A look back to the glory days of the video game arcade
Editor’s note: During the height of Pac-Man Fever, Columbus Monthly staff writer John Maher went into the noisy belly of the beast—the video game arcade—where he discovered a teenager delivering a Chuck-Norris-style kick to a Tron game and a mother chasing Inky, Blinky and Pinky with a squirming baby in her arms. Plus, the surprising origins of the name Donkey Kong.
The sun hasn't even begun to make a serious attempt to burn off a heavy early morning haze, and there's not a bike in the bike rack when 12-year-old Mike Gordish bounds out of his mother's car and heads for the double glass doors of the arcade at Putt-Putt Golf and Games on Refugee Road. Mike has brown hair that falls just over his ears, and today he's wearing Nikes, Wranglers and a red Asteroids T-shirt. He certainly looks ready to play some video games, and he's got most of the day to do it. It's just after 9 a.m. and his mother won't be picking him up until 2:30.
Mike pulls open the door that has a sign that warns, “No Smoking. No Profanity. No Drinks. No Food.” Inside, the just-opened arcade is about as quiet as it ever gets. You can almost hear a radio that is playing. There's no one on the games. The attendants are getting the small concession stand ready, and Luis Anda, a repairman for Cleveland Coin Machine Exchange Inc., is working on a Zaxxon board that he has pulled from its cabinet.
Mike, who comes to the arcade about three times a week, heads for the changer that will convert the money he has earned from his Dispatch paper route into the currency of the realm, tokens. Here, the video machines take tokens rather than quarters. A dollar can be transformed quickly into four tokens, but Mike can get 24 tokens for a $5 bill that rapidly disappears down the machine's throat. The tokens clatter in to the bowl like Mike just broke Vegas. The games, all in their "attract” mode now, compete for Mike's attention and his tokens. The pinball games grouped against the back wall are flashing their lights at him in vain. “I used to play pinball, but I don't like it any more,” he explains. “All you do is stand there and move the flippers. There's no control stick.”
The video games call to him. “Coin detected in pocket," challenges the simulated robot voice of Berzerk. Explosions boom from Tutankham. The Donkey Kong is sending out a melodious da da da da dum that sounds like a synthesized version of the first part of Woody Woodpecker's famous laugh.
Mike hardly notices these distractions as he heads for Tron, the hottest video game in the country and the star of a recent Walt Disney movie, the first ever made about a video game. Mike hasn't even seen the movie, but says, “I like the cars, the tanks and the spiders,” three of the obstacles on the different boards of Tron.
Mike's good at the game, but he probably spends too much time pitching and playing third base in his school's baseball league, bowling with his dad and riding his bike through the woods near his house ever to be as good as USER. Top scorers on each machine get to punch in any four identifying letters they choose, and on this machine, USER has just about every top 10 score, including one of over half a million.
Mike calmly starts racking up the points, but what? How did that tank get him? Didn't he hit it three times? He grabs the big blue joystick and jerks it in disgust. How did that car cut him off? He looked like he was in control. Wham! He slaps the stick upside the head. A spider? How did he let a spider get him? Mike takes a quick step back, pivots sharply and Whop! He gives the pride of Disney a spinning Chuck Norris-style side kick right in the cabinet. He glances around sheepishly to see if any of the attendants were watching. After all, one of the printed rules is "Don't abuse the machines.” Whew. No one noticed. He offers another token to Tron, which accepts it as if nothing had happened.
By the time Mike's ready to move to another game, a couple more T-shirted youngsters have wheeled up on their bikes and planted their kickstands by the front door. As soon as they get in the door, one of the game-room attendants tells them to put their bikes in the rack. They say “OK” but once outside decide to forget about it and ride on out. Still, the arcade crowd begins to build. A couple in their 20s come in and lean all over each other while playing Ms. Pac-Man together. Two pre-teen girls play the cocktail-table Pac-Man while their grandfather watches. A couple of groups of guys amble in.
It's not long before the arcade has a pretty fair-sized crowd. Two Hartley High School coeds on the way to dropping their alotted $15 each in the game room are in front of the Turbo, a simulated driving game. “Whoa!” one yells; “Look out!” Too late. The teeth-rattling Keow! of a Turbo crash can be heard all over the arcade.
At the now-repaired Zaxxon machine, a quality control supervisor from Buckeye Steel, Chuck C. Corriveau, aka CCC, and a friend have just done a high five after CCC has swooped, bombed and blasted his way to a high score, en route getting a chance to polish off the dreaded robot with a technique he just learned from a book on how to beat the video games.
Over at the Frenzy, a businessman who has a cane hanging from the front pocket of his slacks is hunched over in front of the screen. His game-playing style is a marked contrast to that of the teen-ager in the Pirates ball cap who is on Tutankham. The kid has his front leg thrust forward aggressively as he blasts away. His style makes him look as though he might be the top player in the house, except that every minute or so he swears under his breath as his man gets zapped.
In a small fenced-in area by the concession stand, the only place you're allowed to have food and drink in the arcade, a young mother is seated at a cocktail-table Pac-Man, trying to best Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde while keeping a grip on the baby that is squirming in her arms.
Nearby, a boy and a girl of early grade-school age are wandering around. Sometimes they put a token in and play a game. Most of the time, though, they'll just walk up to a vacant machine and pretend they're playing a game, moving the controls and pushing the buttons as the unresponsive game runs through its programmed sequence.
All are caught up in two of the fastest-growing phenomena of the times, video games and video arcades. In just the first six months of this year, the city licensed 4,263 games, each of which is capable of eating an average of 1,000 quarters a week. It's been estimated that Columbusites will spend $2 million this year on Pac-Man alone. And Pac Man is currently just barely in the top 10 of the nation's most popular video games. It's not hard to see why video games have become a multibillion-dollar industry. The full extension of the video game craze is the arcade, where players have dozens of games from which to choose. The city defines an arcade as anything licensed to have more than four coin-operated amusement devices, and the ever-growing number of such places is now approaching 100.
To more than a few people, that number is alarming. Several Columbus-area commissions have let it be known that they'd almost rather have a state penitentiary built on their side of town than a video arcade. Elsewhere, communities from New York to Texas have tried to run arcades out of town. On Phil Donahue's show and elsewhere, stories of video game addiction, hooky and vandalism have come to light. For many people who have never been to an arcade, the image is of a small, dimly-lit room where a bunch of sallow 15-year-old boys work out their aggressions and frustrations by vaporizing fictional alien mutants on the machines and breaking real beer bottles in the parking lot. In this area, there are some arcades that would certainly disturb the residents of River City. “They've got one down the street with a bunch of pool tables and a go-go dancer,” says Anda. (So that's where the kids on the bikes went.) But the elements that make most video arcades go are about as far removed from pool tables, go-go dancers and seaminess as you can get.
To Bernard Powers, the director of marketing for Bally Manufacturing's Aladdin's Castle division, the most essential thing to an arcade isn't even the video game, it's the suburban shopping center, specifically the enclosed-mall type. Powers says that the big growth years for his company weren't the ones in which everyone and his sister were suddenly playing Space Invaders, Defender or Pac-Man. “There were a lot of enclosed malls being built in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. That's when we were really growing,” he says. Bally has close to 400 arcades around the country, six of which are in Columbus. It has three Aladdin's Castles here and three Funway Freeways, a Midwest chain of 29 arcades that Bally recently bought for $140 million.
Bally's arcades and the other successful ones here are almost always in enclosed malls, or across from movie theaters or in combination with another entertainment draw, such as a Malibu Raceway or a Putt Putt golf course.
The reason is simple. “You've got to have the traffic count,” says Powers. It's the same strategy as selling loafers at Thom McAn or 75 cents-a slice pizza at Woolworth. The more people who walk by, the more people who will be pulled in to play Donkey Kong. What kind of people? Well, Powers would rather give away the secret to consistently scoring 100,000 on Ms. Pac-Man than give out any of the company's extensive and jealously-guarded demographic information. "But, I can tell you this,” he says. “Less than 40 percent of our clientele is under 19. Most of the year, school is in session. There aren't any kids in there then. We get the same people who are shopping in the mall.”
“Most of the ones that have gone down were the free-standing arcades or the ones in the little strip shopping centers,” says Stanley Knoll, Columbus manager for Cleveland Coin Machine Exchange Inc., a company that distributes and services video games. “Those attracted just the people who came to play the games-and trouble.”
Hey, if any video game player looks like trouble, it's the muscular biker in black jeans, black T-shirt and black beret with a chrome chain hanging out of his pocket who suddenly swerves out into the passing lane on Schrock Road and guns his Harley. Soon he has parked his cycle and is firmly planted in front of a Centipede at the Malibu Raceway. He's totally involved in dodging small bouncing spiders, falling mushrooms and these cute little fleas, just like the towheaded 9-year-old peering over the controls of another Centipede in the game room.
Recently a video game expert named David Pierson wrote: “Consider what video games have done. They have offered—from Space Invaders on—a medium that allows people to take out their aggression in a socially safe manner. A player's countless anxieties suddenly take form on that video screen before him and he can vaporize, elude or leap over these adversaries until he is finally overwhelmed."
Maybe the 9-year-old has nightmares about spiders. Maybe the biker really has it in for mushrooms and fleas. It's hard to tell, because for the next half hour both of them are too busy playing Centipede to be bothered with talking.
If anybody has a right to be working off frustration and aggression on a video game it is Gary Hancock. The 21-year-old was thrown out of work recently when the company he was working for went belly-up. He hasn't been able to land a job since, and he's getting discouraged and worried. He's had a lot of time to kill, and that's what he's doing now in a video arcade on Refugee Road. Gary is one of the very best game players on the east side of town, and he's punched his initials in more than one machine for getting the top score. He could be bolstering his own ego and getting back at the world by tear-assing through space in a rocket ship, blasting, zapping, bombing, shooting, nuking and/or vaporizing any mutant, alien or death star that was dumb enough to get in his way. You'd expect a macho game, violent, maybe.
Gary is a big guy and his frame pretty much obscures the video game he's playing. The name is visible, though: Tutankham. From beside him, the colorful game screen is visible. With a red-knobbed joystick he is expertly guiding what looks like a computer simulation of the logo for Dutch Boy paints through a maze fraught with green snakes, bizarre looking birds and a still more sinister threat. “You've got to watch out for those things that look like little potatoes,” Gary explains. “They move real fast.”
Tutankham, which is relatively new on the market, is one of his favorites, he explains, because, “I like the mystery of finding out what's behind the door.” He says his other favorites include Mousetrap and Kangaroo. In Mousetrap, a Pac-Man-like maze game, the mice run after bits of cheese and are chased by cats until the mice get to a power pod that lets them turn into dogs whenever they want.
In Kangaroo, the central character is a mother Kangaroo who is trying to rescue her baby. She has ladders to climb and has to watch out for these nasty monkeys that keep throwing fruit at her. A button lets mama roo hop over the flying fruit. Mike Gordish says that he plays the game because, “I like hitting the monkeys and jumping up after the strawberries.”
Gary starts to explain what he likes about Kangaroo, but it's hard to hear because of the noise, a collection of simulated sound pumped up to a decibel level that makes any communication other than a shouting match just about as pointless as trying to outrun one of those potatoes. But just by listening to the sounds you can tell the video arcade isn't quite what it was a couple of years ago.
The arcade used to be all space and war games like Asteroids, Battlezone, Missile Command, Warlords, Defender, Galaxina, Armor Attack, Astro Blaster, Space Invaders, Space Wars, Space Encounter, Space Zap and Star Castle.
The arcade still has the space-war sounds of spoosh, spoosh, pachow, pachow, along with the atomic rumblings and mocking robot voices. But mingling with the sounds of space violence are the unmistakable chords of ... cuteness. The waka, waka, waka of Pac-Man, the melodic Donkey Kong song, the meeow and muff of Mousetrap and a chorus of other tinkling, laughing noises that sound like the old Saturday morning cartoon shows, the ones that were on before the current batch, in which everyone and his dog have acquired super powers.
Now the arcade denizens include Dig Dug, Lady Bug, Boxing Bugs, Frogger, Ms. Pac-Man, Centipede, Devil Fish and Donkey Kong Jr.
Rick Parent, who has taught computer graphics at Ohio State University, says, “For awhile it was all guns and blood and guts. Now they're making things a little more cutesy, not as threatening or violent.” Powers adds, “The trend is definitely toward cute.” Knoll says, “I call them funsies. The reason they are so big is that the women play them. They won't play the shoot 'ems."
The shoot 'ems and the cutesies are the two biggest draws at most arcades, but there are other elements as well. Most of the arcades also have pinball games. Even after the first video game, Pong, was introduced in 1973, the pins were still the big attraction in Bally's arcades, right on up to about 1977. Gary Hancock started going to the arcades to play the pins, but he doesn't play them very much any more. “No one plays them,” says Anda as he points to five deserted pins aligned against a wall at the Putt-Putt arcade. At three balls for a quarter or five for 50 cents, they're a much better buy in a bar, where they're likely to be five balls for a quarter.
Then there are the drivers. Putt Putt has a couple of them, a nearby Funway Freeway has almost a full wall. “They always seem to get a steady share of the market,” Powers says. Drivers, games that simulate driving, have been around for years, but they've moved from the mechanical to the computerized.
The advanced graphics of Turbo make you feel like you really are whipping through the city and the countryside; that's why Mike Gordish plays it. Anda enjoys it because, “It's just reflexes. With most of the other games you have to learn a skill.” Deborah O'Donnell, a Hartley High School student who doesn't have her driver’s license yet, plays it because, “It teaches you how to drive.”
That's something that most of the skill games don't do. Skill games are usually electronic simulations of real sports such as hockey, baseball or football. George Plimpton may get excited about this kind of stuff, but these usually aren't the hot games, the kind of game that can average $250 a week in quarters and that might go as high as $700.
Most of the hot games used to be nerd games, like Defender. Defender inventor Eugene Jarvis readily admits to being a nerd, the kind of guy who in high school could get an 800 on the math section of the SAT, but couldn't figure out how to comb down a cowlick or notice that tie shoes weren't in. The kind of guy who used to giggle when he was working out algebra equations and who looked forward to computer club. When the nerds got a little older and started fooling around with computers in college, they were likely to come into contact with a version of Space Wars that had been programmed on a computer at MIT. Advances in technology drastically reduced the size of the equipment needed to store such a game, and pretty soon the nerds were creating their own versions of Space Wars. In nerd games, guys who couldn't even get a date in this world are suddenly transformed into undisputed masters of their own universe.
Ron Hackathorn, who has a computer consulting business in Columbus, says, “Most of the space games are search and destroys. The object is simple, really. You've got the gun and there's something out there. You blow it to smithereens. The big difference in such games is how much power you have and how big your arsenal is.” The king of these games is generally acknowledged to be Jarvis's Defender, which gives the player a joystick and not one, but five buttons that let him do everything: reverse the ship, thrust, fire, smart-bomb or leap into hyperspace. Not too long ago Defender was about the hottest game going.
But while space masters here were happily blasting away, the winds of change were starting to blow in Japan. There, men, women and children had been playing space games like crazy. In 1980 the American company Atari shipped over a game that was going off the charts here, Asteroids. Nothing. A flop. The Japanese were sick of space. The end of the video game craze looked near.
One of the Japanese companies, Namco Limited, thought that maybe cute would go over. It came up with a maze game where this little thing shaped like a pie with a missing wedge eats dots and things that look like little ghosts. While the little character is eating all these things he makes this little sound, puck, puck, puck, which is Japanese for smack, smack, smack. Well, “puck” rhymes with guess what, and it also reminds a few people of hockey, so when the game was introduced in America, it was changed to Pac-Man. When it was introduced in a trade show two years ago, all the big boys in the field laughed at it . After all, it was a maze game. No one played maze games. Besides, where were the rockets and bombs?
It just goes to show you what the big boys know. Pac-Man did something that no other video game had ever done. It appealed to women. After all, it wasn’t an outer space war, it was cute. It was a runaway hit. In a field where the average lifespan for a game is about three months, Pac-Man is still gobbling quarters like crazy, and his sequel, Ms. Pac-Man, is now doing even better. There are Pac-Man shirts, Pac-Man hats, hell, the Big Bear even bakes Pac-Man cookies. High school dropouts, surgeons, preschoolers, grandmothers, baseball stars, accountants, politicians and grade-school girls all have shelled out the quarters eagerly. They got hooked on Pac-Man.
That’s what video game manufacturers dream about. Something that everyone in the family will play. Something with universal play appeal. Something really cute.
Jack Mittel, president of Taito America Inc., which distributes Space Invaders and other video games, says, “The shoot-’em ups attract your hard-core player. Your reflexes have to be much better in those kinds of games. The adults can’t play them. They can’t handle the shoot’-em-ups. No one wants to be made a fool of. If an adult puts in a quarter and 20 seconds later he’s done, he’ll get disgusted and walk away.” The idea is to let people play for about 90 seconds to three minutes, and to give them something cute.
Currently there are about three space games in the top 10 video games, including Zaxxon, a shoot-’em that gives the illusion of three dimensions. But five of the top 10 are out and out cuties. Mittel’s theory is that they’re doing so well because the economy is bad and many people are either getting laid off or having their hours cut back. He says a cutie allows people to laugh in a fantasy world and, for a few minutes, to forget completely about their own problems.
“Japan is coming out with all the cute games,” says Steve Bloom, editor of Video Games. Whole teams take on the task of coming up with something cute; Al Stone, marketing manager of Nintendo of America, says it took a team of 50 to 60 to come up with the immensely popular Donkey Kong.
Of course there’s no donkey in Donkey Kong. That’s just a translation mistake because in Japanese “donkey” can also be a word for “slow and stupid,” which is what the gorilla is supposed to be. The gorilla has this pretty girl, see, and this carpenter named Mario is trying to rescue her. The gorilla keeps dropping barrels on Mario, who can jump over them or hit them with a hammer as he climbs up ladders and moving beams.
Cute alone isn't enough to sell a video game. Bloom says that a recent American attempt at cute was Kickman, where a clown breaks balloons with his head. You can't get much cuter than that. But, he says, “Kickman was a dud. You've got to have a storyline. The games that are going are the ones that have a character that people can respond to, someone who might be their friend.” Gordish says, “I'll play a game because I like the character.”
Well, Mike, what do you think of the hero of Kram? He has a red body, rolling blue eyes and white sneakers. Mittel has said the game will appeal to women as well as men because, “Frankly, the character is cute, and it's difficult not to sympathize with him as he gets in and out of trouble."
And wait, Mike, here comes Robby Roto, who looks like Pac-Man in a miner's helmet, ready, as the trade ads for him say, “to dig his way into the hearts of game players everywhere.”
Still, not everyone is buying empathy. A public relations executive who is an avid Donkey Kong player says, “There is no way I identify with Mario. Why should I? Sometimes if I'm in the mood I'll purpose fully let him get hit by a barrel. Or I get him right near the top and the girl and make him stand there until he gets hit by one. I'll say, “Suffer, Mario.' I identify more with the ape. I'd enjoy a game where I got to move the ape instead of Mario."
Guess what? That's the story line of the new Donkey Kong Jr. Now in this one, Mario has the ape locked up, see. And Donkey Kong's son, that's Donkey Kong Jr., has to try to get his father out of the cage. And Mario doesn't have a hammer this time, but these ape-eating birds who've got mouths like the shark in “Jaws.”
At the Putt-Putt arcade, a crowd has already gathered in front of the Donkey Kong Jr. game to watch Mike play. He has spent a couple of days learning the game and now he's dodging birds and picking bananas like it's going out of style. He's already getting over 30,000 each game and he hasn't even broken for lunch. There's no telling how high he'll be scoring by the time 2:30 rolls around.
This story originally appeared in the October 1982 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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