Monday, December 05, 2005

The Demise of a Revolution

The erasure of videogame arcades from popular culture across the globe

Remember the dark lights, constant bling-bling of coins and the heady rush of being in a place where most people’s egos make Mount Everest seem like a molehill? Yes, I’m talking about the ‘friendly’ neighborhood videogame arcade of yesteryear, where you could pop in with only 10 rupees in your pocket and get over 5 hours of interactive entertainment (if you’re good – if not, the ten bucks wouldn’t last you more than 2 minutes).

For those not in the know, videogame arcades are commercial establishments that house large videogame machines for people to experience on a “per play” basis. You’d have to put in a few coins (it used to be Re. 1 and Rs. 2 about 10 years ago, but in today’s arcades its Rs. 20 per game) and try and keep your game character alive for as long as possible – if your character died or the game ended, you’d have to put in more coins to continue your game.

Mostly the bastion for teenage males, videogame arcades all over the world have had their fair share of negative vibes; they typically have subdued lighting to inhibit glare and enhance the viewing of the game's video display, making the ambience seem a little, well, dark and dingy. Add to that the ‘putting in coins into a machine’ phenomenon and most people automatically thought that these arcades were gambling houses! *sigh* I wish they were, I’d probably be a millionaire by now :) But anyway, this atmosphere and the combination of people’s perceptions added to their negative reputation, and arcades in the US, Japan, Europe and even India came under a lot of flak by concerned parents and tax-greedy politicians.

The arcade scene in India was comparatively late in arrival, and when arcades did start to sprout, they were restricted to only a few places in the beginning; one of the first videogame arcades in India was in Pune, called “Shoot-In”. Small place, packed with pinball machines and arcade cabinets, it was one of my favorite hang-outs as a kid simply for the fun Tetris competitions they used to have :)

By the mid-1980s, however, the arcade video game craze was beginning to fade in the west due to the reputation of arcades as being seedy, unsafe places as well as the advances in home video game console technology. The last gasp of the youth arcade subculture in Europe and the US, may have been the advent of two-player fighting games such as Street Fighter II (1991), Mortal Kombat (1992), Samurai Showdown (1993), Fatal Fury (1992) and the Tekken series (1996), to name but a few classic all-time-favorites. In India, though, “homebrewed” arcades sprung up all over the place in the late nineties, with homemade arcade machines created out of Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis consoles combined with cheap control systems, video monitors and of course, pirated games.

So what was the difference between the original arcade games and these Indian/Taiwanese arcade games? Well, the Indian ones would “pause” every 3 minutes, forcing you to put in another 2 rupees to continue your game. So it didn’t matter if you were good at the game or not, you’d have to shell out 2 bucks to play for each additional 3 minutes!

Nevertheless, these arcades too came under a lot of flak, and, like the rest were shut down over time. Over the years I’ve been to quite a few arcades: 3 in Mumbai, 1 in Mangalore, 4 more in Pune and even one in Goa, at the Cidade De Goa. I’ve heard of a few in Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and even Kolkatta – however, only a couple of them remain open to this day. So what happened to these arcades, and why did they close shop?

The so called “golden age of arcade games” was the mid-eighties to the early nineties, according to historians, where video arcades were at their peak popularity in the US and Europe. After that, though, the rapid fall in popularity was due to a combination of three things: the growing power of home consoles and PC gaming; the negative reputation of video arcades; and the lack of new games and technologies coming out from the game developers, who shifted focus to (the more profitable) console and PC development.

In India, however, the reasons videogame arcades died are quite different: the game cabinets were expensive; the arcades come under the entertainment tax scanner; the newer arcades just didn’t become profitable due to their student-unfriendly prices and therefore low occupancy; and quite often, arcades got into trouble due to the betting habits of a few unscrupulous individuals.

With the increase of Internet cafes opening (which also provide gaming services), the need for video arcades and such arcade games have reduced, and therefore many old video game arcades have long since closed. The classic coin-operated games have become largely the province of dedicated hobbyists all over the world, who manage to buy old arcade cabinets at amazing prices.

Japan is now the only country in the world which still has a popular video arcade culture, where they are called “game centers”. New age arcade games are usually tested out in Japan, with new genres like “Dance Dance Revolution” (where the player has to do certain dance moves on a floor-pad) and “The House of the Dead” (where the player holds a gun and shoots at a light-sensitive screen) which were created in the past 5 years. Unfortunately, even in Japan, arcades aren’t what they used to be, and with a very few new games being made, most believe the games centers won’t last too long either.

The good old neighborhood arcade is no more, well, at least not till someone perfects virtual reality machines; but have we lost all those amazing games? Not really! If you’d like to play the arcade games of yesteryear again, you could use an ‘emulator’ called MAME and play most of your old favorites on your PC! You probably won’t get to experience the dark, excitement filled ambience of an arcade again, but at least all the games are still there for the taking.


Anonymous said...

Nice article Bawa....aaah Samurai shodown I miss those days...I got it for my PSP recently, thank god for emulators.


Zubin said...

Talking about Samurai Showdown, did you know it was called Samurai Spirits in Japan? And that there was an edition released for the SOny Playstation with none of the older characters except Haohmaru?

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