LA Daily: A Gamer’s Arcade Memories

This Week's LA Daily was knocked out of my brain by 8 bits of sound this weekend:

My son is home from college, visiting briefly before he goes back
for his summer session, so I've been making a concerted effort to cram
as much writing as I can into limited working hours each day, so my
evenings are free to spend with him and the rest of our family. This
weekend, my wife and I took him out to dinner, where I found myself in
front of a Centipede arcade machine, drawn there by the unmistakable
sound of the player earning an extra guy.

Something caught in the mental driftnet, and I began to reel it in.
"I have to play this," I said, doing my best not to be as manic as
Richard Dreyfuss behind a pile of mashed potatoes.

They looked at each other, warily. "Okay…" my wife said.

I dropped a quarter into the slot, felt the trackball fit
comfortably beneath my right hand, and began to play. By the time the
first flea dropped, I'd retrieved a childhood memory from the early
'80s.

You can read the whole thing at the LA Weekly.

37 thoughts on “LA Daily: A Gamer’s Arcade Memories”

  1. Couldn’t find any kind of feedback form, so figured I would just comment here…sorry if its inappropriate.
    Anyway, I recall reading that you were a fan of Ficets. I didn’t know if you were aware of it, but it has been resurrected at ficly.com. Created by the same folks who brought the original Ficlets, without the AOL overhead. Enjoy!

  2. I went to college in West Texas. Specifically, in a little town called San Angelo. There’s not a lot in San Angelo, though I and many others would say there’s enough.
    And part of that enough was a Shakey’s. (Yes, sadly…was, not is.) I’d never seen a Shakey’s before I went out on my own into the wide, wide world at college, and I haven’t seen one since, despite having lived in five states and everything from tiny towns to huge cities.
    But my dad knew what Shakey’s was, and he took me there straight off one weekend when he visited.
    The game room at this Shakey’s was bigger than the dining area, if I recall correctly, and they had nothing but classic games. They’d reworked them to run on nickels, and you could play all day long for a couple bucks.
    Now, I was piss poor in college, but I could spring twenty nickels on a Saturday afternoon from time to time.
    And you can bet your last twenty that I did.
    Frequently.
    Nice article, Wil. Thanks for providing the equivalent of an eight-bit sound for me and bringing this memory back.

  3. That brings up one of my memories playing Centipede. I was at a tennis club after school playing and there were other kids from my school hanging around watching. A kid, who I sort of knew, two years younger than me was giving me unsolicited advice on how to play. It was very distracting. At one point he said “Shoot the scorpion and you’ll get a free man.” When I kept focusing on staying alive instead of shooting the scorpion, he reached out and tried to move the controls so I would hit the damn scorpion. I reacted by yelling “stop” and pushing him back. I don’t remember pushing him super forcefully, but I do remember the pretty girl who was a year or two older than I was admonishing me for pushing someone younger around. My protests and justifications fell on unsympathetic ears. It is amazing that a pretty girl telling me I was acting like a jerk still makes me feel guilty 25 years later.

  4. I’m glad this article came along when it did. Lately, I’ve been having all kinds of nostalgia attacks, especially when it comes to the Arcade scene.
    A young ladyfriend of mine attending college joked about how she wanted me to take her to Chuck E. Cheese in Altoona, PA (which used to be a Showbiz Pizza, and I believe has one of the original retrofitted animatronic setups). I told her it wouldn’t be right for me to walk in there: The last time I was there, the place was wall-to-wall awesome! Nowadays it’s all about those stupid ticket-dispensing machines.
    A friend of mine and I discussed how much it sucked for Playland, an arcade across the street from Penn State University in State College, PA, to be gone, replaced by some stupid hipster eatery like a pita joint or yet another bohemian-wannabe coffeehouse.
    I harken back to the days of Bally’s Aladdin’s Castle at the Logan Valley Mall in Altoona, before the fire toasted the half it (and its successor Crocodile Alley) occupied. I still have an Aladdin’s Castle token from there, amazingly enough.
    Great article, Wil. Sometimes, we just can’t hold the memories back. When that happens, it’s best to just live them through and take what we can from them, because it’s the only way we can conceivably get those years back.
    Thankfully, your boys understand your fascination with old-school gaming, and from what I’ve read over the years, I’d guess that they rather enjoy sharing this part of your formative years with you. I’m hoping that video games can help me bridge the 30-year gap between myself and my son when he hits the pod-people age…

  5. Dammit Wil, how I envy your memory. Not your specific memories of course, but your ability to recall stuff from so long ago so vividly.
    I can’t remember much of anything, but every time I read your stories of the ’80s, they feel pretty damn near perfect. The only thing I remember of Centipede is that I sucked at it. Robotron I could do fairly well, but Centipede was a definite nemesis.
    It’s funny though how you remember specific sounds. I cannot remember the name of the game, but there was some UFO game, kinda like Space Invaders, but these would capture little citizens and pull them up the screen and if you managed to kill the UFO fast enough, you’d save the little man and the game would say “Lucky!”.
    I can remember that sound, but I couldn’t tell you where or when I saw that game.

  6. “I recall thinking how strange it was that he was so willing to give up his game; I guess it was because there were some games I still didn’t know how to play at the time.”
    That is the funniest, coolest, snarkiest self-reference ever (Wesley in “Justice”). I hope you did it deliberately.

  7. I’m sure I was the annoying kid bystander a time or two in my life.
    My earliest video game memory is probably 1979 or 1980. My soon-to-be-stepdad played very minor league hockey, so my mom and I would go to his games (this would be in Toronto somewhere, memories are fuzzy from age 6). She’d watch and cheer and do things that a supportive girlfriend would do, while I’d wander the arena. They had “Crazy Kong”, which I never had money to play but was probably Donkey Kong. But the memory in question was the day the bar left a cocktail version of Space Invaders on free play. Imagine my joy!! And then imagine my joy when I realized I could hit “2P” instead of “1P” and play two games at the same time! (switching sides of the table, of course) That kind of thing leaves an impression on a kid.
    So much so, in fact, that my parents (mom and stepdad) a year or so later bought me an Intellivision for Christmas. But the night before, when they were hooking it up to make sure it worked and played correctly, they realized one of the games (Space Battle) was unplayable on a Black & White TV, which we had. So they rented a color TV so I could play it properly the next day. Such was the time.
    And it wasn’t 29 years ago!!! It was… it was… umm…
    crap.

  8. I like what Google does with the sign-in there. Smooth. Anyway Wil, this:
    “It never occurred to us to tell our parents that we were going to play video games, and as far as I can remember, they never asked. It may seem unnecessarily complicated now, but it’s just how we did things in those days of two – toned corduroy OP shorts and Velcro wallets.”
    Holy repressed memories Batman. Oh my god, it was EXACTLY like that. I never told my mom I was going to play video games, and I never knew why. Back then, I think our parents thought video games were the tool of the devil, and arcades some heretofore unknown circle of hell. The few times I did think of just telling my mom that I was going to play video games, I stopped when I realized that she was going to immediately disapprove.
    Maybe video games just weren’t wholesome and fresh-airy enough. It’s not like I spent most of my summer days outside on a skateboard anyway, right? Oh no wait, it was exactly like that. But not even the temptation of finally nailing that ollie off the curb in front of Rexall was enough to sway me from the dank, cigarette-smelling pit we called an arcade in my town.
    Within that pit lay undiscovered countries (I’m sure you saw what I did there), galaxies of beautiful and mysterious creatures that we tried our best to blow the hell out of. And of course thinking about it all now brings back the guilt and embarrassment of doing almost anything to get my hands on some quarters, the keys to giving my brain the nourishment it craved.
    Man, those were good times. Thanks for bringing them back, Big Wheaton style.

  9. Great article! I’m about 10 years behind you, but I still have equally fond (and vivid) memories of playing late 80s/early 90s arcade games. My favorite place to play was probably a Pietro’s Pizza, but I remember spending a lot of time in a weird back room arcade at a convenience store before a “real” arcade opened up in my hometown. That place actually had a Fighter’s Destiny cabinet instead of the ubiquitous Street Fighter II variation, which made it all the more sad and unique. I didn’t care at the time, though.
    I also clearly remember the first time I saw Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting at a gas station somewhere in Nevada, on a road trip to Vegas. That blew my mind nearly as much as seeing my first fatality in Mortal Kombat.
    Anyway, I should also disclose that I work at Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade (http://groundkontrol.com) where we’re trying to keep many of these games alive. Seeing people come in every day on their lunch break to play games like Robotron: 2084, or groups trying to conquer Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on a Friday nite is really cool. Young kids even come in (a few even have Atari 2600 and NES collections.) I often feel like I’m living in a sort of forgotten world (we don’t have that game… yet), but I like it that way.
    End plug! Hope to see more arcade memories. Your PAX ’07 keynote was great, too.

  10. Wonderful article. Even though my experiences were similar, they were a handful of years behind you.
    For me it was pouring quarters into Double Dragon with a friend when I was about 12 or 13 at the neighborhood bowling alley. Thinking about it now, I am surprised we weren’t kicked out of there for never buying anything but just pumping the machine full of quarters.
    Then in high school it was cruising the 7-11’s looking for the place with the most current Street Fighter II game until we graduated up to Virtua Fighter 2 at the Putt Putt golf center like 20 or 30 minutes from where we lived. Became a ritual like every friday night after school and work, get together and head to Putt Putt until it closed. Kind of scary some of the people we saw in there that late at night. :P

  11. Wil,
    Although I wasn’t your 20 something playing Centipede, some other kid somewhere has a memory of coaching me. Of course, since I was a girl and a competent, devoted Centipede player, there was no date involved. And I didn’t need coaching.
    I was in college in 1980 and worked at a store that had an awesome arcade with good pizza right across the parking lot. I spent every lunch hour over there. There’s nothing like that track ball, is there? I still toss a couple of quarters or tokens into a Centipede game if I’m lucky enough to run across one.
    And what you may not have realized at the time is that how the guy on the date treated you told that woman something about him. I bet he scored at least a few points, if not more, for being sort of cool toward you.
    Thanks for the happy memories.

  12. Wow, was that 29 years ago….. I feel super old now… My mother got me the Centepede cartridge fresh from Arati’s docks in Sunnyvale as she was an Admin there at the time. I still remember how much work I had to do to earn it (making the beds, watering the flowers, general chores, etc). To this day it is one of the few things that I can’t donate to Goodwill every time my husband makes me go through my junk. Thanks for the flashback Wil.

  13. I find that so interesting, as in my house it was the complete opposite. My mother wasn’t the best one for the most part, but I do have to say I owe my love of gaming to her.
    Whether it be the weekly family board game nights, or her giving my sister and I money to go the arcade that was 5 blocks down the street, or having to fight the ColecoVision and then later the Nintendo controllers out of her hands, my mom made sure that there was always some form of gaming in our lives, including having my sister and I join in the family Christmas penny poker games since I was 6.
    My very first arcade style games that I was introduced to at around 6ish were Lady Bug and Donkey Kong. I still have the music stuck in my head from 27 years ago.
    For that I am grateful and have tried to instill the same love of games into my own boys and so far I have succeeded.

  14. Hawesome! Centipede was my absolute favorite game to play in the local arcade as a kid. Before we finally got our own Atari system, I spent every single quarter I came across at age eight playing that game at that arcade. There really weren’t many happy memories from my own childhood, but the hours I would spend playing Centipede were definitely some of the fondest times that I can remember from those days.
    Your ability to retrieve a flashback like that so vividly about pleasant memories from your own childhood experiences is something that I definitely envy, my friend, since my own respective vivid flashbacks from my less than ideal childhood all seem to be of the unpleasant variety for some reason. But that’s filed under “Things that I had absolutely no control over and it’s useless to dwell on almost 28 years later, so just let it go, already.”
    I may not remember as vividly the first time I ever stuck a quarter into the slot of a Centipede machine, but I definitely do remember how much I enjoyed playing that game. Thanks for sharing that story with us, as it reminded me that there actually were good times (and pleasant memories) that I spent during my own childhood.

  15. Wil, or anyone….dire need of assistance here.
    A long time ago, you posted a video of a musician doing all sorts of instruments and sampling her own music with a computer while she played different rhythms and such. I found the one of Zoe Keating, and it’s not her.
    Help? Please?

  16. By reading your article, I feel like I just found a whole roll of quarters that was stuck in between the couch cushions! Thank you, Wil!
    I wanted to mention that I got to meet the owner of that La Crescenta Shakey’s. I have no idea if he was the owner when you were there, but he was there when I had my own “Centipede experience” (for me, it was Bubble Bobble). Anyway, the guy now runs this awesome motel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho called the Flamingo Motel. I just randomly bumped into him when I stayed there last summer. I wonder what he’d say if he read this?

  17. Wil, I have some very similar memories. Granted, the memories weren’t with a Shakey’s; however, it was with a place called Crystal’s Pizza in Tulsa, OK. I remember going to so many church lock-ins as a teen and spending hours on end playing those beautiful arcade boxes. Every so often, I still see a game room here and there and I try to play every once and a while.
    Thank you for an excellent article that made me laugh and reminisce at the same time.

  18. Wil,
    Thanks for bringing back memories. So often I was addicted to Pac-Man growing up that whenever there was a Pac-Man game around (or any variant of it – usually the infamous Mrs. Pac-Man) my mom knew to give me a quarter to play it. I tried other games and loved them too, but Pac-Man was the game for me.
    I’ll never forget when I lived on the outskirts of Greenville, SC and a place opened up there called “Showbiz Pizza Place” “Where a kid can be a kid!” Yep, all you “youngsters” out there, it was called Showbiz Pizza before Chuck-E took over and the star was Billy Bob the Bear. I remember my mom taking me there and I would go all over the place. It was there I first discovered “Super Pac-Man” and lost terribly in the game. I tried so hard to win even one level, but the Super Pac-Man wouldn’t stay Super long enough for me to eat everything. Since then I learned a pattern that has taken me up to 14 levels, but back then I was struggling, and loving every minute of it.
    Whenever I played Q-bert I would always fall off the edge. And I loved the way the joystick worked for that game. That was one of the coolest games next to Pac-Man in my opinion, and like yourself, never enough quarters to play.
    And recently in March I took my 3 year old son to Chuck-E Cheeses for his birthday and he went all over the place too. The name may have changed, but kids certainly can still be kids there. I hadn’t thought of Showbiz and my time there as a kid since March, and I don’t know when before that, so many memories there to think on. Thank you Wil for helping jog them for me.

  19. Totally radical article, Wil. (sorry. Couldn’t help it.)
    Like Eric in PA, I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood of late, and this brought back memories of saving up my lunch money for video games at the local arcade, on the corner of Magnolia and Katella Ave in Anaheim. It’s not there anymore, and I couldn’t remember if I tried all the different games I played there, but I remember the sights and sounds. Thanks for the awesome article.

  20. Bah! You’re only as old as you feel, my friend. My suggestion to cure the “I’m getting old” predicament? Watch one of your most favorite childhood movies while snacking on your most favorite childhood snack. Then, jump up and down on your bed a few times for good measure, and then puke your guts up. Works like a charm.

  21. Of course it does, silly! See…that’s the whole idea behind avoiding the much dreaded “Old Fart Syndrome,” AKA OFS. As long as you can still act like a big, goofy kid, your chances of staving off OFS are increased tremendously. Acting like a big, goofy kid is something that everyone should do on a daily basis if they can, even if it’s only for five or ten minute intervals. It makes a whole world of difference, trust me on this!

  22. The semi-arcade of choice for me was a bowling alley which was a bit of a hike to get through woods and a sandpit that had a Space Invaders, and Asteroids, a Pac Man and three pinballs.
    Many quarters were burned there. I have to confess playing these simple games lately to get a three to five minute gaming fix for steam relief dealing with my sick kid…
    Excellent article, Wil. Oh, and this seems random, but thanks for getting mauled by a stuffed bunny at Comicon- picture of the event at marissasbunny.com today.

  23. In the words of Lucy waiting for Schroeder to play the “real” Jingle Bells, “THAT’S IT!”
    Thank you so much. Looking for gift of music ideas for the wife.
    Cheers.

  24. Good God, Wil, may I call you Wil, you so excellent articulate this mid-late-thirties thing we’ve all found ourselves in.
    We found the best video games in the strip of games just inside Best, Kmart, and Gibson’s. Or at the Mr. Gatti’s pizza joint gameroom. I still get a thrill playing Tempest and, oddly, the Popeye video game. I had Aladdin’s Castle at the Wichita Falls Sikes Senter Mall (see what they did there with the clever name?) as the glorious epicenter of video games as well as a few places near my dad’s in Dallas.
    I’ve lurked your site(s) for a while and have your books. You’ve grown so much as a writer! (like you need some comment from some dude on the internet to tell you that, but you have and it’s awesome (yes, the only word to come from 80s teen slang un-stupidified)).

  25. “Something caught in the mental driftnet, and I began to reel it in.”
    It’s sentences like this that make me love your books and stories so much.

  26. Wow, Wil! That sure brought back a lot of memories! For us Westside kids, it was always West World (Marina Del Rey) for the video games and Perry’s Pizza for fuel. Not surprisingly, both are long gone now…..just like the games.
    Maybe I should creak back in my wheelchair??? ;-)
    hehehe

  27. I’m hopelessly behind with your blog entries so I’ve given up attempting to make any timely, relevant comment posts. For this one, however, I must make an exception. The fact that it was posted on my birthday makes it extra ultra delicious.
    Having just revisited your keynote address on the PAX 2007 DVD, then coming here and reading your unearthed mental arcade-related arcana, I felt the disparate pieces of my own childhood experiences spent slamming quarters in ancient arcades slot neatly into place, forming a wonderful, multi-faceted mosaic of memories in my mind’s eye. Memories I will cherish for as long as my atrophying brain can hold onto them. So, thank you for the brainwave boost, as well as the belated birthday gift of precious memories that your article, and the sentiments you’ve shared in public venues, has awoken in me.
    Wil and I share not only the similar experiences of growing up gamers and huge geeks in 1980s Southern California, but also one of the rarest traits any two gamers possibly can: we could each fit our full common first names in the 3-character limit on the high score lists without using initials. Suck on that, you long-named bastids :)!
    Oh yeah, everyone who has ever been to one in their youth knows that the only thing that could possibly have rivaled the arcade room at a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in a young person’s brain at that time was a plateful of the round Mojo potatoes. We gobbled those babies up as greedily as Pac-Man did his power pellets. Eat ‘em up, yum!

  28. Oh boy this brings back memories. My family owned an arcade called Pirate’s Cove in Monterey Park CA way back when. I in fact had Galaga in the living room (the arcade cabinet).

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