement in home console and PC technology was part of it, as was developers switching focus away from the arcade and onto bigger and more complex games for the home. But in our eagerness to throw ourselves into these new experiences, maybe we forgot about our favourite arcade down the road, or in town, or down by the seafront. We stopped visiting, and eventually, by the time we tore ourselves away from GTA3 or COD or flipping Fortnite and decided to venture back down there, back to that place where you first played Street Fighter 2, or The Simpsons, or whatever it was that blew your mind when you were a kid, it was either gone, boarded up, or just a hollow shell of what it had once been.
Instead of arcades, we now have online lobbies.
I’m not here to knock online gaming. I choose not to do it very often because A) I’m rubbish at most games and losing every time gets boring and B) If I wanted to be abused and shouted at by teenagers I’d pop into Croydon town centre rather than paying for the privilege on my PS4. I just wonder whether it’s yet another indictment of modern society that rather than leave the house and go and play some games with other people in person, a huge number of gamers would rather sit at home and compete against people online.
Again, I don’t want to criticise online gamers/gaming. That’s not what this is about. But you only have to look at the abuse people throw at each other online, and the toxic communities that surround some online games to see the difference between that and the arcade experience. I remember there being that one kid at the arcade who would beat everyone at SF2, but rather than shouting in his face and telling him I’d shagged his Mum, I shook his hand and quietly resolved to get better at the game. I’m fully aware that I’m sounding more and more like an old man (I feel like the music from the Hovis ad should be playing now…) but I just wonder what we lost by embracing online multiplayer gaming so readily, to the total exclusion of the arcade.
It might seem as though I’m trying to absolve myself of any blame by saying I don’t play online, but I’m not. I spent my time from the late 90’s through to the mid 00’s playing the likes of Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Metal Gear Solid or GTA 3, and if I wasn’t doing that I was sinking countless hours into the latest Gran Turismo or Pro Evolution Soccer. I was just as guilty of neglecting the arcade as anyone else, and by the time I realised how much I missed it, it was too late.
This isn’t me trying to retroactively change history, I know that the demise of the arcade was probably inevitable due to the advent of ever more powerful home consoles and developers changing priorities. It’s merely an opinion, and me giving voice to my personal regret that in forgetting about the arcade, the place that inspired and informed my love for gaming, I may have inadvertently aided in its downfall.
Epilogue: On the last Friday of my holiday, on that glorious Outrun 2 cab in Bridlington, I had a fantastic, good natured 1 v 1 race with a complete stranger, and thanks to my experience of the course from the PS2 version, was able to powerslide my way to a narrow victory. It might have been the sea air or the smell of fish and chips causing the endorphin rush, but it felt more satisfying to me than any online victory ever could.
If you enjoyed this and want to be kept updated on further editions in this series, please follow us on Twitter and/or Facebook. The Out Run 2 pic was donated by Ted, check out his arcade-themed blog here. The abandoned arcade machine pic is from this great article.