Games, part 2: The arcade

SpaceInvaders-GameplayPart 1 is here.

I’m proud to say that Space Invaders was the first arcade game I ever played, and I was great at it, though I was only ten when it came out. Again, its simplicity was its strength. You’re running back and forth at the bottom of the screen and the aliens are marching down toward you, slowly at first, then faster and faster as you kill more and more of them. You must shoot them before they reach you, and you must not let them shoot you first. It had very effective game sounds with a Jaws-like simple “tune” as the aliens marched relentlessly closer and closer, faster and faster. Not bad at all for 1978. There was one in the game room of the resort we went to one summer, and I would get a stack of quarters from my dad for Space Invaders and bottles of Pepsi Light from the machine, and play for hours. Good times.

Later I discovered that the bowling alley near our house had a few games, including pinball, Asteroids, and… Defender. I loved Defender. Basically the same premise as Space Invaders – kill the aliens before they kill you – but with much faster action, better sounds, and it’s a two-way side-scroller with the ability to go up and down as well as to either side. I was one of those people who could play for hours on just a few quarters. I had my timing down, knew what was coming up, and I also knew a lot of the secret things you do to “cheat” extra lives. There were books you could buy that gave away these cheats. I remember combing through them obsessively at the bookstore. How we suffered before the internet!

I was in high school in the early- to mid-80s, during the height of the Golden Age of arcade games. My favorites were Centipede, Galaga, and Tempest in particular. I liked Frogger and Qbert and some of the other games well enough, but I had adolescent angst, and I hungered for destruction. Pac-Man was frustrating because all you could do was run. He was so passive! Don’t even talk to me about Ms. Pac-Man, that stupid bow and the insipid tune made me so mad. And I never cared about driving or sports games. They were there to keep other people busy and away from my machines.

I spent a lot of time and money playing arcade games. There was one arcade I used to go to with my best friend Brenda, who was older than me and had a car. The arcade wasn’t large, but it had everything in the semi-dark main room, with Crystal Castle and other cutesie stuff in a brighter room off to one side. It was ideal. We would flirt with the guy behind the counter a little bit, too, but that was not our primary motivation. We were there to kill things and beat high scores. At least, I was.

Tempest was probably my favorite of this era. I loved the vector graphics and the way the “claw” moved around the near-infinite variety of shapes, shooting down at enemies. Unfortunately, something about those vector graphics was apparently too much for the machines, and they were often broken or malfunctioning. I’ve got it for the PC on an old Atari Arcade Hits CD, which I think is what’s being played in the video above, but I don’t even have it installed right now. It’s not the same if you don’t have the dial to move your avatar. I have Centipede on the same disk, with the same problem – it’s so much better with the ball.

The arcade also had the Star Wars game (the version where you sit down in a tiny booth), Millipede (Centipede on meth), and a game I just rediscovered on YouTube called Gyruss that I had completely forgotten about. Gyruss must have been hard to find, because as I watch the video of someone playing it on YouTube, I don’t know why it doesn’t stand out as my favorite. It was sort of like the love child of Tempest and Galaga, with very satisfying kill rates and sound effects.

Set up five windows playing YouTube videos simultaneously: the sound of Centipede, plus Donkey Kong, plus Galaga, plus Pac-Man, plus Robotron is the sound of 1983.

Ah, Robotron. Robotron probably ruined the shooter type of game for me. It was too hard! The robots were programmed to come after you wherever you went, and in the higher levels my ability to fire fast enough to defeat them was easily overwhelmed by the swarm. Enter frustration and adrenalin overdose.

And boys, speaking of frustration. I was starting to get more interested in boys and music and driving to the mall in order to walk around for hours. You couldn’t talk to boys at an arcade, they were too busy hogging the machines, and the Golden Age was starting to fade, anyway. The last straw for me was the introduction of Dragon’s Lair, which had flashy animated graphics, but took 2 tokens instead of one and always had a long line. I thought the gameplay sucked.

Or maybe I was just growing up…


I may not be hardcore, but I’ve been a gamer since I dropped my first quarter into a Space Invaders machine. I’d be back.

2 Responses to “Games, part 2: The arcade”

  1. Jenn Says:

    I loved Asteroids and was very, very good at Centipede. My name was always the top three spots on any Centipede machine within bike-riding radius in my teens. I also loved Berzerker. The music got me. And of course Tempest! Tron was also interesting. I agree with you totally about Pacman. I hated that game. Ms. Pacman? Ugh. And I never could get into Donkey Kong either.

  2. soundofrain Says:

    Berzerker – is that the one that says “the humanoid must not escape”? I forgot about that one! I wasn’t coordinated enough for Tron, and Donkey Kong wasn’t fun enough (for me) to be worth a quarter, but I played it (or a version of it) on the Atari 2600 (console post coming up next).

    I love that robot-voice sound, definitely a precursor to the industrial music I fell in love with as soon as I heard it!

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