The first movie will always be better than the second. And the book will always be better than the movie. And your first love? It’s probably best not to mention the subject around your current flame.
For a lot of gamers, our first love was the arcade game. Jack that age bracket up a notch and you’ll meet people who never knew games before the Nintendo NES invaded the homes of America, and who’ve never clutched a shiny quarter in a grubby hand, waiting desperately for their chance at the joystick. But for those of us who’ve been with the hobby since the beginning, there’s very little that can top the memory of happening upon a random, man-sized game cabinet in some out-of-the-way place, and discovering a game we’ve never played.
There was a convenience store near where I went to elementary school. For some odd reason they had a Tutankham machine. I must have spent days in that store. Likewise in the bowling alley where my older brother taught me how to use a pen or a plastic hair brush to play Track and Field, and where I learned that Ms. Pac-Man was a cruel mistress, that Dragon’s Lair (in spite of the flashy graphics) was a lousy game and that playing a star fighter pilot was about as cool as it got, regardless of how annoying Mark Hamill’s voice could be and how lousy the death star looked in vector graphics.
As I got older, the better the games got and and the more time I spent in an arcade, the more likely it seemed that I’d found my reason for existing; the one thing that I’d be doing for all my days. The arcade near the movie theater was always good for a few games of Cyberball, Street Fighter or Xenophobe with friends, arcade titles that forged the path for all of the multiplayer (massively and otherwise) games to follow. Even after the NES arrived, the best action was still at the arcade, even if it was on the Super Mario Bros. machine at the 7-11. That music still makes me want a Slurpee, even after I’ve more than trebled my time playing the game on other platforms.
The Achilles heel of the arcade machines was that all of their awesomeness came with a price. Often that price was $0.25. Occasionally, as with Rolling Thunder and a few others, it was higher. And games like Gauntlet, which demanded a steady influx of quarters to keep your character alive, could bleed you dry. Those who complain the loudest about the price of games today are most likely to have never been in an arcade. If you think gaming is an expensive hobby now, you just don’t have an appreciation for how fast those quarters could add up to an allowance, or later, a paycheck.
Xbox Live, “arcade classics” disks and a steady stream of nostalgia plug-in products have helped me recapture some of those lost silver eagles, but the old dream still lives deep in my soul; the dream in which I walk into the arcade and the bill changer machines chant my name and open as one, disgorging their loads of quarters into my outstretched hands, filling my pockets with nickel-alloy love, allowing me to realize the impossible, the unthinkable, the god-like majesty of unlimited play at the arcade.
Today that dream came true at VGXPO.
Almost an entire half of the convention floor has been given over to the largest collection of arcade machines I’ve ever seen. Ever, ever.
Last night at around midnight, as the conventioneers were hastily putting the finishing touches on their booths and Microsoft (who had apparently gravely misjudged the timing of their keynote address) had long since come and gone, a lucky few early-arrivals like me had the arcade all to ourselves – and the games were free.
It was everything I’d ever hoped it would be and more.
I played Pac-Man, reveling in the joy of death by sticky joystick; and Tron, re-living the frustration of having to play the three stupid mini-games to get to the light cycle race. But this time I didn’t have to cash in my allowance for the privilege. Have you ever played Pong on an original arcade machine? I have. It was sitting right next to Space Attack (which sadly didn’t seem to work.)
The organizers of VGXPO know what’s it all about: the games. And the very first thing you see when you walk through the door is a shrine to the pastime we all share. I can’t honestly say if every arcade cabinet ever made is in attendance here, but it sure looks that way. They’ve also got playing stations set up with just about every console you can imagine. Even if you don’t attend a single lecture or panel. Even if you ignore the vendor booth entirely and never speak to another living soul the whole weekend you’re here, VGxPO is a worthwhile trip. For some of us, it’s a chance to relive memories. For others it’s a chance to experience the games from the dawn of the industry for the very first time.
It’s not hard to find an arcade machine these days, if you look for them. But finding so many in one place is a rare experience and a memorable one. Like meeting an old flame an d realizing that you both happen (once again) to be single. It took a Herculean effort of will to drag myself away from the show floor last night.
Today, the floor is a bit more crowed, and it takes a bit more line-waiting (for which I have no patience) to get a turn and it’s a good thing. Otherwise I’d have a lot of explaining to do when I got back to the office.