Buried Arcade History #1 here
Once again I’m back with more “lost photos” from national newspapers that I often find while I’m conducting research. For a while there I felt that, surely, the well would run dry, but that hasn’t been the case at all. With every new cache of newspaper archives I begin leafing through online, and with access to thousands of collections, I keep finding more and more barely seen and seldom remembered images from a time when wizards roamed and the arcade was king.
As usual, these images summon numerous memories for me, some glorious, others bittersweet, but all from a time I grew up in, one that’s no longer with us. So I’m thankful for the luxury of rediscovering that world, if only in faded, old newspaper photos, and feel somewhat blessed that I can share a glimpse of that with others.
I hope you enjoy them as much as I did finding them.
It’s Like Walking on Air
Two Pac-Man arcade games sandwiching two Centipedes is pretty rad. You also have a Defender off to the right and –check it out– a change kiosk conveniently close by. But what really catches my eye here is the carpet. Folks, these two vidiot’s wearing Nike Bruins are standing on some luxuriously plush 1982 SHAG CARPET!
I’ve never seen shag carpet in an arcade in my life, and don’t believe I ever saw it in The 70s, either. It just wasn’t done due to the heavy foot-traffic as shag would’ve been highly unsanitary, attracting and holding onto all kinds of ungodly arcade funk. People smoked in arcades back in the day, people. They spilled soda. Spit out Bubblicious, “the ultimate bubble”, and god knows what else came in on the soles of their shoes ala “I just mowed grandmas’s lawn and there was dogshit…” . Arcade carpeting was almost always the flat, napless water-resistant kind commonly used in movie theaters and shopping malls.
But I have an explanation: Perhaps this corner of the arcade may have been an office area at some point before it made the transition to arcade. Hard to say, but during the boom of the arcades (1978-1983), which took place during one of America’s worst economic depressions, everything from used car dealerships to short-lease office rentals gave up their former floundering businesses to cash in quick a quarter at a time on the coin op video craze. In 1981, arcades tended to open up over night with as little build-out as possible just to keep abreast of the competition that was usually opening up across the street. They closed down just as quickly, too. Between 1981 and 1983, the average life-span of a street location arcade was only 8 months.
Star Fighters and Neon Knights
It’s difficult for the teenagers of today, who play massive multi-player games in enormous sandbox worlds, to think that single-player coin op games ever commanded an audience. It’s not folklore. They did….however, briefly. Crowds, screams, chanting, fame, girls, summer jobs at game major companies -the whole nine yards.
Between 1979 and 1982, competitive arcade gaming took America by storm before fading out at the end of the year in 1984. During that short five years dreams were dashed and heroes were made every single night and weekend in American arcades upon space shooters like Asteroids, Defender, Robotron, Stargate, Galaga and many others. Those young men’s faces in the photo above sum up perfectly the emotions and tensions that continually revolved around competitive arcade gaming in The 80s, as well as the brotherhood and connection to each other that formed through the love of a game.
Northgate Mall, Blaine Minnesota 1982
This photo of an average mall arcade, taken during the mall arcade craze, is special for one reason. It’s one of the few images I’ve ever found of The Great Escape arcade at Northgate Mall in Blaine, Minnesota, the place I was told GG.Allin, 80s punk rock trouble maker, was kicked out of in 1985 (some claim 1987) for taking a piss on Atari’s Space Duel (1982) then punching it after it ripped him off. That’s Atari’s Space Duel on the right in the photo and there appears to be another alongside it. Could this be an actual photo of one of the games?
For the record, I can’t substantiate anything on this rumor being anything but hearsay, however I first heard the rumor back in 1995 from Tim Yohannan of Maximum Rock and Roll Magazine, a man who didn’t bullshit, long before it was repeated again in 2016 by a member of the press. So who knows?
To the left in the photo is Sega’s Monaco GP (1980) environmental cab, or “sit down cab” as some people like to call them. This same article has a lovely photo of a young woman playing this very game at the same arcade.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
This doesn’t look like much, but you’re looking at evidence of one of the darkest moments in arcade history. It’s one few know about and even fewer talk about even if they do know it: The US Military once stalked and patrolled arcades, looking for fresh and naive recruits and they weren’t entirely ethical about it, either.
Between 1980 and 1984, Navy, Army and Marine recruiters, much like the pedos who also combed the place, trolled arcades looking for young male recruits who were mastering technically difficult games like, Stargate, Defender, Phoenix and Robotron -games that showcased players who had exceptional linear spatial skills and targeting prowess. It was believed by the military at the time, who had used video games for special training and even worked with Atari and Midway, that certain games honed certain skills applicable to successfully operating combat machinery.
Many of these recruiters used methods of enticement (read:entrapment) that were highly unethical, such as buddying up to teens by buying them food, loaning them money, paying for games or using attractive young female recruits and personnel as bait to seduce teenage boys into thinking joining the military might make them attractive to the opposite sex. Other recruiters promised young arcade aces positions as tank commanders, fighter pilots and missile commanders although they had no authorization to make such promises or assign such positions. They’d say and do anything to get the young men enlisted. They even told them they could play arcade games in the military, that certain branches had arcades on base or on ship….which was true.
Many Navy ships and Army bases had arcades on board or on site for personnel to play on breaks and downtime. That is a fact. So recruiters weren’t lying when they told prospective recruits that small piece of information. But it was no fair exchange for a young man’s freedom, one he often never realized he was signing over to the military until it was too late.
One good thing about arcades closing down (although it’s one of the only ones I can think of) was that recruitment hunting grounds died with them.
The Face of a Master
This photograph of the late, great Jeff Downey (1964-2005), one of the earliest players to master Robotron, Stargate and Defender, was a delight to find as I had never seen a photo of him before. I was lucky to find two.
Contrary to a modern view that holds that patterned platform arcade games, like Donkey Kong and Mario, are gauges for greatness in 2018, that wasn’t the case in 1982, when Mario Bros and Donkey Kong were thought of as “kiddy games” and, sad to say, “uncool” if one were claiming competitive status on either. Billy Mitchell, as people finally figured out yet all of us “old school vidiots” knew all along, was full of it. He was never “famous” in The 80s for playing Donkey Kong. If he’d played Defender or Robotron he might have been. But he didn’t have the skills to.
In 1981-1984, the expectations for competitive excellence were much, much higher than most people realize today. Aces, that is people, mostly young men between the ages of 13 and 22, who desired greatness, national attention and the street cred that came with it, played “shooters”, space-themed man against machine games which required fast gunning and even faster maneuvers in order to stay alive, sometimes in excess of 12 hours on a single quarter. Both Robotron, Stargate and Defender, all exceedingly complicated, exhausting and difficult to master games, were universally known as being the only games that could determine who an “ace” was. If you wanted to be known as a “pro” or a “champ”, prove yourself as a man, or even be taken seriously as an arcade competitor, you had to be able to maintain a high score on those three games. Downey had no problem.
As Downey states in the February 1983 article that I found his photo in, “Donkey Kong…Pac-Man…there’s no challenge to them.” Although I slightly disagree with him, as pattern recognition and the point-pressing strategies used in both Mario and Donkey Kong are undeniably hard-won skills, his statement sums up the universal attitude in 1983, that held that certain games were viewed as being beneath a “space shooter” champion’s taste. It wasn’t respected until Billy Mitchell and Twin Galaxies remarketed it –and history– as such in 1999. (That’s another story for another day)
Downey died in 2005 from injuries sustained in a car accident. He was only 40-years old. His contributions during the evolutionary years of competitive gaming, like all of the other early competitors pre-1999, were contributions only recently recognized as being critical moments in organized gaming history. He will not be forgotten. Long Live The Originals.
Hercules pinball, designed by Steve Bicker and released by Atari in 1979, was beyond an adventurous move. The pinball was 8 feet long and almost 3 and half feet wide. We’re talking MASSIVE. It used a cue ball as a pinball. I’ve only seen one in my entire life.
As much as people like to dismiss Hercules pinball as being ugly and cumbersome, in a world where uniformity and copy-catting/remakes seem to be the “standard of excellence”, I think that anytime something appears from outside the box it should be celebrated no matter the era or decade. Atari had the balls, and apparently the biggest ones of all, to make Hercules at a time when taking chances with pinballs was risky at best.
Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
Out of all the photos I have found forgotten in old newspaper archives, photographer Mary D’Anella‘s are one of my “Top Five” favorites. Although I’ve found only five or six, her work with The Philadelphia Enquirer had to have been prolific as it’s difficult to believe that someone who could pull such emotion out of her subjects would only leave a small catalog behind. Her work bears the hallmarks of a career photographer.
Whether it be a brooding shot of a lone teenager playing pinball in a dark and graffitied room, or two women on a lunch break posing proudly with Ms. Pac-Man, a game they obviously felt belonged to women, her work captures quite perfectly the images of the arcade that others often missed. Many of her photos are of women, both as players and as arcade operators, those “unicorns” that gaming historians still insist weren’t part of arcade history despite the fact that there exists thousands of photos that prove otherwise.
Until next time, may all your quarters be red ones…