Rows and rows of pristine machines, clean, smelling of warm candy. Brightly lit, this place practically sings with the strange chimings of these arcane machines. They all wash together and create a beautiful song. This is a romantic place; stepping inside, you feel as if you're being greated by your closest friends. The memories are exquisite; endless summer days of carefree idling, saving up your pocket money for that fateful day, and wondering through the place in a magical daze. The variety is astonishing; a Super Street Fighter II Turbo machine in perfect condition, Galaga, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, Pac-Man, all the classics. And the new classics; Geometry Wars, Ikaruga, Alien Hominid, The Dishwasher. Each offers their own world of possibilities.
In my mind, this is my arcade. In reality, I turn on my Xbox 360, from the comfort of my sofa, and select a menu option to get to my arcade.
As Paul Walker would say, a lot has changed, bro. In this modern era, this so called seventh generation of video games, the complete shift of the medium from arcades to consoles is almost complete. Even the most stalwart pillar of the arcade experience is dying on its feet. Yes, arcades in Japan are starting to suffer. Sure, the current economic situation, the recession, the war economy etc., isn't helping, but it would take something monumental to kill arcades in Japan.
In Europe and America, they are all but resigned to the history books. British seaside towns may still offer the occasional Tekken machine, but most places one might expect to find video games is full of gambling machines, coin-op slots, poker and the rest. In the USA it's much the same; the malls, movie theatres and piers that used to be havens for bright eyed young video game fans are no longer what they used to be. Chicago may be the only city in the country with a thriving arcade scene.
As someone who has played video games almost their entire life, I can't help but feel sad about this. Ok, I'll admit that I'm too young to have actually played Super Turbo, and I'm fairly certain I've never been near a Space Invaders machine. But I still have sweet memories; I remember holiday camps that had entertainment centres, offering pool, darts, air hockey, and yes, shooting games. And then there was my sports and fitness centre, which featured a Killer Instinct machine. This technology was baffling to my eight-year-old self, not familiar with the workings of fighting games, although looking back that might be more down to Killer Instinct than it was to me.
But as sad as I feel about the decline of coin-op gaming, I can't help but feel that the alternative is much more comfortable. As someone whose a not a hugely social person, the idea of having a whole online arcade at my fingertips is very exciting. I love my arcade; I love the variety, the quality, and the fact that I don't have to go fumbling for a disc to play the original Soulcalibur, or Bionic Commando. Fallout 3 can live in my game tray for a full month, but I can still take a break to play some UNO or Age of Booty.
You also have to admire what systems like Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network and Steam have done for gaming; allowing creative minds like Jonathan Blow a simpler but clear and wide ranging base to distribute their smaller scale games. You don't have to print thousands of discs to be taken seriously as a game developer. This is a wonderful progression for the medium, and the fact that we have a greater variety of games on offer than our young selves would ever have thought possible is absolutely marvellous. And the fact that you pay a flat fee for games is probably a good thing as well; you're not punished for playing a game obsessively, and pumping coins is no longer necessary.
So what the arcade has become is, certainly in my opinion, something brilliant. But there's still something missing. My arcade is a good thing, but it can still make me feel a little empty. I still have that romantic image of the traditional arcade, but that quickly dissolves when I actually get there, and have that escapism breaking moment of pouring over menus to find a game I want to play. For some reason, the fact that this is called an arcade sticks in my throat a little. This is no arcade; this is a list.
But what's the alternative? Am I an isolated case, or do people still want the authentic arcade experience at home? Is it even possible to replicate the magic of the arcade?
Let's face it. Things die for a reason. It's called evolution - survival of the fittest. It's a good thing that you don't HAVE to ride your skateboard to the local arcade any time you wanna kick back and play some games. Home consoles made that possible, and by the generation of the Mega Drive/Genesis and SNES, it was becoming rather apparent that this was the future of gaming. The N64 and the PlayStation helped to cement it. The PlayStation 2 may have been one of the final nails in the arcade's coffin. But in this new age of digital distribution, arcade is a buzz word again.
Maybe we should be expanding on the idea more. What Xbox Live is attach a holy name to something that is unfortunately just a list of games. Sure, you could argue that since they're on your hard drive at all times, it is something approaching an emulation, but it does nothing to evoke the old spirit of their namesake.
What I have in my mind is a digital arcade. Take something like HOME, or the online lobby system for Dead or Alive 4. All our Xbox Live personalities now have avatars, so why not drop the avatar into a simulacrum of a classic arcade, with the dazzling lights, the whirlwind of noise. Let us stroll through the rows of beautiful arcade machines, and when we've settled on a choice, let us sit down in front of said machine, and zoom into the machine screen, thus loading the game. We could take it even further. Rather than play a flat fee of Microsoft Points for our arcade purchases, let us put in 50 points everytime we want to play, and when we die, we've got to reach for another 50 points. That would be the arcade experience come to life in the digital age.
But as wonderful as that made sound on paper, is that what people want? The current gaming mindset is one of either being too young to know the real arcade experience, or being old and cynical enough to not care. So do these people really want to be dropped into a mock arcade every single time they just want to play Worms or Super Contra? Maybe not. Couldn't it be a menu option, or even a service? Much like Amazon will offer you their prime subscription, you could buy an addendum to your Gold subscription. They could call it the "Arcade subscription pack". Pay Microsoft a small flat fee, and your arcade becomes, well, an arcade.
But this would require work on Microsoft's part to build in, and they wouldn't even consider it if they thought people didn't want it. Do people aside me really care about the Arcade Dream? Is this just a tacked on offering people games, or even counterproductive? Considering how many technological advances in the medium we have made this generation with things like online distribution, and considering how much further we can go with the promise of OnLive and full motion sensing technology, is this just a step back in the evolution of the platform?
So if replicating the arcade experience online isn't the solution, then the only other option is to bring back the real arcade experience.
As I said, there's a reason why things die out, especially in business, and it's because people don't want them. But perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to give up on the Arcade Dream. Sure, maybe the days of endless rows of arcade machines are all but over, but think about this - why don't have game stores have their own arcades?
Game stores are frequented by such a wide range of people, from the most hardcore lovers of the art to the clueless mum buying shiny toys for their children. But there's a common tie; an interest, and in many cases love, of video games. Even in our current economic situation, gaming stores are still doing good business, evidence of the recession proof entertainment industries. So it wouldn't be financially impossible for game stores to build in their own mini-arcades. Hell, it might even encourage business, as more people come to hang out at the game store.
What I can imagine is a corner of the store with coin-op game machines, old and new, with the range of games people want. Sure, the classic arcade genres of shooters and fighting games are musts, but why not have modern platformers like Braid there? Or even Portal?
But why stop at game stores. Think of all the other places that could have small arcades. Think of fast food chains. On my high street every single third tier purveyor of greasy artery clogging food has a gambling machine inside, but none have Pac-Man machines. Waiting for your Big Mac meal? Long queue to get your order? Step up to the machines to pass the time. It's been a long time since I've seen a cinema with a games machine. Can anyone give me one good reason why? I mean fuck, I was sitting in a hospital waiting room a week ago, didn't have my DS with me, and all I could think was how much better this place would be if there was just one little Street Fighter Alpha machine in the corner.
My point is, games are everywhere now. The mainstream everyday consumer is now a much bigger slice of the pie. Game adverts are everywhere. So why aren't video games everywhere? Is it so difficult to get hold of arcade tech? Do businesses really not realise the business potential of a working Virtua Fighter machine? Or is this just me dreaming my little pipe dream, hoping for a world that doesn't exist? And the more I think about it, the more I realise that even if my local cinema had a Galaga machine, would that actually make me go to the movies more, especially when I can turn on my Xbox and have a world of games a handful of button presses away? Would I really actually go to GameStation to buy my games rather than just get them from Amazon for cheaper, just to check out the coin-ops they have on offer.
The death of the arcade is a depressing one, but maybe it shouldn't be. Think of arcades in terms of vinyl or VHS tapes; technology made redundant through new advances. I don't have a longing for any of these things. Sure, you may get a better quality sound from vinyl, but it's a hassle to buy and set up. And I've had a working VCR in my bedroom for five years and I've barely used it. And yet I still long for the arcade experience. I can't be the only one, can I?
Even if the actual Arcade Dream is just that - a dream - I still think my digital arcade dream holds water. I mean, why not? It's already called an arcade. Would it be so much work to make my arcade into, well, an arcade? I think it would bring some extra magic to the experience, a hark back to my childhood memories of Killer Instinct. And I truly believe that I'm not the only one.