Insert Coin to Continue: Can We Save the Arcades?

If you’re anything like me, when you think back to the holidays of childhood, you’ll fill your memory with the smell of the sea, the taste of fish and chips in newspaper and the ever abundant buzz of the seaside arcade. There’s something about the British seaside that just seems to be the perfect habitat for arcades to thrive.

That used to be the case, at least. These days, when I visit a British tourist trap seaside destination, more often than not I find these once joy-filled buildings now home to a more sinister machine; the fruit machine. I have memories from when I was a child of the forbidden corner of the arcade that housed these infernal machines. Often the area would be roped off with a “Over 18’s Only” sign, but now it’s as though they’ve broken from the confines of the red rope barrier and absorbed the rest of the arcade.

Despite the vitriol of my words, I don’t have a problem with fruit machines existing; I just hate the way that they seem to take up 90 percent of the arcades I find these days. More often than not I see an arcade, only to be disappointed when I get through the door. At most you may find a light gun game or two, some racing games, DDR and Guitar Hero along with countless fruit machines and a bunch of UFO catchers. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and find something like the Afterburner Climax and F Zero AX machines that I recently stumbled across, but I’m sad to see the utter lack of fighting games in arcades now. Then there’s the closure of the Trocadero Centre (once Sega World) in London earlier in the year.

Photo by Sam Howzit, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The current state of the UK’s arcade scene brings up a lot of questions. What happened to cause such a crash in the arcade industry here? Just what exactly did arcade gaming give to gamers that’s worth preserving anyway? Is there any way to breathe new life into the industry at this late stage?

As far as what killed arcades is concerned, I think the rising costs became a very strong reason for people to forgo a visit to the arcade. With credits costing between 50p and £2, it just became too expensive to while away the hours in the arcade with your friends. With the advancement of console technology and the quality of arcade ports of games, it just didn’t end up being worth the expense. Not when you could sit at home with a few friends, throw House of the Dead on their Dreamcast and get the same experience as the arcade without having to feed the machine all of your pocket money.

As games progressed forward and became more mainstream, the consoles overtook the arcades; and, with the advent of the internet, you can now play a few rounds of Street Fighter with someone across the globe from you at the click of a button. Who needs the arcade when you can play so many different games with so many different people without even leaving your comfy armchair?

Well, I do, for one. There was an atmosphere in the arcades of old that you just can’t replicate online. It wasn’t just a building that housed a bunch of machines that ate up all your money – they were our dojos, our meeting places, the heart of our whole gaming community. If you’ve never played a game against someone without the pressure of a bunch of eyes staring over your shoulder and putting money on the cabinet to show they want to play the winner, then you’ve never played against someone for real.

Photo by The Community – Pop Culture Geek, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The local arcades of my youth housed a million warm, fuzzy memories of what it means to play video games and just why I love gaming so damn much. Arcades brought the community together, they forged friendships and created rivalries. They were the lifeblood of the gaming scene of my childhood, a time when consoles felt just like practice to be ready for the arcades. That’s why it saddens me that good arcades are an almost dead breed these days.

So just what can we do to bring this whole thing back? Not just for people like me in their late 20s with a nostalgic love of arcades, but for the younger generations who’ll never know the joy of hearing a bunch of people gasp when they make that almost impossible comeback to steal a pixel health victory from their seething opponent.

For examples of just how to do it right, I think we need look no further than places such as The Heart of Gaming in London. Rather than charging for each credit, you pay an on-the-door fee and all the games are on free play. Another fantastic example would be the Four Quarters, also in London, which manages to marry an arcade with a bar to create a nice, chilled atmosphere for casuals and hardcores alike.

I think the main thing to do, though, is to just get out there and hunt down arcades. Hunt out those rare cabinets that still exist in the wild and show them that the market for them didn’t totally vanish. Who knows, maybe someone near you is waiting for the day it becomes viable to open an arcade where you live.

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