Saturday, August 13, 2011

the old arcade on the hill

When I was little, I lived in West Caldwell, New Jersey, and there was this arcade just outside of town - I think it was called Game Town - I don't remember exactly. It was up on this hill and you could see it every time you'd drive from town over to Route 46, which my family would do every now and then because that was the first leg of the route to my grandparents' house. I hardly ever went there.

What I do remember of the place, though, it was like this temple of video gaming, a beacon up there you could go inside and tour these rows of glowing monitors and joysticks and big, brightly-colored, plastic concave buttons. Simply awe-inspiring, especially to a 6- or 7-year old kid with a penchant for befriending kids with an NES or Atari so we could trade games with each other. You have to understand this was in the late 1980s. The proverbial "golden age" had already passed, and this was one of the last vestiges of that bygone era. There were still plenty of good arcade games to be played, though. Sega had risen to dominance and was now kicking some serious ass with their 16-bit games, many of which would eventually find their way onto the Genesis.

We moved away from New Jersey in 1990 for various reasons, and I never saw the place again. By the time I had come back to visit almost a decade later, the place had closed down. Running all those arcade monitors at the same time can sure run up an electric bill. And if everyone is just as happy sitting at home playing their N64, Playstation, or Dreamcast, what's the point of driving out to this place to pay upwards of $1 per play?

Oh, did I mention those big arcade monitors can kill you or implode if not handled properly? The award-winning indie rock group Arcade Fire is actually named because of an arcade they knew of had heard of (fictitious, according to a band quote on Wikipedia) that actually caught fire, presumably from all this high-powered electrical equipment that has to be crammed into a single room, left on all day, and used by lots of random strangers. Can't say I'mI'd be entirely surprised.

Still, there's this somewhat romantic sense of community that got lost in all of that. In college, we would recreate that a little bit by congregating into various dorm rooms where someone would have an N64 and Goldeneye and Mario Kart 64 or Playstation and Madden NFL or Tony Hawk Pro Skater in another. Game consoles were a great way to keep people coming over to your room, if that's what you wanted. You'd have that and as long as you were at least fairly social, you could have a BYO party pretty much whenever you wanted to, because the sound of skateboards, go karts, grenade launchers, and football along with seemingly-random, loud swearing inside a college dorm building can only mean one thing. And the RAs couldn't bust you just for playing video games. Unless it was 3AM on a Tuesday, at least.

Then we all graduated, got married, got jobs, had kids, etc.

Well, most of us, anyway.

I was never very suave with the ladies in school, so I can't count myself among the married/with kids population, or even among the busy-gettin-busy population. And the whole career thing only lasted for as long as I continued to abide by the corporate line of a very large software company with little actual interest in open platforms. When that ended, I found myself back at square one, pondering the number 42. Pondering the old arcade on the hill.

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