Back in the day, and by “the day” I mean most of the 80’s, the arcade was the place to be. Arcade games development was at its peak with huge amounts of competition from the manufaturers, and there would be new cabinets or upgrades launched every week. Every Friday I would head into Southend (Essex born and bred) with my friends and try out the new games, particularly the multiplayers like Gauntlet or Hotrod. A visit to the arcade was a mainstream activity for us, and an acceptable part of our social routiine – arcade, pint, club, kebab, home.
There was a huge amount of choice, with all of the latest games at the front of each arcade, showcasing some fantastic cabinets like the ride-on version of Space Harrier, or the sit down Star Wars model. I remember a huge crowd around Dragon’s Lair, a rubbish game as it turned out but there was an incredible amount of interest in the technology. The previous “hot game” would not stay hot for long, and would find itself shuffled backwards in the arcade to make room for the latest model. At the back of the arcade you could find the very oldest games, which would stay there until they broke down.
Even back then I was already thinking in terms of retro gaming, what would happen to Galaga and Phoenix cabinets when they broke down and no-one wanted to play them anymore? How would I be able to play these games in 20 years? Thanks to projects like MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator), which is aiming to make the old software, literally extracted from the ROM chips on the old PCB boards, playable through a PC emulator. So there should be no reason why we cant be playing these games 20 years from now. There are also the arcade hero’s from the Arcade Barn, who have taken it on themselves to collect, restore, and maintain these games, but even more importantly make them available for the public.
Nowadays, those Southend arcades are still there, but nothing like they used to be. Many of them are full of fruit machines, and the classic games are nowhere to be seen, amongst the dancing, shooting and driving games that seem to be all that remain of the arcade industry. Of course we now have so much more choice, accessible from the comfort of our homes, but I do miss the social element of those Friday night trips.