Arcade. There’s no single word that can trigger more nostalgia for people of a certain age — my age, as it turns out. For those of us who grew up in the era, arcades (and arcade games) are our analog to Proust’s madeleines: Running into a favorite machine from the era can, and will, trigger a cascade of sense memories. The feel of those buttons under your thumbs. The anxious anticipation of your turn coming up, marked by placing a quarter on the machine. The adrenaline surge of fighting off impossible odds to make that final quarter last as long as possible before your day of gaming was over. All it takes is walking into a new bar and finding an old machine, and it all comes rushing back.
My first game was Space Invaders. You don’t often find those around any more — too old, I guess, and too primitive. At the time of my first encounter, at a Shakey’s Pizza in Casper, Wyoming, I was all of six years old. I already loved Star Wars and pretty much anything else with spaceships, so Space Invaders seemed like the coolest shit I had ever seen. I dropped every quarter I could beg, borrow or steal into that machine, and I have no doubt that it played a big part in my dad buying us an Atari 2600 so we could just play the damn game at home.
Having a game system at home didn’t mute the love of the arcade, though. I moved around a lot as a kid, and wherever I went, I always looked for the arcade. Once, my uncle owned one, which you’d think would be heaven, but he never gave me any free plays. He probably knew he’d never get me out from underfoot if he did. A lot of time, the places I lived in were too small or too remote to have a proper arcade, but there was always someplace that had a few machines jammed into an unused corner.
For that reason, I have fond memories of a laundromat, of all places, where I used to go to play Bubbles, a game about cleaning out a sink. Yes, that is a real thing, or was. My favorite swimming pool in fifth grade had a Sinistar machine that I adored, as well as a trippy laserdisc game called Star Racer (I believe I may be the world’s only fan). When all else failed, there were always the convenience stores, which for years were reliable places to find a game or two.
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For someone who moved around as often as I did — I think I went to ten schools before I graduated high school — arcades and pseudo-arcades provided a constant point of reference in any new town or neighborhood. If they had new games that I’d never played, it was exciting. If they had some old favorites, it was comforting. And no matter what, there were always other kids around, usually kids my age who shared at least one of my interests.
The whole thing must seem weird to people who grew up on Xbox Live or in World of Warcraft, immersed in lavishly detailed digital environments, playing with people from all over the world. Even the deepest games of that era were just a handful of screens and a few moving sprites. Still, there’s something to be said for revisiting those games, and that atmosphere (to the degree it can be recreated). In much the same way that cinephiles might discover that an old Buster Keaton Silent-era short not only showcases cinematic technique that can still be seen today but is also entertaining in its own right, modern gamers might find these old games still have something to offer. Stop by one of Denver’s arcades, like 1up (also a bar!) or Hyperspace Arcade (which is celebrating a grand reopening this weekend) and drop a few dollars worth of quarters into your history, for nostalgia or just to see how us old timers did it in the days of yore.
Get your arcade on starting at 4 p.m. Saturday, February 20, at Hyperspace Arcade, 1601 Reed Street in Lakewood; $10 will get you in the door, and all the games are on free play all night, tonight or any night. For more information, visit the Hyperspace Arcade grand re-opening event page.