Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Arcade Mystique

Hannah and I recently took a trip to my family's outpost in Fenwick Island, a marshy hamlet on the Delaware coast where my grandparents have lived since the Carter administration. Though it has become a mite overdeveloped in recent years, Fenwick is a charming little town: when you discount the summer crowd, its resident population is less than 400. It's got a beach, a bay, lots of locally-owned and sourced seafood restaurants, and the pervasive scent of saltwater wetlands and sea breezes. It also borders Ocean City, Maryland, a place that I love to visit precisely because it's so gaudy and awful. Imagine if Seaside Heights and Atlantic City had an incestuous baby and dumped it in Maryland. You can't get on the twenty-four-hour shuttle bus without feeling like Margaret Mead, embedded in a tribe of volatile tropical savages as they celebrate some atavistic and incomprehensible lunar festival—and that's precisely what I cajoled Hannah into doing.

As we headed from Fenwick en route to the Ocean City boardwalk on the southernmost end of the peninsula, I pointed out various sites of interest: the little Methodist church where my great grandmother's wake was held; the tepid shopping mall that my family basically broke into one night because we had an hour to kill before Toy Story played at the theater and we were bored; the ice cream stand whose "skylight"-flavored snowcones are the source of my preternatural youth (I am actually sixty-one years old); the restaurant (now a beachware shop) where my mother had a summer job as a waitress before my father infected her with me; and the former sites of long-gone arcades and game rooms. Dozens of them. The Dairy Queen I kept going to as a grade schooler because it had a Mortal Kombat II cabinet, which it eventually replaced with Cruisin' USA, which could be fun, and was kind of interesting because it referred to the Nintendo 64 by its pre-release moniker (Ultra 64) in the demo. The strip mall that once housed an arcade (the space is now a seafood restaurant) where I used to play Super Street Fighter II Turbo and kept trying (and failing) to goad Akuma into appearing. The gift shop at the Viking-themed mini golf course that used to be an arcade where Jeff and I spent a string of afternoons one summer playing Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder and Cyber Troopers: Virtual On. The spot secreted away in an alley, invisible from the street, that had the Twilight Zone pinball game and was the only place I ever saw Sonic the Fighters—yes, which was a Sonic fuckin' Hedgehog fighting game. And there was the mall that I once visited during the off-season with my uncle and was surprised and delighted to find an arcade with a Vampire Savior, a game that had inexplicably disappeared from my local arcade after just a few weeks on the 55" screen—and this, mind you, was before CPS2 emulation and the only other way to play Vampire Savior (if one didn't have a Sega Saturn) was the choppy, load-intensive Darkstalkers 3 port on the PlayStation . . .

Pretty much all the old arcades in Fenwick and Ocean City are gone now. The only ones to be found now are on the Ocean City boardwalk, and most of what they have to offer are old light gun games, driving simulators, skeeball, and various ticket-spewing contraptions ranging from Whack-an-Animal to Basically Slot Machines For Kids. I'm always disappointed by these kinds of arcades: in my judgement, the quality of an arcade is directly proportional to the number of fighting game cabinets (and DDR boards and pinball machines, but they're weighted less heavily than the fighters), plus penalties for any instance of a golf game (any golf game), each iteration of Big Buck Hunter, or a Marvel Vs. Capcom cabinet.

The Marvel Vs. Capcom penalty deserves an explanation. Not that it isn't a great game that I've probably plunked a couple hundred dollars' worth of quarters into during my lifetime, but it's an unmistakable lesion of the North American Arcade Blight. Marvel Vs. Capcom was one of the very last Capcom fighters to run on the CPS2 hardware; when it's the most recent or the only fighter in a game room (and it very often is), it just indicates that the proprietors deemed an upgrade to the CPS3, Naomi, or Atomiswave hardware wasn't a worthwhile investment.

The arcades on the Ocean City boardwalk were exhibitive of the kinds of games in which modern arcades are investing instead. I was surprised to find a lot of new games (made in the last five years or so), and all of them were seeing play. Most of them were light gunners and driving simulators, and they all ran on big, stocky custom cabinets designed for tactile pleasure and maximum immersion.

Some standouts: Mario Kart Arcade GP 2 (2008), which is a lot like the more modern Mario Kart games, but the characters and courses are different, you sit at an actual steering wheel and move with gas and brake pedals, and a camera on the machine takes a snapshot of your face (which you can then give the photo booth treatment) for your player profile; Fruit Ninja FX (2011), noteworthy because holy fuck someone actually ported an iOS game to an arcade platform; Rambo (2008), which Destructoid treats in some detail; Frightmareland (2011), a light gun game that looks a lot like CarnEvil and has the particular campy allure of a Japanese game about Americans made by Japanese people for American people

The most impressive contraption by far was TRANSFORMERS Human Alliance (2013), which is apparently a spiritual sequel to Gunblade (with Michael Bay Transformers instead of a helicopter and more Michael Bay Transformers instead of cyborg terrorists) housed in a giant two-player cockpit (or "theater," as it is referred to in the catalog). But the game that fascinated me the most was Batman (2013), which looks sort of like a mixture of Spy Hunter and Batman: Arkham City. I can't comment much on the game; I only stood and gawked at the demo. It came as such a surprise. I mean, of course I wouldn't have been aware of a Transformers game, but I had a bit of a hard time believing a new Batman game had slipped beneath my radar.

If you want to learn more about Batman, EDGE actually spoke to the game's developers a few months ago. Here's a snippet from the article (bolds are mine):

The finished game is a 60fps open-world racer running in a custom engine on a Dell PC with a mid-range GTX 650 graphics card. All together, it’s about three hundred dollars’ worth of PC, Rai says, inside thousands of dollars of cabinet. Batman stands nearly eight feet tall with a 42-inch monitor and 500 lights, and every component from the wheel to the seat is a custom piece of engineering. This, Ranck says, is one of the most fundamental parts of modern coin-op design. “I was just talking to Eugene [Jarvis of Raw Thrills] about our next game,” he says. “I can’t talk about it, but right at the start we were discussing that we have to do a great cabinet. With Batman, we designed the cabinet in-house, but our designs are just concepts. We have no idea how expensive it’s going to be, and we send it to Raw Thrills and they figure out whether it’s ridiculous or not. With Batman, we got real close to having a second monitor on the dashboard for the map and characters’ communications, which Eugene was really excited about, but when it came to cost and sourcing, it wasn’t possible. I think Eugene and I see eye to eye about cabinet design: we love the bells and whistles, but then there’s the practical aspect of it, which always brings us back down to Earth. Cabinet design is huge. Absolutely huge.”

But in the end, Specular Interactive has made a game we’ll never officially review and only a few readers will play. Those lucky enough to live near a thriving pier, bowling alley or theme park might be privy to a Batman cabinet, but for most arcade games are distant, inaccessible relatives to the console and mobile games everyone plays. With Specular’s flair for building accessible games, it could be a powerful developer in the mobile space without needing to expand its team, but the team dismisses the idea with laughter.

“Mobile games are fun,” Ranck says. “They’re a fun pastime, but I love creating experiences that interact with as many senses as possible. With arcades, we get to think about controls and how the player is going to touch the game. We were adamant that Dirty Drivin’s weapon crank had to have this heavy feel like a slot machine, we had this complex force feedback system to put what’s onscreen in the player’s hand, and we embedded a big speaker in the seat… For me, that’s what’s really fun about making arcade games. We’re profitable at this, and with mobile being so crowded, we’re very happy doing what we’re doing.”

Earlier in the piece, Ranck mentions the credo of the modern coin-op developer: "skill kills." The learning curve of today's arcade game should ideally have a slope value of zero. In a different context (say, the perspective of a fighting game or CAVE shooter enthusiast) I might say it's a little depressing—but when arcade visitors are scarce and overhead costs are high, what performs best are games that bowl people over rather than demand they climb. If you're the owner of an arcade, what you want to invest in are games that can't be duplicated in a living room, even by a top of the line home entertainment setup. But this has always been the case: before the consoles closed the power gap between themselves and the beefier hardware of their arcade counterparts, players visited their local arcades because the games there looked and sounded so much bigger and better than what they had at home. Case in point: Konami's arcade beat 'em up Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989) and its NES port, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Arcade Game (1990).

And then, gradually, the home consoles attained "arcade perfection," while gamers concurrently became more enamored of the kinds of games that simply couldn't work in a coin-op format: namely, the kinds of games too long to be completed in one or two hours, and didn't have "pay to play"-conducive mechanics build into their fundamental machinery. And so people stayed home and played games, and the arcade has starved nearly to extinction in North America.

Even though all I played in Ocean City was a single round of Frightmareland and a few games of skeeball, the half hour I spent in the boardwalk game room reminded me of everything I loved about the arcades of my teenage and adolescent years.

The arcade has a particular mystique. When you wander into one, you literally don't know what you're walking into. No two arcades are the same. Space is limited, so a game room can only host a certain number of machines, selected and curated by the owners. When an arcade is healthy, old games will periodically disappear and new games will appear in their place. Back in the 1980s and 90s (and sometimes even today, as my visit to Ocean City demonstrated), new games would arrive in familiar arcades, and you would have absolutely no prior knowledge of them. (Conversely, in today's gaming landscape, you're unlikely to get to a game's title screen without first having viewed its trailer, donated to its Kickstarter, heard about it on Twitter or a message board, read the previews and reviews, watched some footage, etc.) For that matter, it was impossible to get to know a game without playing the fuck out of it. Again, this holds true for Batman: it has no longplays on YouTube, no guides on GameFAQs, and no home port. If you want to experience it, you have to transport yourself to the physical location of one of its cabinets. And that physical location is redolent with the personality of place. Again, no two arcades are the same, but they all tend to have a common vibe.  The typical arcade was/is a dark, loud, crowded room, scintillating with light and chaotic noise, and buzzing with people you don't know and games you can't detach from the location and take home with you. There's no other place quite like it. And that vibe is maybe what stands out so fondly in my memory. That was the mystique, the vaguely occult thrill of the arcade. (My nostalgia for it snuck into The Zeroes and is fairly prominent in "The Fighting Game.")

Hmm. Something Martin Heidegger wrote:

All distances in space and time are shrinking. Man now reaches overnight, by plane, places which formerly took weeks and months of travel. He now receives instant information, by radio, of events which he formerly learned about only years later, if at all....Distant sites of the most ancient cultures are shown on film as if they stood this very moment amidst today's street traffic....The peak of this remoteness is reached by television which will soon pervade and dominate the whole machinery of communication.

I'll say what you're thinking: Heidegger, writing in 1950, had no inkling whatsoever of what the internet would become.

Man puts the longest distances behind him in the shortest time. He puts the greatest distances behind him and thus puts everything before himself at the shortest range.

Yet the frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness; for the nearness does not consist in shortness of distance. What is least remote to us by point of distance, by virtue of its picture on film or its sound on the radio, can remain far from us. What is incalculably far from us in point of distance can be near to us. Short distance is not in itself nearness. Nor is great distance remoteness.

What is nearness if it fails to come about despite the reduction of the longest distances to the shortest intervals? What is nearness if it is even repelled by the restless abolition of distances? What is nearness if, along with its failure to appear, remoteness also remains absent?

What is happening here when, as a result of the abolition of distances, everything is equally far and equally near? What is this uniformity in which everything is neither far nor near—
is, as it were, without distance?

Everything gets lumped together into uniform distancelessness. How? Is not this merging of everything into the distancelessness more unearthly than everything bursting apart?

I won't embark on a harangue about how much worse video games are fortheir migration from the arcade to the home console, personal computer, and mobile device (who am I to talk? I was an NES kid before I began lurking in arcades), but they've become a little different—perhaps something a little less—from what they were before they became almost totally divorced from rooted physical locations, similar to how music has become something different from what it was before the recording replaced the concert and iTunes replaced the record store.

Alfred Whitehead said that value is the outcome of limitation. This is a fundamental economic fact. If scarcity is value, then the video game experience was in some sense depreciated when it became something you always carried with you in your pocket or on your laptop, and when your teammates and opponents ceased being strangers standing at your shoulders and became remote personalities with whom you only communicated through the mediation of the game itself. When something is everyplace rather than someplace, some of its essential qualities are smoothed and washed out into blankness.

But it's not like gamers aren't benefiting—and in a more general sense, it isn't as though I'm not benefiting from being able to read about the ideas of Whitehead and Heidegger without having to personally attend lectures they gave in Europe. Besides, it's all just part of the process. But the everyplacing of the world's contents sometimes leaves me feeling a little unmoored.

Anyway, Hannah and I traded our skeeball tickets for a piece of Dubble Bubble, a Mega Warhead (flavor: green apple), and a plastic lizard.

The lizard.


  1. When I was in Warsaw for a few days, it happened that my brother was there too. He's a little more important than me and was there for reasons a bit more important...than I was there for, not than me, I think. I'm not entirely sure what he does.

    Anyways, I had a few hours to kill. I ended up in the basement of a university, looking for a bookstore, and it ended up being an entire underground shopping complex.

    Towards the end of the complex was a dimly lit room with a bowling alley and arcade machines -- probably akin to a Dave and Busters. Complete with the knockoff DDR machines and laser gun games and everything!

    In the corner was a Tekken 3 cabinet. I hadn't seen a working one in over ten years. One kid was playing the computer with two other kids behind him. I walked up and gestured to the second joystick. He said something in Polish, and when I shrugged at him and apologized, he turned to the other two kids. They chuckled a bit, but he nodded towards his right. I took my place, pumped in the coins.

    And I realized -- the joystick was shit. The kids laughed pretty hard. I can't remember which character I ended up getting, but, considering I couldn't move left and was bunnyhopping most of the time, I think I did alright. We shook hands. It was a fine match!

    While it's pretty amazing that a buddy and I can netplay Melee states away from the comfort of our own rooms, it's kind of a shame it comes at the cost of the whole arcade thing. A hundred comfortable lan games, any way you take it, will never give a story quite like that.

    In summary -- cute lizard!

    1. I always thought those subterranean walkways in Warsaw were really neat. I might even go so far as to say they remind me of the what-are-they-called from Final Fantasy XII. Err, nevermind.

      I once hugged a perfect stranger in Philadelphia after a really intense KoF XI match ended in a double KO. When I played BlazBlue on Xbox Live, I didn't even wear a headset unless I was playing against someone I knew from the 8EB/SMPS crew. Otherwise it was like combining a fighting game with an awkward phone call.

      I think that once the distance is built into the experience, you really have to want to go out of your way to try and bridge it.

  2. You know it's funny, I remember when Tekken 3 was released in arcades in 1998 and my friends and I would frequent our local bowling alley to try and get an opportunity to play it. Needless to say we would always find a dense borderline hostile non-dispersing crowd of kids around it every single time. It took weeks for me to finally get a chance to play it.

    Last weekend I went to visit a friend in Brighton, one of the more economically enduring British seaside towns, and chancing upon a waterfront arcade I found it a veritable graveyard, even the games were outdated (I'm talking House of the Dead III here).

    Despite the advantage of not having to queue anymore, I found this really quite depressing. There was a certain magic about the environment of the arcade, I think partly because it operated in a public sphere so was to some small extent social and inclusive, and perhaps more importantly because the games were each given a precedence in their own respective cabinets - which made them unique and special like art in a gallery. There was a definite magic about that, which is lost in the abundance of choice now on consoles/steam etc where games are 'just another disc'.

    I think the porting of games like Tekken to consoles - and especially now making them easy to play online against people you'll never meet - creates a dangerously insular environment - which sounds a bit exaggerated I suppose, but I've witnessed first-hand the certain brain-deaddery that constant online gaming creates, and it's a far cry from the sort of gaming I used to do - which resulted in lengthy pseudo-academic discoursing with friends that to this day I still believe had a point and purpose, and even probably encouraged intellectual development to some small extent.

    But then again I am also increasingly prone to wringing my hands, worrying about the next generation, and thinking the worlds coming to an end, so it's probably nowhere near as bad as all that.

    1. You speak my mind. As much as I miss the arcade (and getting into intense conversations with strangers about game esoterica) and am coming to dislike the insularity of gaming culture, I guess that in the final analysis nothing vital is being lost. Right...?

      Hmm. I'm going to go peruse the archives for early twentieth-century editorials written by people who grew up reading by gas lamps and feel really chafed and kind of concerned by the sudden ubiquity of electric lighting.