In a particularly grey and drab spot of West London sits Earl’s Court, one of England’s largest and oldest indoor arenas. Over the years it has been home to a massive variety of events, from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the 19th century, to Metallica gigs and WWE Smackdown in the present day. It’s a bit of a British institution.
Another, slightly less glamorous sounding show held there is ‘The Amusements Trade Exhibition International.’ As the name suggests, the ATEI is an industry expo in which various coin-operated machine manufacturers get to show off their wares to potential buyers.
Sadly, a quick search through the list of confirmed exhibitors for 2010 reveals that not one single videogame company will be present. Not one. Instead, tens of thousands of square feet will be taken up with air-hockey, fruit machines, pool tables and kiddie rides.
It was not always like this.
Back in 1989, the event was completely dominated by videogames, with just about every single manufacturer, including Sega, keen to show off their latest machines. It was an infinite sea of arcade games, with classic, stand-up cabinets, massive, hydraulic-powered driving sims and everything in between. Year after year, every new game of note from around the around world would be there.
The ATEI was, without a hint of hyperbole or exaggeration, a 10 year-old boy’s gaming nirvana. The holy land. And, in an act of unprecedented awesomeness that I am thankful for even 20 years later, Damian convinced his Dad to take us. We were actually going.
What’s more we were going on the Thursday, when all the exhibitors would be putting the final touches to their stalls before the influx of potential buyers the next day. With Damian’s Dad busy doing whatever it is Sega Europe V.Ps do, we would have hours of unfettered access, without queues or interruptions, to every single game on show. I honestly can’t think of a time in my life when I have been more excited.
The night before the show we stayed at Damian’s castle. Staring into the darkness, we whispered across the room until the early hours, alternating between hushed excitement for the next day and musing over what terrible accidents might stop us going.
– Maybe the car will break down…
– Or explode!
– Oh god yeah, it’ll blow up.
– In the car park as we arrive.
We simply couldn’t believe our luck.
Entering the massive hall was as intimidating as it was exciting; a cacophonous jungle of bleeping, blaring, flashing, strobing machinery. We didn’t know where to start. Each machine screamed louder at us, desperate to be heard over all the others. It was too much.
Thankfully, Damian’s Dad had arranged for one of his team to give us a guided tour of all the must-play titles at the show.
We saw a lot of games that day, many of which have since fallen to the back of my mind, collecting in a messy heap with a million other random arcade memories. But I remember one very, very clearly.
Led by our tour-guide, we were introduced to a spin-off game from some bizarre American TV show. “It’s going to be absolutely massive, a phenomenon. The American kids are nuts about it,” he said.
Damian and I shared a cynical look. The machine was splashed with an image of a questionable looking green thing and it had the most ridiculous name we had ever heard, the ‘Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.’
Heheh – silly Americans.
We played the game anyway, clicking the free credit button more out of politeness than desire.
We couldn’t have been more wrong.
Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles (Europe thought the word ‘Ninja’ would warp our souls), is of course, one of the most fondly remembered arcade games of all time – providing the blueprint for such massively popular beat-em-ups as X-Men and The Simpsons. Turn up to any battered, decaying old seaside arcade in England to this day and the odds are you’ll find one of these games sat in a corner, clinging to life among the fruit machines, Dance Dance Revolutions and sandy, trampled chips.
So we played through the entire thing, marveling more at the graphics and characters than the limited, slightly repetitive gameplay. It was just so bright and colourful, populated by bipedal hogs with guns, masked foot-soldiers, and the kind of samurai/ninja hybrid boss that made our young, kung-fu obsessed brains pop.
You could choose characters with katanas, a bo, funny fork things and even nunchucks! It should be noted that up to that point, British television removed nearly every nunchuck reference, most famously censoring the Enter the Dragon scene where Bruce Lee uses the weapon against some guards. Rather than block nunchucks from our consciousness, this treatment afforded them an illicit thrill that only served to make us more fascinated with them. Nunchucks were cool.
TMHT only has 5 levels, it isn’t a particularly long game. But in that old-school arcade way, it’s despicably cheap in it’s attempts to rob you of money. It was a good job we had free credits.
We died and died and died again until finally we beat the game, rescued April, and stumbled off to find something else. The whole experience can’t of been more than 30 minutes from start to finish, but it is something I will never forget.
Returning to school and boasting of my experiences brought the now familiar mix of scorn and disbelief. Because my school friends had never met Damian, they simply didn’t believe my increasingly outlandish stories. For a while they even took to calling him my “imaginary friend.”
They laughed even harder when I told them about the four pizza-loving turtles who talk and know ninjitsu.
Just a few short weeks later and the last laugh was mine. They had no choice but to believe. The turtles had indeed turned into the phenomenon the arcade man predicted, selling a crap-ton of merchandised tat and mesmerizing a million kids with their adventures. I was vindicated. Finally, they believed me.
But it wasn’t all good. Having such close links with Sega had certain disadvantages. The late Eighties saw the first Nintendo v. Sega console skirmishes break out in playgrounds across the world. War was coming, and at one small school in London, the Sega supporters had a reluctant leader.
(Chapter Four… Coming Soon)
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