No matter the hundreds of photographs from The 80s arcade craze I’ll see in a month (not to mention the tomes of text I’ll read) there’s always a handful that will instantly grab my attention and evoke various emotions and sensations in me –all good. They’ll make me smile. Sometimes they’ll make me cheer. There are those that have even made my eyes sting with the approach of tears because I remember…god, I remember when….
Well, you get it. They move me. They remind me of a time when I was young and the world around me, including my future, felt like a video game; only a blur of action in the peripherals, but in front of me, a wide-open, illuminating horizon.
That there are so many images -millions, actually- taken during the video craze is a comfort in that at least I know there exists a supreme public record of the era. But the downside of this is that none of these images and/or articles are easily accessible unless one pays for at least one subscription service because the vast majority of these images are held in retail-research archives, like Newspaper dot com or one of the many other pay research sites.
The other downside is that the physical copies of these photos, once preserved and cataloged at newspaper offices across the nation, have been to a large extent lost, either sold piecemeal at online auctions on eBay or were tossed long ago into dumpsters when newspapers purged their storage houses. Quite literally hundreds of thousands of images from a time that will never occur again are gone with only their grainy composite remains to be found in newspaper archives or on library microfiche. But at least it’s something.
The highest concentration of remaining video craze photographs taken between 1978-1984 are captured in the almost forgotten archives of online subscription newspapers. That these brief segments of arcade glory lay virtually interred in the scanned pages of a newspaper-grave never fails to chill me. They remain only by accident, human interest stories of arcade happiness scattered among the dark, dystopian realities of Reagan and The Cold War Years’ psychological “cushioning” if you will, just so you didn’t feel like going out and killing yourself after reading “the paper”. The kids are happy. Good. I feel better. But don’t look to the sky, man…here comes The Soviets.
Sometimes I find myself studying the faces of the people in the photos next to the games or the ones milling around the arcade. They’re usually young teenagers, just as I was back then, examples of American naivete and valor rolled up in a fuse so hot that any new interest could ignite it with a single spark. The 80s was an age of unending successive fads…except one. Video games. That was no fad. Falling in electronic-love was never a passing fad as much as people today want to claim it was.
It was love at first sight; a light that suddenly flashed on with no warning in our hearts, souls or whatever that thing is inside all of us that beckons us to someone or something; a thing that instantly erases the loneliness and struggles we faced as awkward teenagers by replacing all that with a single sensation bigger than the heartbeat in our bodies that reminded us we were alive. Whatever it was, love, lust or something more psychologically complicated that only science can explain and poets can agonize over, once the electronic-connection was made with us and the light on the game came on, nothing could ever revert us back to who we were before that connection happened. The change video games made in our young lives and how we viewed our future alongside them was permanent. In many ways we became one.
My generation, 40 years later after Space Invaders, are still playing video games. We’re still in love. We’re still on. The fact that there’s the latest PS4 Slim next to various other consoles, past and present, and over 60 full-size classic arcade machines in my home is proof of that. My love for arcade and video games and the art they represent is a love that will never die or be replaced by anything.
I suppose I dwell on the cultural history of the arcade days because, as I’m already aware of, the mind’s preoccupation with dwelling on the sentimental past is just the hearts way of searching for a way back home. I’m like E.T. trying to phone home, I guess. I don’t know. Chances are it’s true. It feels about right. I do know that if a Time Machine landed in my back yard right now I’d definitely hop in and turn the dial back to 1981.
I also know I would never come back.
Pac-Man Claims A New Victim
The Pac-Man frenzy of 1982 wasn’t seen by all citizens as being a good thing. To some parents, religious leaders and city councilmen video games, and specifically Pac-Man, was panned as a coin-op scam designed to prey upon unsuspecting children. Pac-Man, as well as many other video game arcade titles, were accused of promoting truancy, drug use and being tools that were grooming children to grow an appetite for gambling.
It was all a lot of puritanical nonsense, of course. But the anti-arcade attitudes stuck, resulting in various ordinances, curfews on minors, limited hours and zones of operation, exorbitant operating fees and taxes that inhibited most arcades from maintaining any degree of profitability. By 1984 one in three privately owned street location arcades had no recourse but to close down, including the famous and much reported upon Twin Galaxies arcade, formerly located in Ottumwa, Iowa.
Pulling An All-Nighter at a 7-11 Never Looked So Cool
Beginning at 6PM on January 15, 1982, six teenage guys proficient at kicking it hard on Atari Asteroids played the game on one quarter -a single play- for over 48 hours just for the hell of it.
Although marathoning Asteroids is recognized by a few as having been a nationwide craze in 1980, group marathons are something modern historians have either entirely forgotten about or didn’t realize ever happened at all. I’ve always found that odd. How could anyone living in 1980-1983, and having been anywhere near a thriving arcade, not know that something this big occurred? Not just Asteroids, either. Pac-Man was often marathoned. Defender and Stargate, too.
Between the Summer of 1980 and the Winter of 1983, 242 marathons on Atari’s Asteroids arcade game had been noted by the press with over 1/3 of those attempts being mastered by groups….meaning more than one player involved on a single machine. That’s a lot for the decades of historians to miss, forget about or dismiss as unimportant, and especially since the early formations of competitive gaming derived from early arcade games being used for endurance-related attempts performed live in public.
Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have been sipping on a Slurpee and munching a bag of Doritos while this historic attempt went down. This photo represents the very first time a group of more than two marathoned an arcade game for over 48-hours in a place that was open 24 hours to the public. It’s rad.
Trying to Be a Sport While Knowing The Game is Already Over
He’s trying to be cool, but his frustration shows. See the guy standing just off to the player’s left? That’s the local champion who held the highest in-house score on Stargate at the time. He’d always been “the ace” at this particular arcade, too. Rainbow Games in a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA. He knows he’s about to lose his top position -and his reputation with it- to the guy playing the game because the press is there. He’s struggling be a “sport” about it, too, acting like he doesn’t care as he watches another guy take his record out of commission. He doesn’t want to look like a sore loser so he masks it all with a tough guy stance he might have learned by watching episodes of Starsky and Hutch. Meanwhile his heart is pounding and he’s hoping he looks composed. The photograph records otherwise.
This grainy specimen is one of the only photos I’ve ever seen of memorable competitor, Todd Bucher, age 19, from Bethal Park, Pennsylvania, taken on August 5, 1982, the day he decimated the national world record on Williams Electronics, Stargate (1981). On a single play\one quarter Bucher propelled the game forward to score 18,200,000 points in just an afternoon, slaying the previous record of 16, 100,000 points which had stood for some time.
Given that Stargate had only been released to the public for less than 9 months, Bucher’s scoring was extraordinary in that thousands of others across the country were trying to beat the same score. Bucher also stands as an example of how quickly some 80s kids mastered the newest and most complicated “shooters” of the decade. Statistics at the time aren’t available, but from personal experience as an observer over the years I’d surmised that out of 100 players on any game only 1 will out-perform them all.
Todd Bucher was one of those guys.
The Little Defender
He may be small but he’s a killer…or at least he’s going to be. According to the article he already held 14 of the 16 high score slots on the game the day this photo was shot. That the game had only been out for around 6 months and this guy is already dominating it is astonishing. His initials -TNT- made sure everyone knew who he was, and they most likely did. If he wasn’t hogging the machine he was probably taking your in-house scores down daily as soon as you set them. Arcades swarmed with guys like this. Hot shots who were good at a lot of different games.
Note how he’s holding the joystick. He’s not toggling it between his thumb and index finger like most people do. He’s got it gripped tight in his palm, fingers curved under the knob, holding onto to it HARD. That’s because he’s not planning on toggling it up and down leisurely as he sails through “space”. He’s slam-driving that thing up and down. Same with his “button-hand”. He’s not “two-finger tapping” like most people do. His hand is flat on the FIRE button, banging away, alternating between it and the THRUST button. This guy made A LOT of noise when he played Defender, and if that game wasn’t leveled correctly, it would rock from the force of his exertions. Operators back in the day used to shove pieces of folded over carpet under the front of games, like Defender, because of the way hardcore competitors played them. The carpet kept them from being rocked out from the wall. Aces could be exceedingly rough on games and often were.
I love the way the guy sitting on the pool table holding the Pepsi can, waiting his turn, looks dead bored. He knows he’s in for a long wait. TNT’s in the house.
Two Walls and One Big Window
So much win in this photo.
First off, it’s Space Port, a mall chain of arcades that really exemplified the way an arcade should look. Second in design only to Time Out, Space Port was known for having consecutive “walls” of games, meaning a run of 3 or more of the same title stacked up alongside each other. In the photo above you can see “a wall” of Atari’s Dig Dig and Konami/Sega/Gremlin’s Frogger. This just screamed “awesome” when you saw something like this.
Then as a bonus, it’s dark and with the kind of overhead rack-lighting that made you feel like glowing beams were softly engulfing your head. Remember that feeling? Arcades today don’t do that. They over-complicate their lighting, add a lot of flashy stuff and peripheral lighting that often pulses, flashes or moves, stuff that’s really not needed and greatly detracts from the light emitting from the games themselves. It’s an arcade. Not a Disco. Tony Manero isn’t showing up for a game of Space Invaders on his way to the Odyssey, trust me, although he may John-Tra his ass around your rotating L.E.D. pornfest of “lighting effects” if he did see them. Just sayin’… less is more. Let the games light the way.
Back to the photo, I love the age range in this, too. You have a couple of little kids around seven-years old and a teenager in a “Where’s Waldo-looking” shirt, popular in 1982, getting some game on. Two different ages of kids. One pastime. Just ahead in the distance, around another corner, you can just make out some guy at Stargate. This is a perfect snapshot of the “mall gaming scene” in 1982. An Orange Julius and Hotdog on a Stick seem to be a single blink away.
How I wish it was so.
In the future more BURIED ARCADE HISTORY will be published.
Until then, may your quarters always be red ones.