Due mostly to matters of location and age, my video gaming wasn't so much in actual dedicated video arcades, but Chuck E. Cheese, which I guess you could qualify as a video arcade that just happened to sell pizza.
Man, you'd parcel the tokens you got with the pizza very carefully. Was it worth it to drop 2 tokens to play Star Wars in a cockpit instead of playing the upright version for a single token? (Totally.) And what about waiting in line to spend God-only-knows-how-much on Dragon's Lair, where 2 tokens lasted roughly twice as many seconds?
While Ye Olde Pizza Time Theatre may have not been a bona fide arcade, it definitely had the social aspect that Wil talks about. I've never been remotely close to being social, but I played against total strangers without much thought. That's how you learned. Well, you could stand around watching, too, but that wasn't as much fun.
My friend Chris Myers showed me how you could skip ahead on "Crystal Castles" on the first level by going behind the castle and jumping. I'd never have figured that out on my own. That was what we had instead of the Internet: Word of mouth.
My family moved to Tracy in 1985, only a few months after I turned 10. At the time, Tracy was a very small place. The newspaper came out three times a week, which I didn't even know was allowed. We got channels 2 through 13 and Showtime. No MTV. Not for a year or so, anyway. The only bright spot was that Tracy had a Chuck E. Cheese, and it was just down the street.
And when there was a school event, birthday party or Friday night hangout place, you could bet that you'd end up at Chuck E. Cheese. For the first few years I lived there, it was the de facto community center.
The Tracy Chuck E. Cheese is still my favorite. It wasn't the biggest, it didn't have many of the newest games, and the last few years before it closed, it was pretty terrible, but I still smile when I think about it.
I have a vague memory of going there for some school event, maybe fifth-grade graduation or something. We got there when they were opening; they hadn't turned on the video games yet. We were in the arcade area when they did, and it's a sound I'll never forget. Silence, then a giant KA-THUNK, and then the cacophony of all the games cycling through their self-tests and coming to life. Just underneath all that, there was the distinctly metal clinking sound of a token being returned.
I checked the coin return of the machine closest to me and found that it had indeed ejected a token. I was struck by two thoughts:
Did every machine discharge a token? (Darn near, as I recall)
Even arcade games liked to drop a deuce first thing in the morning. They were just like people.
Every Friday night, the game room of Chuck E. Cheese was packed with junior high school students, and the drama that they could produce in massive quantities. Relationships were forged and broken in that game room, whether it was winning something for a girl thanks to your Skee-Ball prowess, or as many seemed to do, sharing a kiss or a discrete smoke in the hidey-hole cutout room designed for the preschool set.
I was, not surprisingly, excluded from that whole phenomenon. But I heard about a lot of it Monday morning in Math Lab.
The fun ended when they blocked the entrance to the secret room.
Later in middle school, QuikStop was our after-school stop of choice for a few months. We spent the GNP of Papua New Guinea on "The Real Ghostbusters" game. I usually had the least amount of change, so I'd bow out relatively quickly, but my friends hung in there for a good minute or so longer.
I stopped checking out arcades when all the Mortal Kombat stuff came out. It's not that I didn't like the violence; I just didn't give a crap about mashing buttons to do special moves. Plus, you know, with the home systems doing pretty well, it just didn't seem to make sense.
I still check out the local arcade at the mall, but it's mostly for my son, who loves the bowling games and stuff like that. I think I'd drop dead if I played Dance Dance Revolution, either from embarrassment over my mad dance skillz or a myocardial infarction.