Sunday, February 11, 2024

Arcades! Pew Pew

Personal post talking about my interactions with arcade video games.

My earliest memory of video games, I think, was Space Invaders. Two separate memories.

The Dinner Bell

There was a restaurant called The Dinner Bell and it was in the same building as a cab service and the bus stop. This was in my home town and it would have been sometime between 1978 and 1980. My parents got divorced in 1978 and this memory was when I went with my dad for a weekend. He drove a cab, so I basically hung out at the Dinner Bell while he was doing that. I had a few quarters he had given me because they had a video game called Space Invaders.

Now, this version of SI was a flat top table. You'd sit in a regular chair and the joystick and button were under the table top at the end. Folks would also use this table to eat and drink, so it wasn't terribly clean. I was fascinated and played it with however many quarters I had... probably less than a dollar's worth.

Being a truck stop, cab service, and diner all in one... the place had smells. Lots of them. It wasn't terribly busy, just a handful of people milling about here and there. I don't even remember any of the people there at all. But my grandmother worked the diner, so she was probably there too. The memory is fuzzy. The Dinner Bell went out many years ago and I believe it is now a Save-a-Lot grocery store. I don't think we've had a bus stop in this town for decades, as far as I know. But boy, every town used to have one.

Morgan's Grocery

I'm very fuzzy on the name, but I do believe it is Morgan's. This was a little grocery store way out in the sticks with a gas pump. In those days, roughly 1978-1980, my mom was living with Lee, who would later be my stepdad. Lee was a... lazy entrepreneur. He basically did odd things here and there. Not

handyman stuff, but more of a "let's try to sell this junk" kind of vibe. Mom met him when he was driving an old white pickup delivering loads of coal to various houses. At that time mom and I lived in a red shack her dad built and it was winter time. She had heard of Lee delivering coal and had requested a load. He brought it, dumped the coal next to the house (no cellar that I recall, but I was only 8 so maybe I'm wrong).

Next thing I know he's living with us.

Anyway, one of his little gigs was picking up cans on the side of the road. You could walk a highway stretch and fill a bag with aluminum cans pretty easily back then. Everybody just tossed their trash out the window in those days. It was shitty. Anyway, we did that. We walked the highways picking up cans*. One highway had Morgan's store on it and sometimes we'd pop in there, if we had any money, and buy some snacks. That was breakfast and lunch for the day: a honey bun and a carton of milk or a pop.

Morgan's had Space Invaders too. This time it was the traditional stand-up cabinet style. Every time we went there I'd beg mom for a quarter. Sometimes she's give me one, sometimes she would not. Depends on if we had any to spare**.

So Space Invaders was my first experience with video games. I played it only randomly here and there, and only because it was the game they had. If they had a different game, I'd try that one too. And I sucked at them, probably because I'd get to play once, maybe twice then I wouldn't have another chance for weeks or months.

Convenience Store

Ok, this one is weird. Because in my head there is a memory of an official chain of stores called "Convenience". There was for sure one store that was located near an apartment we used to live in and had the word "Convenience" right there on building. And I recall Ernest P. Worrell doing commercials for Convenience. But alas... my child's memories are tainted and flawed for Ernest did commercials for various stores and brands and it appears that "convenience" was the catch phrase of the time for little quickie marts and I confused it as a name brand***.

But the point is there was this convenience quickie mart near the apartment and we could walk to it for groceries and things. And yep, they had some video games. Almost every store at that time (by now... 1980-1982) had at least one video game. It was like having vending machines. Some company would bring you a game, put it in the corner, and you and the company would earn money from kids pumping it full of quarters. Almost no effort on the part of the store.

This store had Galaga! And they had Moon Cresta! My memory is poor, so I am not sure if they had both at once or if one came later. Because this store pops up in my memories more than once over the course of a few years.

Oh... they also had a silly little game called Pac-Man, but nobody cared about that, did they?

Stanford Auction House

Back in those early 80s days, we were really into flea markets and auctions. We would go to them every single day to sell junk. When we lived in Stanford (the first time), there was a red auction house on a hill. I remember it well because it had a flea market in the day, auctions at night, and sometimes they had cool things like wrestling. I saw Leapin' Lanny there!

Anyway, that place had a video game and it was Donkey Kong. Basically NOBODY came to that building. I remember it was very disappointing to my stepdad because there was no crowd, no traffic. We sold at the auction, which was ok. But the flea market was just dead. But they did have two things. They had Donkey Kong and they had a seller with tons and tons of old paperback books. I would look through them, searching for the naughty ones. I was about 12.

Donkey Kong was great. I loved playing that game. I got decent at it because we were trapped in that building for hours at a time and if I could squeeze any quarters out of mom, I did. And I plopped them immediately into Donkey Kong. But it wasn't enough to make me a master. I was, at best, a noob even at my height.

Atari 2600

I'm not gonna spend any time discussing this. I encountered the 2600 when I was 12 at my cousins' house and when my mom got a job a few years later she splurged and bought one. We played it constantly. She played so much Pac-Man she could easily roll it over through all the levels multiple times. But that's a discussion for another post. Let's stay focused on arcade machines.

The Pirate's Cove

Our local mall (malls were a big deal in the 80s) had an actual arcade called The Pirate's Cove. It was awesome. It was kinda dark, loud, and always had plenty of kids hanging out. By kids I mean teens like me. We owned that joint.

The Cove had all the cool shit. Yeah, they had Pac-Man and probably had Space Invaders. But this was the later 80s... those games were old hat. They had newer shit like Golden Axe, Raiden, and, my favorite, Rastan! And since by then I had started working, I had plenty of quarters to blow. I played the holy shit out of Rastan, Raiden, Twin Cobra, Golden Axe, Double Dragon, Outrun, and Gauntlet. Those were glorious days.

I started dating girls, going to college, and getting married soon after... these high school days were pretty much my last days of arcade magic. I haunted a few arcades after it, but the magic was gone. The Pirate's Cove turned into the Fun Tunnel (lame), home video games were dominant, and an era died. The arcades went into deep freeze for a long time.

*Jesus we were poor. I look back on it now in amazement when I think about the things we did and the things we didn't do and I put the pieces together I realize just how deep, deep, deep in poverty we really were. As a kid you don't necessarily know or notice that shit. You just exist. You play and eat if there's food and do what your folks say. But god damn, thinking about those years... those were rough times.

**Side note: My memory is that it cost a quarter to play arcade games from the late 70s pretty much through most of the 80s. I remember as a teen going to the local arcade, The Pirate's Cove (how cool a name is that?) and it was always one quarter to play games. Then suddenly we started to see these fancier, bigger games with seats and steering wheels that cost 50 cents and I was like "50 cents?? You gotta be kidding me!".

***Yeah, so that's not the only one. Before my folks split up but I was old enough to remember (1975-1977), my mom bought me a Big Wheel. Now, Big Wheels were a big deal back in the day. That shit was hot to a kid. And it was not cheap, I'm sure. Especially for poor people. But my dad allegedly had a job at that time and so mom bought me a Big Wheel for my birthday by putting it on lay-away. Now, lay-away was a term used by retail stores for when you would take the item to the lay-away counter, pay some percentage of the total price, and they would keep it for you until you paid it all off. It was a way poor people could slowly purchase an item that was too much to buy at once so that the item didn't go away before you had the cash to buy it. But my wee brain thought "Lay-Away's" was a brand name for a store. I remember going to "Lay-Aways"... I have no idea what store it actually was! Possibly Sears.

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