The Mall Arcade
Like most kids of the 80’s and 90’s, I spent a lot of time in places with arcade games. There was Showbiz Pizza, Chuck E Cheese, and Putt-Putt Golf and Games. I also can’t forget playing Ms. Pac Man on a tabletop in Pizza Hut, driving Cruisin’ USA at Walmart, or the many quarters I spent in various gas stations and laundromats. It was a great time to be alive. If you had a few quarters in your pocket, you could probably find an arcade machine somewhere nearby to play. If you were lucky, you could even find someone able and willing to face off against.
I have fond memories of gaming in all of those places, but I wouldn’t consider any of them a hangout. They were just places I’d end up gaming for a few minutes at a time. I wasn’t particularly loyal to any of those locations because I already had my own arcade at the mall.
Armed with a pocket full of quarters and several crumpled one dollar bills, I was dropped off at the arcade by my grandmother while she spent the afternoon department store shopping each week. It acted as both a babysitter and a gateway into a world that no longer exists. A world of competition, trash talking, and being ripped off.
The bright neon pink sign was simple; it said “Arcade.” No corporate owners, no mascot… just “Arcade.” Take a trip with me as we tour a place from my past, the mall arcade circa 1993.
The first thing you notice when approaching the arcade is the sound. The change machines are cashing out and dropping quarters into the metal bins. The pinball machine flappers are going wild and the bumpers are firing off. You hear the sound of joysticks being abused and the erratic tapping of buttons. There is the thud of Skeeballs hitting the ramps. The rowdy laughter and cheers by dozens of children and teenagers, all celebrating and mourning their wins and losses. Then there are the sounds of the games themselves, the chomping of Pacman, the announcer from NBA Jam, the music of Street Fighter II, the Uzi from Terminator 2, and the roar of the engine in Daytona USA create a beautiful melody. The melody is backed by the other ambient sounds to create a symphony of fun. A sound you can never forget. (For added effect while reading, check out Arcade Ambience 1992)
Your senses have already picked up on all of that excitement and you haven’t even stepped foot into the arcade. Once you cross the threshold that takes you from a boring mall into the atmosphere of fun you notice how dim the room is. The majority of the light comes from the arcade game screens and the flashing lights of the cabinets and other games. A lot of light isn’t necessary and would drown out the colors on the screen, or worse create a glare off the glass.
On the left wall is eight pinball machines lined up side-by-side. Popular titles such as The Twilight Zone, The Addams Family, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Elvira are separated by unbranded machines that aren’t nearly as popular. If there are adults in the arcade, this is usually where you find them trying to set a new high score, feeding quarter after quarter into the machines. The flappers inside the pinball machines make the loudest noise in the entire arcade. It’s always loud standing near the pinball machines, but no one seems to mind. No one talks while playing pinball and everyone knows the unwritten rule to never bother someone playing pinball. It is the more sophisticated and trying machine that requires absolute concentration.
At the end of the line of pinball machines sits a change machine, a common sight in an arcade. Many of these machines take one dollar, five dollar, and sometimes even ten dollar bills and breaks them down into quarters. However, some locations exchange tokens for your dollars depending on how their machines are set up. Sadly, none of the machines will take nickels and dimes in exchange for quarters. I know the feeling all too well of reaching in the bottom of my pocket only to find a few nickels that are totally useless in the arcade. They are large enough to be mistaken for quarters and it’s extremely disappointing when you realize they aren’t.
Next to the change machines is a row of what I refer to as the “second tier” arcade games. These are the tried and true games that are still popular, although they may be a few years old. Games like Mortal Kombat will end up in this section once Mortal Kombat II comes out. Aerosmith’s game Revolution X always seems to be permanently installed in the “second tier”, and occasionally you’ll find a Vs. Super Mario Bros. arcade machine that really seems out of place. Everyone attempts this arcade game at least once, but soon after realize they can play the same thing for free at home, and move onto something better.
The left wall turns into the back wall of our rectangular shaped room. The back wall is furthest from the door, but that doesn’t mean the games are bad. The games along the back wall are the classics: Pac Man, Galaga, Centipede, and Asteroids. These games are always just one quarter to play, and despite being ten or fifteen years old they are still challenging and fun. Everyone reluctantly ends up against the back wall, and then loses themselves for hours. They emerge with a new appreciation of the classics, having officially been schooled in those games that looked so simple and archaic.
Curving around into the right side wall, we are greeted with the more physically active games. There is a basketball game, where the goal is to sink as many shots within a minute with over or under inflated basketballs. Next to the basketball game are the Skeeball machines. Surprisingly, Skeeball is the simplest of games, but also one of the most enjoyable. You always have a goal, since the top score is proudly displayed in red above the lane you are about to play in. Of course, sometimes there are some crazy high scores that were created by cheaters walking up the ramp or standing to the side and just placing the balls in the 100 over and over again. I hate those people, and I’m pretty sure there is a special place in Hell for them.
Another change machine is between the Skeeball lanes and the prize counter. The physical games like Skeeball, basketball, and sometimes football, award you with little red prize tickets. These tickets can be exchanged for the cheapest of the cheap toys like rings that look like spiders, an egg of slime, paper Chinese finger cuffs, kazoos, rubber bouncy balls, or candy like Warheads and Dots. On the wall behind the counter are huge stuff animals, video games, stereos, and other big ticket items displayed, that are there to encourage you to keep playing and save up your tickets. Of course, you’ll spend triple the money playing Skeeball to get a Super Nintendo than to just buy one outright. Still, we all glare up with stars in our eyes for a few seconds, before the urge for instant gratification kicks in and we exchanged our forty-five tickets for a rainbow bouncy ball and a stale white mystery flavored Airhead.
Right next to the prize stand is the main change/token machine area. This part of the wall is closest to the outside of the mall and contains six different machines to exchange your dollars for little metal tickets to video game paradise. There are so many machines to accommodate anyone new coming into the arcade and to also to provide backups in case the bright orange “Out of Change” light of doom is lit up.
So, where were the good games you ask? Well… those games like Street Fighter II, Terminator 2, NBA Jam, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, NFL Blitz, The Simpsons, along with the driving games like Outrun, Cruising USA, and Daytona USA are all set up in little circular pods across the center of the room. They are laid out this way to allow more room to play the bigger games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time, After Burner, and Lethal Enforcers, and to also provide room to watch. The popular games are always surrounded with a mob of people. Everyone will be jockeying their way to the front in an attempt to slap their quarter down to claim the next game. You can’t do that when the games are packed like sardines against the wall like the “second tier” section or where the classics are against the back wall.
These center pods are always the busiest. If you enter the arcade in a lull, you might see the classics, Skeeball, pinball, or the “second tier” empty, but you’ll never see the middle empty. Some games like Street Fighter II have people battling from the opening of the large metal grate at 11 AM till the closing of it at 9 PM. Unless you came on one of those very sad days, when the machines are out of order, it always has someone in front of it hammering out Hadouken after Hadouken.
This concludes our little tour of the mall arcade. Before you go, let me tell you about some of my favorite games.
I’m not any good at Street Fighter II. I can hold my own playing as E. Honda against the computer, but once you put me against a real life competitor, I’m done for. Mortal Kombat is my fighting game of choice. It appeals to me like most ten year olds, due to the violence and blood that you see on the screen. It truly is the most brutal game you’ll find the in the arcade or anywhere else for that matter.
The NBA is great right now, and so is NBA Jam. The game features disproportioned basketball players (and sometimes politicians and celebrities) facing off in a two-on-two battle with no rules, flaming basketball nets, and alley-oops from the top of the arena. If that wasn’t fun enough, the announcer makes comments throughout the game like, “Is it the shoes?” “Boooomshaklaka” and “Jams it in!”
Konami has mastered the four player arcade experience with the obvious choice for a four person co-op game in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. They also took that game engine and created the fantastic X-Men game which is the only place in the world that Cyclops is ever superior to Wolverine. Cyclops’ ability to shoot enemies across the map with his visor is way better than Wolverine’s close combat fighting style.
Konami also used that same game engine and created an unlikely hit with The Simpsons. Some genius thought it was a good idea to have Homer, Lisa, Bart, and Marge fight their way across levels and surprisingly it works, and works well! Like the X-Men game, the best character to play as in The Simpsons is not whom you’d expect, it’s Marge. Marge rocks a big vacuum cleaner she uses to clean up the enemies. Pun totally intended.
Crusin’ USA uses real life models to portray the girls waving the start and finish flag for each race. For us prepubescent boys, this alone is worthy of a few quarters. But Cruisin’ USA’s most unique feature is the ability to change the radio and pick the style of music you want to race with. I always go with the cheesy country/western station.
I can’t tell you what game is best, because it’s different for everybody. That dusty machine that nobody plays in the corner might be the game that brings you the most joy. At least while here at the arcade, if someone sees you playing that old dusty machine, and they like it too, they’ll probably come over and watch you play or challenge you. It’s an awesome feeling to get this face-to-face connection and is something that won’t exist in just a few short years.
So, take a look around.
Listen closely to the organized chaos that is the sound of an arcade.
Watch the flashing lights, the smiling faces, and the looks of determination, while you hear the laughter that fills the room.
Watch someone try a new game and fail horribly within seconds. Watch a young boy sling his first Skeeball up the ramp, and look at his face when the tickets start coming out.
Go hover near the pinball machines, and watch the pinball wizards at work. Just be sure to not get too close and tilt the table by accident.
One day, you’ll be older and you’ll walk by this space in this very same mall.
Gone will be the bright neon “Arcade” light.
Gone will be the change machines, prize counter, and games.
There will be no more laughter, smiling faces, nor looks determination.
In fact, there will be no evidence that an arcade ever existed.
Actual site of my childhood mall arcade as of August 2015
This article was originally written in August of 2015. Since then there has been a trend of “barcades” which are basically bars with some arcade machines. These machines are rarely ever real arcade machines, but rather arcade cabinets running emulators and in my opinion are a joke. It’s almost impossible to find an arcade that mimics the look and feel of a classic arcade, but in October 2017, I ran across one in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
I went to the Myrtle Beach Mall to check out Player’s Choice, a retro video game store that also sells comics, toys, shirts, and more. It was a very cool shop with lots of great things to buy, but what made this trip so memorable is that right next door to it was a full on authentic 80’s arcade called Warp Zone. There is an entire room filled with 80’s arcade machines that only cost a quarter to play. It has the arcade carpet and is lit by black light. It’s not perfect, but its the closest I’ve come to a real arcade in twenty years. I took a few pictures inside this magical time warp and my wife took one of me inside which she claims that it’s the most authentically happy she’s ever seen me. I have to agree.