A large TV hoisted on top of a large box, under which extends a panel hosting 2 joysticks, 5 polychromatic buttons, 4 to play 1 to “Press Start”. A game demo running 8-bit graphics and rather realistic sound, waiting for players to “Insert Coin” and be off on a journey. Arcade gaming was the ultimate means to experience a game up until the advent of PC Gaming.
Startup Magazine gathered with a group of gaming addicts from an older era to talk about the Arcade life. In conversation were Dr. Umair Azfar Khan (Assistant Professor Habib University), Mirza Abeer (Advocate), Navaid Zafar, Omar Majeed, Mehran Khan (creator Blood Lines comics) and 10 others. This writer is also an addict from days of yore.
Modern gamers spend preposterous amounts of money indulging a simple past-time, with expensive hardware and elaborate stations. It might not resonate with the modern crop of gamers, that there was a time when a new game could only be experienced in its complete glory following a pilgrimage to a video game arcade. The following content is a compression of the discussion we all had in the aforementioned session.
The trek to the arcade was usually long, but did not feel like it because the need to game rendered the distance and time irrelevant. Any location they could reach, access and return from before sundown, was considered nearby.
No matter how nice the neighborhood might have been, the area housing the arcade was almost exclusively located in the shadiest part of town and could be described as “inscrupulous”, at best, as one of our attendees described it.
Now, this is not to imply that our generation used to unanimously visit an analogy for an underground dog-fighting arena, but most arcades were usually visibly sordid. Complete with a suspiciously creepy middle-aged man sitting in the back who would never come out, unexplained sawdust and adults who just watched other people play games. The locale had a sensory palette akin to a butcher’s shop. The worst experience was usually an utter lack of hygiene, catching malaria from mosquitoes, second-hand smoke, broken handles and getting scolded by strangers for celebrating a win too loudly.
The Gaming Experience
While arcade machines officially released with original branding and design, a localized (likely pirated) version would always turn up devoid of any branding or the button mapping of the original. They had one plastic knob over a metal stick with four mechanical buttons on the right. The monitor was an old CRT display hidden behind some glass, both of which were scuffed up excessively.
The coins, or “tokens” as they were referred to colloquially, were traded at 6 for Rs. 5. (varied for some establishments) in the mid-90’s (just around when the arcades went exctinct). The coin currency of that era (50 paisa or less) was pretty dense, so if someone really wanted a discount, they’d just use real currency instead.
There were no enforced limits to how long a gamer could stretch a single session. For arcade games like Street Fighter or King of Fighters, the rule was called “winner to stay”. Which meant, that any sufficiently skilled player could spend hours and hours at the place until he got tired and left. I say him, very precisely. There were a gender imbalance. Any females in these establishments were usually there to pick up a child or sibling.
The fondest memories were of slowly learning moves as you played along. Somehow, someone always knew the moves and through osmosis, eventually gamers would too. Some players would be so good they’d become celebrities (within the immediate vicinity of the arcade, at least) and that was the ecosystem therein.
Recollecting some experiences
- An arcade would introduce a new machine, and you’d be ready to destroy that game, but it would be broken the next day and eventually replaced with something else.
- You would spend an entire day trying to finish a game, but would die at the last second only to have someone else come in and take your win.
- Cadillacs and Dinosaurs was a co-op staple of every arcade.
- Every arcade had its own vernacular for the characters. It varied from city to city, but nobody would use the names on screen, for reasons science has yet to uncover.
- There would always be someone who frequents the place far less than you would have skills far superior to your own and your loss would inexplicably ruin your mood for the rest of the evening.
- Even though Tekken (up to 3) came out in arcades, they might as well not have come out as gamers had all moved on to more capable platforms like Nintendo 64, Dreamcast and PlayStation.
- People brought their much younger siblings to experience the game (mostly likely under parental pressure) but played themselves, letting the kid mash the buttons on the empty side.
- Sagar Games near the Boat Basin was quite popular amongst gamers in Karachi.
- All had played a game that the others had not heard of.
Frequency: 4-5 days a week for most of us (school days included).
Memorable Games from that era
- Metal Slug
- Street Fighter
- King of Fighters
- Sunset Riders
- Cadillacs and Dinosaurs
- Snow Bros
- Puzzle Bobble
- and that Michael Jackson game nobody could ever finish.
End of an Era
Gamers eventually moved on, around the late 90’s, when PC and console gaming surpassed the performance of arcades games.
Watered down versions of arcade games did come out on consoles at the time, but everyone knew they were a crude iteration of the “real deal”. Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, King of Fighters, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, etc. did eventually come out on all the major platforms, but they had spent years on the arcade circuit before gracing our homes.
You can tell the highlight of a culture by seeing what it is trying to mimic. Action movies are strongly embedded in their determination to rebuild 80’s and 90’s franchises. Modern trailers use a remix of classic songs just to tug at the nostalgia drive. For gamers, original arcades are the nostalgia, for all generations of gamers. This is why 8-bit graphics is an entire genre unto itself. Modern games still build on what that platform set as a baseline both in gameplay as well as game mechanics. It forged competitive gaming.
Today, we’re still that kid pounding away on our last token taking on all challengers until some came to get us or we lost (whichever came first).
I am Adi Abdurab, and one of my greatest accomplishment isn’t the Peabody Award, but that he was once retweeted by Asim Bajwa and is followed by Tay Zonday on Twitter @abdurab.