Travelogue: Hell’s Arcade

When we walked into the place, it was empty (except one lone guy playing Fallout or something on a big screen in the farthest, darkest corner). There were games, yes, but no clerk, no one to let us enter what should be a kind of Paradise.

I compare all arcades to the one at Nathan’s when I was a kid. The Nathan’s is gone, the arcade is gone, but the memories remain. A hundred games, most to the left but some to the right, and you could get a hot dog or, more likely, cheese fries any time you wanted. Games like Elevator Action, Rampage, Space Duel. Pinball machines galore. Bells ringing, games beeping, it was a veritable orchestra of electronic and mechanical sounds. We spent so many quarters there.

My low point for an arcade game of any sort was a pinball machine in the Philadelphia airport, circa 1991. I was stuck in the airport because of snow. Snow had delayed my flight to Philly, and also my flight from Philly. I was supposed to be in Florida. Instead, I dropped a quarter into the one pinball machine. But the bumpers didn’t bump, half the lights wouldn’t light, many of the sounds fell silent or muted. It was the least exciting pinball machine I’d ever played. Tommy, at his deafest, dumbest, and blindest, would have been very disappointed.

Fast forward to now, and the arcade in Pennsylvania. I won’t name it, because it doesn’t deserve a name. When we finally found the clerk, she let us in, and we started playing games.

A half dozen or so machines were out of order. Disappointing, yes, but more disappointing was the number of “in order” machines that were, in fact, out of order as well. Spy Hunter started, but the screen was skewed and the gas pedal refused to work. I could fire my guns, but I couldn’t make the car move. A car game where the car stands still is unsettling.

In other games, the controls were wonky. Revenge of Doh, a pong descendant in the Arknanoid family, had a paddle — basically, a wheel you turn to slide your man left or right — that moved in small or big chunks at random. There was nothing smooth about it. I was forced to abandon the game.

I abandoned several games for similar reasons. Controls that didn’t work. Screens that were so dark, it was like playing the ghost of a machine. Screen images that crushed an inch into a millimeter’s space on one side or the other.

And the sound was wrong. There was no orchestra of electronic and mechanical sounds. Machines were too loud. Machines were too soft. Some made no noise at all, and there’s almost nothing worse than playing an arcade game without sound.

It was no easier to find a clerk to facilitate our escape from the arcade, either, but eventually we abandoned the arcade to the guy playing Fallout in the dark corner, who I’m half convinced was a mannequin.

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