Filed under: Features | Tags: A Youth Well Wasted, Bitmob, gauntlet, Outrun, salamander, The Empire Strikes Back
Like many others, my videogame education began in the sticky-carpeted, cigarette encrusted locals of the bowling alley. Thanks to my Dad, evenings, weekends and just about every spare second we had was spent at the local lanes. As a result, I was presented with two ways to occupy my time; join the questionably-shirted community of bowlers, with their funny shoes and bizarre wrist-supports, or lose myself in the glowing embrace of the arcade. I chose the latter.
I wasn’t the only one to be seduced of course, there was a gang of us; wary of each other at first, then offering advice over a shoulder, then chatting and sharing tips. Before long we were inseparable, the kind of friends you didn’t have to say hello to, you would just carry on the conversation from last night.
Salamander, OutRun, The Empire Strikes Back; I dread to think how much money we stuffed into those cabinets over the months and years. But it was never enough, every coin was of infinite value.
Gauntlet, that cash sucking leach, was tantamount to theft, slowly ticking down your health until you slipped in some extra coins. Luckily for us we discovered a way around the problem that didn’t involve superhuman gaming skills. Thanks to a dodgy slot, two penny-pieces could be stuck together in a rough approximation of a pound coin and slid in just the right way to fool the sensor.
Four of us would cram elbow to elbow around that blaring cabinet, its blistered plastic skin scarred by stubs and sticky from spilt slush puppies. We’d scream at the fool that let all the ghosts out too early, laugh at whoever had to be the Valkyrie and swear loudly in unison whenever the dreaded Death made an appearance, all the while topping up the machine with our makeshift coins.
Of course our subterfuge didn’t last long.
Every week the arcade attendant made his rounds, checking the slots were still working and emptying the coins into his bucket. During this process, Bucket (that’s what we called him) would open up the cabinets and check the microswitches in each machine, a process that involved adding free credits. If he was in a good mood he would smile to himself and leave the credits for us, but if he was in a bad mood he would reset the machine and trudge back silently to the office. He was a God, of sorts. To us anyway. His very whim could decide the happiness of our day.
When Bucket eventually opened up Gauntlet to find a sticky mess of pennies and chewing gum jamming up his machine, it didn’t take a genius to work out who the culprits where. We didn’t get free credits for a long time after that.
He became a friend of sorts in the end, the arcade attendant. I think he saw that we weren’t bad kids really. Never did find out his real name though, he was always Bucket to us.
This isn’t the first article to get all misty-eyed about arcades, nor will it be the last. To some of us of a certain age, the arcade wasn’t just a place to play games; it was a place where friends were made, where you met girls, where you had your first rank puff of a cigarette. So when we bemoan the death of these spaces, it is not just the passing of arcades we lament, but the passing of our childhood. Those dark grubby rooms will always have a special place in our heart.
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