Serotonin: The irreplaceable magic of the arcade

December 7, 2013


It’s an exciting time to be a video game enthusiast. Feelings of welcomed anxiety accompany insatiable fascination with the coming of new consoles. You want to read everything you can, while jumping up and down like a four-year-old discovering trampolines. Along with these feelings comes a tsunami of analysis, debate, competition, reviews and industry predictions. The “old” consoles and games will receive price drops, the new consoles will fuel the fire of internet flame wars and, here at Snackbar, we’ll talk and talk and talk about the Xbox One and PS4 until our throats are sore. New, new, new.

All major changes have consequences. Nothing exists in a bubble; new consoles are great for some, but what does it mean for the sector of the gaming industry that won’t immediately benefit? Will brick-and-mortar stores slowly fade away, as Blockbuster did? Will we see the death of the mid-range developer?

I steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that I can predict any future industry outcomes with any kind of certainty. I also choose to fondly remember the old, old, old. I come not to cry because it’s over, but to smile because it happened. Before a slew of handhelds flooded the market, before toy stores had game kiosks, arcades were the only place to enjoy your favorite hobby in a public setting. An institution of fun. A place where kids could lose their minds over the sheer number of titles available for them. Screens bigger than TVs at home. Games you could hit alligators with padded mallets. Magic.

To a kid, this was Vegas. The collection of flashing lights and colors was all designed to take your money. There was a smell to them, and side-stepping the obvious body odor jokes that always get glued onto the stereotypes of gamers, it was a wonderful smell. It meant you were free for a few hours. It gave you the permission to run around excitedly and pretend to play Golden Axe II, even though you ran out of quarters an hour ago. I’m sure the source was a combination of stale popcorn, dusty floors and an electricity bill that would bankrupt most families, but it didn’t matter.

You know the sound a crowd makes? Not one that’s cheering in unison, but a packed stadium before the game starts? How about an auditorium before a meeting, or a theater before the show starts? Not even Michael Winslow can imitate it. The thousands of murmurs, that infectious energy. Arcades had that, but add in dozens of theme songs, menu titles, digitized voices, alarms and enough whirrs and beeps to drown out any rational, constructive thought.


Victoria had a few video arcades, but the only one worth a second thought was Johnny Zee’s. Attached to the most popular movie theater in town, it was a mainstay of downtown entertainment for those who couldn’t drink alcohol but still wanted to make poor financial decisions. JZ’s used tokens, which allowed us the joy of hearing the endless distribution of them when some kid was lucky enough to have a 10 or even a mythical 20-dollar bill. As a result, 25% of all households in Victoria still have at least one Johnny Zee’s token hiding in a drawer somewhere.

Memories hold on with a vice grip. Embarrassing myself by playing Dance Dance Revolution (the game was right in front, so walkers by could pass silent judgment). Watching Andreas master After Burner, and my young self being too intimidated by the moving cabinet to even attempt the first level. The basketball game. (You know, the ones that you pretend you don’t love, but if you had one in your house you’d be playing it right now?) The “old-school” section was littered with classics and semi-classics: Pac-Man, Galaga, Badlands, Battlezone and Star Wars Arcade. For a quarter, the world was yours.

Many of us were exposed to Mortal Kombat for the first time. No board ratings to get in our way here! Mortal Kombat II came out, and we stood in awe at the high school kid who, impossibly, knew some of the fatalities. Even the ones that used the dreaded “up” direction. When the match finished, you’d see the victor frantically wiggle the joystick and slam down a combination of buttons that would have broken most controllers. Sighs from the crowd. No fatality here folks, move on, and….wait, did the screen just darken? Did….what’s Liu Kang turning into? Cheers and claps from the rabid video-addicted munchkins. Proclamations of grandeur. We witnessed a Bruce Lee-inspired fighter turn into a traditional Chinese dragon and eat a guy! How could I even process this?


Time Crisis 2. Air hockey. The 6-player X-Men cabinet. Johnny Zee’s had a lot of things going for it. When it took half the arcade and made it into laser tag, it became my favorite place to go. You had a gun, a battery pack and a ridiculously cheesy intro video. You even got to choose your music: Star Wars, Mortal Kombat or The Matrix. At the end, there was a printout of how you did. I’d like to think I was really good at it, but I really just enjoyed the weird neon lights, the possibly poisonous smoke and coming up with cool names that 10-year old me would have been proud of.

This was the place where I locked my keys in my still-running car for the third time. This was the go-to for birthday parties, each and every year. This was the place where you went to feel rich when you were 18. Fifteen bucks in tokens went a long way. This was where we saw mask-less Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat 3 for the first time, prompting Kasim to exclaim “Oh I have got to tell Josiah, he’s going to be so angry.” This was where I took my very first date, after taking her to see Space Jam next door. I was a real Casanova; what woman couldn’t resist Michael Jordan, Bugs Bunny and Battletoads all in one night? This was where Eric, Dobbo, Kasim and I attempted to beat Tokyo Wars when we didn’t even know the rules. I just remember sitting in my cockpit, hearing the announcer scream “pull out pull out” and “enemy to the rear!” I can’t help but think that they could have toned down the double entendres.

I can’t recall my first trip, but I can very clearly remember my last. Some friends and I came across a group of kids playing Soul Calibur II. I’d had the GameCube version for years, and terrorized my Bigelow roommates and Victoria friends alike with Raphael, the slightly-effeminate pretty boy with a long sword and one of the cheapest move sets in the game. Eric looked at me. “Henry. Henry. Go beat them.”


If I had any sense of maturity, I would have left the children alone. But where’s the fun in that? I stepped up; my presence inspired a quiet awe. How old was this guy? They knew I was cool because I was still playing games at my age, and I knew I was cool because a bunch of 12-year-olds thought I was cool. They didn’t stand a chance. Raphael shouted all his annoying mannerisms and I tried to remain humble in victory, but I doubt my comrades would agree. I don’t think I lost a round. I must have been nice enough because they invited me to a Soul Calibur II tournament at the arcade later that week. I didn’t go, and I don’t know why. Maybe I knew this was a great lasting moment: standing triumphant in a place that had housed so many incredible memories and visits.

Some arcades are still in business. Gameworks is great to visit, and it has the added incentive of allowing you to drink large mugs of beer while you play. It really is a great place to go with a group of adult friends. Odds are that every member of the group will like either drinking alcohol or playing games. Johnny Zee’s will always be the champ, though. It belonged to me, to all of us in Victoria who shared the passion. Hundreds of thousands of nameless faces had visited the grounds. Johnny Zee’s no longer exists, but I prefer to think of it as a holy shrine. A beautiful archive of what once was. A meeting place, a training facility, a barracks and a sanctuary.