Reading 09: The History of... Arcades

The first time I went to Strikes & Spares was when I was in 8th grade. Our big class trip was to Chicago, but we stopped at Notre Dame on the bus ride there. Besides the campus tour and actually seeing Notre Dame for the first, time, what I remember most from the night in South Bend was the Strikes and Spares Go Kart races. There were two attendants on duty. The manager was strict, using her governer to ensure that none of the Go Karts were going over the (very slow) speed limit. Every now and then though, she would have to slip away to take care of one issue or another in the arcade, and the other attendant would bump us up to full speed. It was a blast!

Now, 8 years later, I’ve visited Strikes & Spares for probably the last time. The mini golf was fun- exactly as it was 8 years ago. The bowling alley had a recent facelift, with cut scenes between frames that literally included your face. It was an interesting idea, though the execution was questionable. Most of the cutscenes just left you confused as to what just happened, and how it was possibly relevant to bowling.

I didn’t spend too much time (or any money) in the arcade, because frankly, nothing looked all that fun. Games like Crossy Road or Mario Kart aren’t all that different from the free or fixed cost game I could play at home. It’s hard to justify spending 50 cents or more on a few minutes of gameplay. Sure you can win tickets, but the prizes aren’t worth even a small fraction of the money you’re putting into the games.

In my opinion, arcades are a modern-day novelty, relics of golden age when games and consoles were too expensive and/or simplistic to offer the same gaming experience. Forty years ago there was no such thing as multiplayer online gaming. There were no flash games, no free apps, no Steam. Today though, all of these replacements have resulted in a large decline in arcade gaming. From Wikipedia, there are 3,500 arcades in the United States today, compared to 10,000 in the 1980s. Frankly, I’m surprised that the number is so high. My guess is that most of these arcades are similar to Strikes & Spares, where the arcade is attached to bowling, mini golf, and other attractions.

The best arcade games are the type you can’t replicate on a home console, like Skee-ball or Dance Dance Revolution. They’re too big, bulky, or expensive to effectively port to a home system (though it has been tried). These niche types of games are what have allowed arcades to survive. My bold prediction for the future: VR arcades will become the next big thing, with some of the first mainstream VR games requiring larger areas to track player movement, perhaps including small treadmills, custom peripherals, and expensive camera tracking. This is a recipe for arcade gaming similar to what happened in the 80s, at least until technology improves and costs lower.