It's really hard trying to describe an old arcade from the eighties or nineties to someone who has never been in one...Sure, you can still get arcades nowadays, but they're either super-clean museum type places, those fairground types with 3 good machines or those buildings with a sea of fruit machines and one House Of The Dead cab in the far corner.....
But they're all missing the atmosphere of the proper old arcades. The ones filled with a smokey haze and the smell of fish 'n' chips, beer and sweat. The ones with the slightly soggy, sticky carpets. The ones with the Change Lady who hid behind her smoke-filled, probably-bulletproof glass booth, glaring at you as you asked her to change yet another pound note into ten pences, as if you'd just crapped in her cornflakes rather than potentially adding seconds to her life by preventing her smoking yet another cigarette.
None of which sounds very appealing...but then you had the games you see! A dazzling wave of light and sound! The beeping, shouting, flickering boxes of awesomeness that were competing for your attention and cash, sometimes taunting you with booming voices mocking your games playing abilities...
And when you added the weird mix of people you found frequenting these places, the arcade cake got it's icing! Tiny toddlers wandering around trying to reach the arcade cabs that were too high for them, and then finding those two-pence sliding machines or grabby-arm machines filled with teddies and getting very excited....teenage guys and girls who mainly hung out near the pinball machines, but occasionally came to prove their worth by beating you at a fighting game....scary looking drunk old men who hung out at the fruit machines and grunted something incomprehensible when you tried to get past them....the confused parents, searching hopelessly for their child who was only going to be ten minutes three whole hours ago, who'd popped back outside twice to ask for another pound but had since been sucked into some virtual battleground and was lost there until they defeated the game or died trying......
It was the weird juxtaposition of the slight disgust at the premises and the sheer enjoyment and spectacle of the video games that made these establishments so special...and so hard to try and explain to those who've never experienced it. I know most of you reading this will have, but for those who haven't, I just hope that you can find one of the very few remaining proper arcades that must still exist some place in the world. It's something everybody should experience at least once...
But yes, it was in these old arcades where I had my other formative experiences with video games...and they were so very different to the ones I could have at home! So lets take a quick look at the machines which impressed me enough to feed more than a few of my coins, and paved the path to my obsession with games nowadays...
SPACE INVADERS - (Taito 1978)
A game that really needs no introduction. It is one of the first I can remember playing though, and the impressive monsters on the side of the cab drew 50s-Sci-Fi-loving me straight to it the first time I saw it! There had to be at least two of these, or at least some sort of variant, in every arcade..and the sounds of the aliens advancing and your blaster blasting were always very prominent!
If for some reason you have no idea what Space Invaders entails (really though?), you basically just move left or right, avoiding bombs dropped by advancing aliens as you try to blast them out of the skies. Nice, simple gameplay that despite being very basic is somehow still very enjoyable!
BOOT HILL - (Midway 1977)
This actually predates Space Invaders, and is another of the very first games I can remember. You play the part of a gunslinger in the Wild West having a shootout with a similar soul on the other side of the screen, controlled by either the computer or another player. It's basically the great-grand-daddy of Call Of Duty, Halo or the likes multi-player modes.
The game is time based, so it's all about how many kills you can get within a default 90 seconds. Cactus plants will occasionally appear between you and your foe to act as sort of shields, and a second joystick controls the direction of your gun so you can try and aim past said cacti....
When you kill your opponent, or he kills you, the dead body floats up to the graveyard at the top of the screen, and the Death March plays....a feature I remember 5 year old me being really impressed by! The painted backdrop that the game uses mirror-trickery to stick the graphics on looks really nice too!
Pac-Man / Puck-Man - (Namco 1980)
Another one that everybody should know, so I won't waste much time talking about. Pac-Man was a game of firsts....First proper character, first cut-scenes, first power-ups, first crazy licencing deals.....and it was one of the first I ever played! Running around the mazes avoiding and then chasing ghosts really got the adrenaline pumping, and still does today. It was another one that was in pretty much every arcade ever, and it's many recognizable sound effects were essential in adding to that atmosphere I was talking about earlier! If you're totally weird and haven't played it, then you can even try it on Google nowadays!
CENTIPEDE - (Atari 1980)
Another classic that has you blasting centipedes that work their way quickly down the screen, occasionally changing direction or breaking into segments as they hit mushrooms which are dotted around or left by various other creepy crawlys... Annoying spiders will appear and try to dash themselves against your character sometimes too.
It's a frenzied game of quick reflexes, and one that I got quite used to playing with the trackball controls it uses. I remember filling the scoreboard with my name at one arcade! I tried it again recently at a museum exhibition and pretty much sucked at it though, so I guess I must have lost that skill...
I always wondered exactly what you control in Centipede...are you another insect that can spit bullets? Or are you a tiny spaceship fighting in a garden, or a normal sized one fighting giant mutant beasts in some spacy mushroom patch? Well, according to DC Comics and later ports to home consoles of the game, you're actually a tiny elf battling beasties brought to a frenzy by a wicked wizard! Here's a page from the DC comic (from 1983 and readable in full at Atari Age)...
STAR WARS - (Atari 1983)
This game blew my mind when I first saw it! It was the sit-down cab, so it felt like I was actually entering into an X-wing cockpit when I sat down, and then the impressive vector graphics were among the first 3D style ones I'd ever seen! Then the machine started yelling quotes from the movie at me! It even had the scrolling text at the start! It was like all those fake games you saw in early 80s movies had suddenly become a reality!
Weaving around in space, blasting waves of Tie Fighters was awesome, but it was a Death Star run that was so perfect in design that it's pretty much stayed the same in every game version since, that helped put this right at the top of my favourite games list back then!
The weirdest memory I have of the Star Wars cab, is the fact that I used to go and play it at Edinburgh airport...for some reason, when we got bored in the eighties and visits to other family members weren't an option. my dad would often drive us to either a nearby arcade in Dunbar, or to Edinburgh airport to watch planes landing or play the arcade machines they had in their lounge! That wasn't quite as weird as travelling about 50 miles to get a cheese roll at a favourite Northumberland cafe, which we'd also often do of a Sunday, but it still seems a bit odd when I think back to it. But yeah, going to an airport to play Star Wars seemed fitting somehow too! Hehe...
SPACE HARRIER - (Sega 1985)
I was nine when I discovered this thing, with it's smooth, third-person shooty-flying magnificence! The first time I found it must have been in 1986, because it was a later deluxe model that flung you around as you moved the joystick....you can see what I mean in the video below...but this was like an evolutionary step up from the Star Wars cab, and my mind was blown once again by being able to sit in what was, to me, an almost real spaceship that moved.....
Space Harrier is still an awesome game even without the cockpit, that sees you entering the 'Fantasy Zone', a checkerboard floored dimension filled with all manner of baddies and obstacles to shoot or avoid. When you smack in to something you let out a death cry and then the narrator tells you to 'Get Ready' for the next attempt.
The sound effects, groovy music and the feeling of properly controlling a spaceship were all amazing! But the graphics were also a step up from a lot of the other games I'd been playing, and it was around this time that games were beginning to look and sound like proper cartoons, which made me very excited for the future....
GHOSTS 'N GOBLINS (Capcom 1985)
This game had a huge impact on me, and was integral to making me want a home computer, as I was certain that I'd seen a home port somewhere! I'd played it at a seaside arcade, and spent all my money on trying to get as far as possible, eventually making it to the end of first level boss a few times...But I had no idea what the game was called, as I think it was the Japanese version I had been playing...so that made it very tricky to track it down when I eventually got a Spectrum a few years later!
Once again I'd find it hard to believe you'd never heard of it, but on the off chance you haven't, you play the role of Arthur as he goes on a side-scrolly platforming quest to rescue his beloved from an evil demon. The game is pretty bloody tricky, but suitably filled with enough zombies, demons and man eating plants to keep me interested in it. And here's a tip for new players....don't pick up the bloody fire weapon! In this or it's sequels! Maybe I don't know how to use it, but it just seems bloody useless to me.....
ROLLING THUNDER (Namco 1986)
Another side-scrolly platform game, where you play as a spy trying to rescue a female agent from an evil secret society called Geldra, who kidnapped her in order to fit in with all the various other game baddies in the eighties..(this might not be the actual reason, but it might as well be)...
Something about this just clicked with me, and although I could never get past the first level until years later when I was able to play it on MAME, it was a game I kept returning to again and again. Must have been the groovy spy music and the fact you can walk into doors in the background to replenish your bullets. I was a sucker for the little details! ;-)
OUTRUN (Sega 1986)
Ah, OutRun.....Playing this game was like going on holiday when you couldn't afford to go on holiday. Racing down the roads in your Ferrari with a hot blonde in the passenger seat, whilst listening to a selection of epic summery tunes that are still lodged in the heads of anybody that played the game back in the day.
The different routes you could take really added to replay value and kept you pumping in the pennies to see all the lovely scenery. It really is an awesome racer, and wasn't really bettered until, after many sequels, they finally decided they had a good enough game to call OutRun 2 in 2003!
I was lucky enough to squeeze myself into a sit-down OutRun cab not long ago at a museum exhibition in Edinburgh. It's still the best way to play it, and if I could have somehow smuggled it home with me I would have. Obviously would have needed bigger pockets though....(that's not me in the photo by the way...I dunno who it is, but they need to shift so I could have another go..tch!)
These next few games hold extra special memories for me, as they were all residents of a long closed cafe/amusement arcade called Lesuireland in Edinburgh. My mum used to take us there for a plate of chips every week and then leave us to play the games whilst she went round the nearby shops. It was here where my obsession with games really started to take hold, and though I'd frequent it for a good few years into the early nineties, it was these five games that held my attention to begin with...
GAUNTLET II (Atari 1986)
Now this game, with only Smash TV coming close, has swallowed more of my coins than any other arcade game ever! I would play this for hours, and have very fond memories of showing other kids exactly what to do to get through the levels quickly and see more for there 50p!
Gauntlet II found me at a time when anything to do with dragons, barbarians or fantasy-styled settings had me lapping it up! I'd recently started playing Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, and being able to go on quests where I could actually see the monsters and pick up treasure and boast about it on a scoreboard was awesome!
And the voice...oh my word, the voice!
"Blue Warrior is about to die!"
Never had I felt so much panic in game, as I rushed around trying to find that food I needed so badly!
I also have a bit of a Mandela Effect thing going on with this game though....I'm sure the voice was a lot clearer on the game I played than it seems on any of the retro packs this game is included in, or on the emulated version I've played on MAME...and I'm pretty sure I played it on a massive top-down, tabletop-type cab, with the player controls around the four sides...but I can find no existence of any such version online! So either I was another dimension at the time or someone's changed history, because I can't possibly be remembering it wrong can I?? No....*coff* `
ENDURO RACER (Sega 1986)
This was memorable for its full-sized dirt bike cab. Although essentially just the same as any other bike racing game in style, every now and then you'd reach a bump in the road that you needed to pull a wheelie on to get over. This required you to pull up on the handlebars of the bike and lift it up, doing a real wheelie to jump the bumps! As you can probably tell, I was a sucker for cabs that added that extra realism, so this was another game that ate a lot of cash!
OPERATION WOLF (Taito 1987)
This game couldn't have been more eighties if it tried! The first thing you noticed about this game was the massive Uzi bolted on to the front of the cab....then you watched a montage of a soldier getting kitted up for war, before the shout of 'Operation Wolf' while heroic music played!
The first-person viewpoint and crazy recoil of the Uzi really made you feel like you were taking part in your very own Rambo-style rescue! Nurses and hostages would rush across the screen as well as the baddies, and you had to take extra care not to mow them down along with the soldiers! Tanks and Helicopters could be destroyed by lobbing a grenade at them, adding some extra exciting explosiveness!
When you were about to die, this pulsing beep would start and your heart would get faster, making you enter panic mode as you tried to find the mysteriously-magic 'P-on-a-Bottle' to restore some health..which sounds weird if you don't have any clue what I'm on about!
Quickly becoming one of my favourites, Operation Wolf would also play a very crucial role in my eventual acquisition of a proper computer, but that's a story for Part 4 of my history! For now, talk of Operation wolf is finished...here! (*in joke alert!*)
RASTAN - (Taito 1987)
As I mentioned with Gauntlet 2, any game that had a fantasy element grabbed my attention when I was around 9 or 10, and Rastan was another one that impressed me enough to spend longer than usual with it. You play a rugged barbarian going on an epic quest, slaying chimeras, multi-limbed demons and lizard-men whilst navigating treacherous rivers, cliffs and fire-pits!
It's an awesome game, and testament to my love for it was the fact I continued to play it in Lesuireland, even though the joystick on their cab was broken, meaning you couldn't do the high jump required to get past a certain section of the first level! It wasn't until I found it in a random fairground that I was able to finally reach the castle, and move on to Level 2!
SHINOBI - (Sega 1987)
Although very similar in style to Rolling Thunder, and to a lesser extent Rastan, Shinobi was another one that really clicked with me. I loved playing as Ninja Joe battling his way through hordes of enemies, rescuing his master's young trainees from their kidnappers along the way!
The music was another thing that kept me playing, with it's suitably Ninja-esque tinklings filling my head long after I'd left the arcade. As did the ninja stylings in general, as I found myself buying shuriken throwing star toys to throw at my friends in playpark battles, instead of my usual fantasy swords and shields!
The big end of level baddie usually saw the end of my early tries at the game, but I remember finally beating him a couple of times and getting to the first-person, shuriken-throwing Bonus Stage and having no idea what to do! It seems quite weird that a lot of these games ate so much of my money when I only ever really seen the first level or two, but I guess that was just the way arcades went!
So that's just a few of the games that kept me busy before I got my own home computer...but there was one more crucial step before that eventuality came to pass! Playing games at my richer friends houses!! And it is that which will be talked about in part three! Coming soon-ish!
With thanks to The Arcade Flyer Archive, where I got the flyer pics from!