Filed under: Features | Tags: A Youth Well Wasted, Afterburner, Alex Kid, Altered Beast, Bimob, Bitmob, Genesis, Master System, Megadrive, Outrun, Phantasy Star, Sega, Shinobi, Space Harrier
I spent my youth, from the age of 9 to 13, in arcades. These noisy, bleeping, blaring rooms, with their cigarette stench and grotesque carpets were the scene of many a friendship. But one lives strongest in my memory.
Damian was utterly different to the rest of us, with an awkwardness and poshness that set him apart. He was an outsider and I liked him all the more for it.
Despite his real-world clumsiness, Damian was possessed of Herculian gaming skills. In an age where videogames simply weren’t supposed to be completed, Damian could conquer Outrun with a single credit and reach levels in others that we had never seen before.
While I had taken Damian’s skills as natural talent, the truth was far more intriguing. But it wasn’t until I accepted an invite to his house that I learned exactly what his secret was.
I had never seen anything like it. Approaching the house meant driving down a long, rhododendron-lined driveway. From where I sat in the back of my Dad’s car, it was more like a road. It twisted and turned forever, eventually opening out into a large courtyard in front of what I can only describe now as a mansion. But to my 10 year-old mind Damian lived in a castle.
Stepping inside revealed the reality to be a little less glamorous than I had expected. The entrance – high-ceilinged and larger than my entire house, was dark and cold, it’s floor scattered with a hotch-potch of dog-eared carpet tiles.
Damian’s real Dad had separated from his Mum years back and though they lived comfortably, the huge, cavernous house was now mostly shut down. To heat, light and carpet was either too expensive or too wasteful for Damian’s Mum to consider. Instead, rooms and entire floors fell into dusty disregard.
But one spot in particular was far from neglected. Dark and damp like much of the rest of the building, it came alive at the flick of a switch, exploding with light and noise. Damian had his own arcade.
In one corner stood Shinobi, in another Afterburner, and along the back wall were Space Harrier, Altered Beast and Outrun. Each machine had two wires poking out where the coin slot should have been. All you had to do was flick them over each other and a free credit was yours.
I must have stood there silent and gawping for a full minute. It was heaven. If angels had of descended to play a magisterial fanfare, I wouldn’t have been surprised. This was the reason that Damian was so good at all those games. He had his very own Arcade.
From that moment onwards it was impossible to drag me away from the room. I’ve since had plenty of weekends slip by thanks to videogames, but for the entirety of those two days I was glued to those cabinets. We both were.
Despite the fact that they were Damian’s machines – and he had obviously played them to death – he shared my unending enthusiasm. The few hours we spent powering our way through the entirety of Altered Beast were the most fun I’d ever had. We shouted, insulted and jostled each other all the way to the end. If it wasn’t for the unlimited free credits, we would have spent the equivalent of a month’s pocket money just on that final Rhino boss. It was glorious.
At the time I was unquestioning, credulous even. But now I realise that Damian didn’t get to share his arcade with friends often, perhaps ever.
Beyond that, there was the question of why Damian had an arcade. I had, of course, put it down to the fact that he lived in a castle and was obviously fantastically rich. This was partly true, but there was another reason.
His Dad was the Vice-President of Sega Europe.
This was an important period for Sega. Just before the release of the Megadrive/Genesis, with a string of the very best titles to their name and a certain blue hedgehog on the horizon, the late 80’s / early 90’s saw them at the very top of their game.
This was the dawn of the golden age. And my friend’s Dad was at the centre of it all.
Damian never announced this to anyone at the arcade, nor did he confide in me about his Dad before that day. For somebody so unpopular among my group of friends, it could have been his ticket to stardom. But he obviously wasn’t interested in that.
It could have been that Damian didn’t want to be used for his arcade or his games, that he didn’t want a kind of false Richie Rich popularity, but I don’t believe he was that reflective about the situation. He merely acted as if everyone’s Dad was Vice-President of Sega Europe. It was one of the things I liked about him, he was utterly without ego.
I met his father not long after that first visit. I can’t really remember what he looked like, other than a vague impression of height, but I do remember that he bought a large carrier bag with him. Inside, much to the delight of his son – and to the almost apoplectic joy of his son’s friend – were a pile of Master System cartridges. Judging by Damian’s collection, this wasn’t a rare occurrence.
No doubt there was a little divorcee’s guilt that went along with these pressie-laden visits, and I’m sure that Damian would have swapped them all (well, some of them) for the permanent presence of his Father, but none of that occurred to me at the time. To me Damian was the luckiest boy in the world.
Often, the cartridges in those bags were just boards, the naked innards of games fresh from Japan, unmarked and bursting with unknown worlds and adventures. Alien Syndrome, California Games, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and the mind-blowing Phantasy Star (with a battery inside so you could save!). We devoured every last one.
But the perks didn’t end there. Damian had a Megadrive weeks before its European release. When I first saw it, it took a similar form to those boards. Shorn of its plastic casing it was an impossibly cool vision of the future, a miniature city of transistors, switches and capacitors. A beautiful machine capable of sights and sounds I had only dreamed of, it even said “Sayyy-Gaaaa” in that sing-songy voice when you turned it on. I was so jealous.
Immediately upon returning home, I took a screwdriver to my now hopelessly outdated Master System. When my parents walked into my room to see me gleefully playing Alex Kidd on a stripped console, surrounded by screws and twisted plastic, they went nuts. Master Systems weren’t cheap. I was grounded for a week.
Rushing back to school to report the news bought problems too. Nobody believed that my friend, a boy they had never met, had such a cool Dad. Why would they? The previous week I had told them that my father was an RAF fighter pilot. My credibility was shot.
But the last laugh was to be mine. The next summer presented an opportunity to give irrefutable evidence of my tenuous link to such awesomeness. It would also bring the coolest perk Damian’s Dad’s job ever gave us, and the very best day of my very short life.
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