During the beginning of the film “Wreck-It-Ralph”—Disney’s love letter to vintage video games—Wreck-It-Ralph, voiced by John C. Reilly, says, “Thirty years I’ve been doing this. And I’ve seen a lot of other games come and go. It’s kind of sad.” I couldn’t agree more.
The movie, about a classic video game villain (who is the bad guy in the real-life 1982 video game Fix-it Felix) who just wants people to like him, laments about the surrender of American video game arcades and their 8-bit counterparts to home-gaming consoles and state-of-the-art, high-definition graphics.
For those of you who are not old enough to remember the dimly lit, soft neon glow of the arcade and all of the beeps, zaps and blurps that came from inside, it was a place of exclusivity and status for kids during the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. It was the place to be seen, a magical place where, if you were good enough, you were crowned the “King of Kong,” or, if you weren’t in it for the competition, you were there for the camaraderie. The arcade was not just about video games for a lot of us; it was about the social aspect, the hanging out, the escape from our parents and real life, if just for a little while.
I remember saving every quarter I got and putting them into a plastic Ziploc bag so that I had enough to play for several hours. And I remember using the phrase, “I’ve got to get more change” a lot when I ran out and just had dollar bills—you know, back when change machines existed, before debit cards ruled the land.
I used to go to the arcade at Eastgate Mall. My buddies and I would walk there from our Brainerd neighborhoods. And later, when we were old enough to drive and constantly on the hunt for girls, we would go to the one at Hamilton Place Mall or Edsel’s on Brainerd Road.
Sure, places such as Chuck E. Cheese's and Dave & Busters have video games, and there are a few arcades around in bigger cities, but it’s not the same, as these places are much more family-oriented. And arcades, at least for a time, were anything but—mainly teenage hideaways and young adult nightspots.
These days, arcades are on life support. And game consoles and computers are in just about every American household. It’s lonelier existence, for sure, but a more convenient one.
According to Wikipedia, by 1982 (in the golden age of the arcade), there were 24,000 full arcades, 400,000 arcade street locations and 1.5 million arcade machines active in North America. The revenue from arcade video games in quarters was estimated at $8 billion, surpassing the annual gross revenue of both pop music and the Hollywood movie industry at the time. It was at this time that the personal computer and home video game industry emerged; Atari, Intellivision, Nintendo and other consoles quickly invaded households across America, and by the mid- to late 1990s, arcades were quickly dying off.
Now, fewer than 4,000 exist.
And it gives me hope that for someone like me, who yearns for the days of crowds gathering around a big, bulky machine to watch someone winning at games such as Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Street Fighter, that I might be able to emulate this experience again as an adult, with a beer in my hand instead of a soda and the chance to escape from reality with my buddies, if just for a little while.
“Wreck-It-Ralph" is out on Blu-ray Tuesday, March 5.
Charlie Moss writes about local history and popular culture, including music, movies and comics. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.