Killjoystick: The Humming of Electric Pigs
Gt. Yarmouth was kitsch, vaudevillesque, it had Joe Pasquale and the Chuckle Brothers haunting the once renowned ‘Britania Pier’ a place where I read out the following joke at the height of my acting career aged 8.
Q: If bricks make walls, what do walls make?
A: Ice Cream
Stay your applause if only for a moment, but I think I was lucky that I had Gt. Yarmouth because along the beach existed a low rent Las-Vegas-on-sea with its faded maritime grandeur whose heyday of the 1800s came and went with the invention of Airplane. What was left however were English casinos styled upon those Vegas classics ‘The Flamingo’, ‘Golden Nugget and ‘Caesar’s Palace’ etc. Inside the ‘The Flamingo’ the carpet was gaudy, threadbare and sticky and it led to walls of penny arcades, this is generally where my Mum sat for long afternoons, gambling away her maintenance money. Unsavory characters were peppered throughout the place, local kids would try and steal your winnings, dirty men would hit on the women and the guy who broke up your change always looked one bucket of 2p’s away from a nervous breakdown. If you walk a little further on you will discover something quite magical, ‘Mario Kart’ ‘Time Crisis 2’, air hockey ‘House of the Living Dead 3’ (the one with shotguns) they had claw machines filled with Nintendo mascots, Digimon, Furbys, Pokemon. There was a machine that resembled an electric chair execution, with vibrating metal handles, an interactive arcade game where you had to arm wrestle a lump of grey plastic, resembling an arm. It was a kid’s idea of heaven, I and my brother’s idea of heaven, armed with a fiver we would spend whole afternoons there trying to beat Time Crisis 2 (he was always red, I was always blue) or testing our mettle at the racing games. I have since learned that this was not the model for most kids in England however, we were fairly lucky.
Most kids in England growing up through the 90s and into the early 2000s didn’t really have an experience of this sort, I would say with some confidence that the majority of kids experience of arcade gaming was the rogue straggler inside of a shopping center or as the secondary entertainment in the plastic graveyard of a Bowling Alley. ‘England never did arcades like the Americans’ that was the resounding response from my friends who like many others had seen fantasy landscapes portrayed in pop-culture, with endless walls upon walls of arcade machines in an infinite space of coke cans and quarters. Well, these people had never been to Gt. Yarmouth I thought, but ultimately they were right. Outside of the rogue seaside English towns, with arcades nestled on piers or around the main parade of the sea fronts I had not really come across Arcade Gaming. It seemed like there was a call for it, at least for my generation of gamers but then if I thought about it for a second, I understood then that we were experiencing the decline of arcade gaming.
I would occasionally find little gems throughout my life, when I lived in London, for instance, my friend Charlie took me on an expedition to ‘The Heart of Gaming’ we went over, overpasses, down back alleys, up some iron stairs and opened an uninviting rooftop door, tucked away and unassuming. This was back in 2012 and I distinctly remember thinking how soulless the arcade was, the white plastic shells were just housing emulators and in the back where most of the people hung out, they were just playing Street Fighter on PlayStation 3s. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the effort people go to as much as the next guy, it was worth noting for instance that their selection of games was pretty unique at least, but the problem was me. My resounding thought as an adult was I could do this at home… And that was really the crux of the arcade in the modern era. A lot had changed from the mid-nineties to now, you had LAN gaming then, which was cumbersome and required effort or you slugged through a 56K modem for a frustrating turn at some low-graphic video game, but now there is fiber-optic broadband. The head-to-head aspect that Arcades thrive upon now seemed obsolete, now you could find good competition from anywhere in the world, from the comfort of your own sofa.
For a while too there was the rental boom, which even to the youngest economist seemed a more efficient use of their pocket money than 50p for a 15-minute turn on some old Arcade game when they could rent the whole thing over a weekend for a couple of quid. The logic of an arcade now seemed archaic, like the thought of standing in the hallway to make a phone call on a landline when you could more easily use a mobile. I believe that arcade gaming was not able to modernize quick enough, how like Gt. Yarmouth then it all felt with its faded Victorian grandeur. I mean sure you could wheel out a bewildered and incontinent top-down Pacman for a cheap thrill at the Nandos before he dribbles piss all down himself and is swiftly whisked away by the nurse, but it’s not innovative, games releases move so fast nowadays. Arcades don’t innovate fast enough and perhaps that’s because the market doesn’t demand it but it is moments such as these when you realise how much the world of gaming has evolved. I think that’s why now you will hear people talk about arcades with the word ‘niche’ to borrow another example, those who collect records will continue to do so because there is something about it that they like, the feel, the collectability, the textured sound and so on. I don’t believe that anyone would ever stop altogether, but I think the band of retro enthusiasts will become smaller and smaller, but those who love it will always love it.
So that was that then I thought as I walked out of that decidedly un-hip London Arcade, that’s the death of the Arcade, the future generations won’t be bothered, It’ll die a dinosaurs death outside of the bubble of aficionados. That was how I saw it for a number of years that was until I traveled around a bit, I went to Australia for a year and my global narrative seemed to hold firm, bowling alley attractions? Check. Trendy bars with retro ports? Check. Ex-Chelsea goalkeeper, first name Petr? Cech. You get the idea, the same was true for Malaysia, not that I held high hopes particularly. So far so simple for that worldview, that was until I booked a trip to a destination that I had long suspected to be the place that was still propping up the Arcade scene as it had been known… Japan.
In Japan, I arrived confused and I left bewildered, I think that’s most people’s experience with this country and specifically Tokyo. The taxi drivers wore little white gloves, it was impolite to wear deodorant, it’s illegal to eat and walk, and you can quickly experience culture shock in a place like this. One place where I had found a foothold with something familiar was in the arcade scene, which was surprisingly alive here. It took a confusing train ride on the Keihin-Tōhoku from my hostel to Akihabara, which gained the nickname Electric Town after World War II, I’m told because of its prominent sales of electronic goods at famous department stores like Yodobashi Akiba. For me though it was Electric Town, not for just for the vast selection of vibrators or its dizzying neon signs but more so for its five-story Namco and Sega arcades. As you walk through the doors of one of these places, you’re struck by how clean and modern the whole experience can be, there were vibrant red lament floors surrounded by claw games that had figures from Manga and Anime that I didn’t particularly care for but was striking none the less. On the upper stories, fresh carpet that juxtaposed that threadbare grottiness of my formative years in Gt. Yarmouth and the floors were just filled to the brim with modern arcades machines. Games that I had never heard of before, there was one with a massive Taiko drum that you beat with a stick, it looked interactive and fun, there were other ingenious bits of hardware that added new dimensions and layers to the games on offer. That was probably one of the driving factors of Arcade survival here, they were so innovative in their design and their infrastructure, but ultimately the driving factor was the people.
There was a sort of ID card meets loyalty card, which held their stats and other pieces of metadata that the modern video gamers are interested in, the machines were linked to the internet so if you couldn’t play somebody in the arcade, chances are you could somewhere else in Japan. Just the level of detail, scope and depth were truly breathtaking, I was taken aback just by the sheer volume of video games that were unknown to me and I was elbow to elbow with other enthusiastic gamers. There were plumes of smoke being sucked into extractor fans as ashtrays sat on table tops and buttons were tapped and re-tapped to infinity, it felt so mature and yet immature at the same time, it was a strange nostalgic feeling for something I felt missing. The sounds too rubbed their soft tendrils across the ridges of my brain as I could hear those familiar bells and whistles, while the machines grunted like the humming of electric pigs. I found myself sat at a Pokemon Tekken hybrid that I had no idea existed, I pulled 500yen out of my pocket, as eight year old me would have, and lit a lucky strike cigarette, as eight year old me would not have and I proceeded to get my arse whooped again and again by the enthusiastic local sat to my right and I could not have been happier. This was the saviour of the Arcade, this was the model that the West I thought could never support but it existed and it was happening right now, and it blew my childhood out of the water. England never did do arcades like the Americans, but the Americans never did arcades like the Japanese.
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