Once upon a time, arcades were vile dens of evil, littered with the festering dregs of America’s youth, partaking in the art of vandalizing, crack snorting, and Satan-worshipping in the dark corners between the Mortal Kombat and Tron machines… actually, I knew an arcade hidden beneath a roller coaster that nearly fit that description.
But in reality, that was merely the public representation of them in the early 90s. Remember that classic scene from the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie (the one from 1990) where all the early-teen kids are in the Foot Clan hideout? You’ve got teenage girls in ratty outfits playing poker and smoking cigarettes. Skater kids, offensive hip-hop, tweens abusing pinball machines, booze everywhere, and a plethora of arcade games littering the scene. Bear in mind this movie was released during the peak of the Barbara Bush-sponsored “Say No To Drugs” campaign. Arcade games were seen by the public as being as bad for the American youth as any and all of the other debauchery that the Foot Clan lavished on the homeless teens it sought to recruit.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a great movie and captured a unique moment in time. Were there really any arcades like that? Absolutely, but they weren’t the standard-bearer by any means. That movie depiction however was what adults thought went on in all arcades of the time. In reality, the majority of rogue arcade game experiences in the midwest outside of strip malls were probably more like what you saw in The Wizard with PlayChoice-10 cabinets and Double Dragon machines littering the local gas station – harmless and bland, with kids complaining that the arcade versions looked so much better than the NES/Genesis conversions.
Certainly late ’80s/early ’90s culture was something unique and unrepeatable by today’s standards, and the majority of arcades were really just mall hangouts, but the fact of the matter is that a small handful of places across the nation very close to that description once existed. People romanticize the ’70s/’80s arcade “Golden Age” of Pac-Man, bell bottom pants, and disco — a time when adults saw arcades as a realistic form of amusement and a cool place to hang out. Then something happened… suddenly, after the arcade crash of 1984, it wasn’t cool to hang in arcades anymore if you were an adult. The first arcade generation grew up and took their quarters with them. Arcades toiled along through the rest of the decade reaching out to younger teenagers with new tech, crazier ideas, and faster, more action oriented games, each upping the violence level more and more until we reached the tipping point in 1991 with the fighting game revolution.
By this point, the image of arcades was set in stone for a generation of baby boomer parents who likely grew up enjoying the very same hobby, and that image was a far cry from the one they grew up with. Times had changed, target demographics had shifted, and so had the arcade environment itself. Lighting was now darker, so as to show off the new giant projection showcase cabinets and draw in teens. VR units were beginning their brief takeover of the American mall arcade. With the fighting game era came egos, attitudes, and the occasional confrontation. As the crowd once again began to skew towards an older teen/young adult demographic, the testosterone levels in your typical arcade begin to rise. Suddenly parents didn’t see arcades as the ideal hangout for your typical 12 year old – even if that same 12 year old who likely wanted to emulate their older siblings probably thought the arcade was cool as hell and took every excuse possible to sneak there, much to the displeasure of their parents.
But something was coming that would shift the image of arcades, and eventually contribute to their downfall in the West. To counter the growing negative image of arcades as the ’90s progressed, an alternative was born… the “Family Fun Center”. These family-oriented hangouts weren’t the same as your typical Chuck E. Cheese or Showbiz Pizza where little Jimmy could play Turtles in Time while Mom and Dad grabbed a beer. These places were made for the American soccer mom and her strict standards for “appropriate” family entertainment, usually tacking on some form of mini-golf, bowling, or electric go-kart racing not so much for the variety, but rather so they couldn’t be pegged as an “arcade”, a term that was quickly becoming a dirty word in the heartland. Family Fun Centers were kid-friendly to a fault, squeaky clean, and bland as could be. You would never see Mortal Kombat or King of Fighters ’94 machines here. Suddenly there was a rift between “family-friendly” games and “the other ones”. Those more action oriented and violence laden titles were banished to the strip mall arcades, which city leaders began to zone them out of existence with amusement tax hikes, and local church protests until the patrons just drifted away in a sea of bad press.
As the ’00s marched on, the Family Fun Center began to take on a new shape that was even less savory to the tastes of a seasoned ’90s arcade veteran. While religious institutions had proudly and ignorantly spent most of the previous decade fighting against video game culture, suddenly they finally came to the realization that if you tell a 7 year old that he has to choose between Jesus or Pikachu, that kid is 99% likely to grab his Game Boy Color and run like hell. As church attendance records continued to plummet to a historic low, it could be said that the Pokemon revolution of the late 90s jumpstarted the American church’s transformation from bland place of worship into the babysitting/playground/sports/video game hangout that it became. Suddenly the appeal of a church reached far beyond God, Jesus, and social/political rhetoric. Church was now a cost-effective family fun solution. Join up and receive all the benefits and perks that Christ can provide. Suddenly, kid friendly hangouts with high prices like Discovery Zone, Chuck E. Cheese, and the independent American arcades of old became less and less appealing in comparison to the benefits of the mega-church and all its frills.
Out here in the midwest, the mega-church is largely what killed off the arcades. Even most of the Family Fun Centers have closed down with a rare exception of Incredible Pizza – which ironically enough is a heavily Christian-based national chain that has ties to various mega-churches and displays Bible verses on their marquee LED signs, as well as all over the establishment in an effort to draw in the local conservative demographic and distract from how poorly they pay their employees and sanitize their awful food.
Did arcades die in Japan? Nope. They’re still popular with kids and adults alike, but Japanese culture isn’t steeped in the same religious dogma and negative social undertones that conservative America has always projected onto video game culture. The chain smoking kids playing N.A.R.C. in the Ninja Turtles movie didn’t really exist, but American conservatives wanted you to think they did so that the alternative would seem so much safer. Now, as arcade games have even begun to disappear from the local pizza places, the best arcade gaming experience that the majority of Americans can hope for is a Big Buck Hunter machine and a Crusin’ World tucked in the rec room of the sports complex of the local mega-church. The enemy won by absorbing a neutered version of what it hated.
But maybe the future can be a little brighter all thanks to a little Disney movie about a bad guy who woke up one morning and realized he was tired of being the villain. We’ll talk about that next week.
Insert Coin is Games Are Evil’s weekly exploration of arcade culture and classic arcade games, hosted by our own Lucas DeWoody. You can follow Lucas on Twitter here.