I grew up in a seaside town, so I’m basically sick of arcades. However Dexter17 is here to give you a more in depth look at them in this enjoyable guest piece. Take it away Dexter.
It’s plain to see why the perception that arcades are diminishing often goes unchallenged. The common stereotype features dim lights, faded carpet and creaking machinery, and a brief trip to any seaside town does little to shatter this ultimately unfair stereotype. Sadder still, these coastal resorts appear to be doing nothing to reinvigorate the enjoyable and potentially lucrative industry, which results in guesswork as to whether the traditional arcade will soon meet its miserable demise.
I didn’t entertain high hopes until I recently took a trip to the newly renovated Grand Pier, which resides in Weston Super Mare and has just gone through a staggering fifty million pound rebuild. It promises to bring the arcade into an age where home consoles are viewed as commodities and although it’s hard to justify spending a pound on some of the games inside, it serves as a buzzing outlet for casual and hardcore gamers alike, in which everyone can find something that caters for their individual tastes.
Before you delve into the present though, it’s equally as important to discover how the arcade has progressively evolved throughout the ages. The arcade’s story started during the 1930s with the introduction of the penny arcade which offered early forms of both pinball and slots. There was no monetary gain from playing these machines besides the opportunity to win the penny back, thus suggesting that a monetary incentive was not necessary to attract the public, and that the arcade was as much of a social meeting place as much as it was for playing games.
These early penny arcades proved vital for the inception of video arcades in the late 1970s, which were famed for offering throwaway five minute slices of fun for a single coin. Early games included Space Invaders and Donkey Kong, and even then, these “potentially harmful” games were being scrutinised by certain portions of the public, most notably for the attraction that they held over attending school. Nevertheless, the video arcade blossomed during the 1980’s, when popularity for the machines reached an incredible peak. They moved out of the dedicated halls and invaded supermarkets, restaurants, and even petrol stations, symbolising the aura of wonder and excitement that surrounded them at the time.
However, by the 1990’s the amount of video arcades began to decrease, and this can primarily be blamed on the development of home consoles (such as the SNES) and the gradual rise of the internet. Whereas previously videogaming had been a social event and had required a trip to the arcade, now consoles were breaking into homes and there was no longer a worthwhile incentive for the gamer to travel; potentially wasting fifteen minutes of valuable playing time. Also, as the capabilities of the home console improved, the arcade found that it could no longer match the experience that could now be enjoyed at home.
Even if the more ambitious arcades took up the challenge, they were forced to charge around one pound per game, which resulted in ostracising the typical teenage visitor. As such, many businesses fell into decline and the establishments that were left had to divert their attention to the middle-aged male market, with which gambling was the only attractive proposition. Hey presto, slot machines broke into what had been traditionally arcade cabinet territory.
But how much have these past developments influenced the modern arcade of today? Upon entering the Grand Pier arcade, it initially seems as if it shares more comparisons with a theme park than with a traditional arcade. The building is divided up into two floors, with the bottom featuring the more conventional pastimes whilst the top caters for the larger attractions, perhaps less common to your average high street institution. These attractions included Go Karts, an F1 Simulator (which I’ll come to later) and a 4D cinema. Given that Weston Super Mare is typically busy anyway, these attractions were engulfed in a vibe that was suitably buzzing, even if the queues did leave a lot to be desired.
I immediately set my focus onto the ground floor, which housed many of the arcade games that I had been looking for. Most of these were priced at a pound, along with many of the air hockey and stacker machines that graced the larger expanses of the arcade. You could debate that a pound a pop is unreasonable but when you consider the current cost of console videogames it seems relatively cheap in comparison.
You also have to take into account that you are not just paying for the game; you are also paying for the premises, the atmosphere, and the small crowd that you will inevitably attract if you find yourself dominating on a particularly popular machine. Even if you can’t afford to blow several pounds on the variety of arcade games, there is also a collection of cheaper amusements on offer, such as ten penny fruit machines and the addictive, but equally infuriating, two penny pusher contraptions.
Nobody is going to win a large amount by playing on these, but the feeling that is administered when a large group of coins drop into the tray below is on parallel with nothing else. This is where the arcade really comes into its own; you may feel euphoric if you gain a lengthy kill streak online, but you don’t receive anything physical for your efforts. Even if you only have a two pence piece to show for your hour of tension and toil, it still serves as a tangible relic of your escapades, and as such provides you with an unbeatable feeling that is guaranteed to make you want to return in the future.
Another thing that is worth noting is the gradual emergence of console games within these arcades. On my travels I saw both Guitar Hero and Race Driver GRID machines, but in the two hours that I spent inside I didn’t see a single person even look at them. The motive behind these titles appearance is clear; developers want people to try their game for five minutes in the hope that it will appeal to them and lead to an eventual purchase. Despite this, there are too many alternative distractions for anyone to focus on a title that they could simply purchase in the high street themselves. Guitar Hero is not necessarily something that can easily be picked up and played either; to a potential newcomer it could prove to be a somewhat daunting experience.
After spending far too much time (and money, for that matter) on the ground floor, I travelled up the impending escalator with significantly lighter pockets than I had set out with. Although the ground floor had been set out well and had offered a multitude of activities, I was yet to see anything that could define the Grand Pier Arcade as one of the best in the country. However, that was all about to change as I progressed to the second floor, and the F1 Simulator came into view.
Used by professional Formula 1 drivers in training, these simulators cost around £120,000 to build, and simulate the F1 driving experience impeccably ensuring that the driver feels every turn, every jolt of speed, and indeed, every crash and collision. Although one of the more expensive attractions at £5.00 a ride, it offers an experience like no other and also a degree of competition in the form of a fast time leaderboard. This brings the competitive element of online gaming straight into the arcade, and this is something that pays dividends with players occasionally having multiple goes to maximise their leaderboard spot.
As you’d expect, this was the attraction that garnered the largest crowd, providing the player with that little bit of pressure but also that unique adrenaline shot that comes with the weight of expectation. Although the Go Karts seemed to be on the receiving end of a variety of varying cheers, it was obvious that the central vibe of anticipation and buzz was solely and purely situated around the F1 Simulator.
It’s a shame then that the Grand Pier Arcade does not serve as a typical example of arcades throughout the UK. It’s a financial impossibility – seaside towns are full of family run arcades and the majority of these simply cannot afford the specialist machinery that the Grand Pier so effortlessly utilises. That’s not to say that they don’t receive custom, holidaymakers are all too willing to lose a couple of pounds for a few minutes of fun, but they certainly aren’t going to spend hours in there like their predecessors did during the 1980’s.
Modern arcades have been left inside a stagnating limbo, and although the Grand Pier Arcade may have a long and fruitful lifetime ahead, it is unlikely that the smaller arcades of Britain will follow a similar suit. Along with the continuing development of the home console, we are en-route to the extinction of the traditional arcade, and devastatingly, it’s a route that looks impossible to steer off course.