The recent Iron Maiden video is a homage to video games, but particularly to coin-op video games. Of the four game types referenced, three are coin-op, the last being a first person shooter. This nostalgia got me thinking about my own past with video games.
I grew up with coin-op games. I remember being able to go to the local 7-11 to play one of the two machines in a small nook in the corner, playing games like Bad Dudes and Double Dragon. When I was young, malls still had video arcades. When my mom went shopping, I'd beg her for some quarters and then tell her to collect me at the arcade. It was a cramped affair where you had to step past people to get around to see what they had or to find the guy with the holster of coin dispensers that would break your paper bills. Whenever my mom showed up, I would beg her to let me stay longer - just one game! - or to watch others play a little longer. Usually I lost my gambit for time and I'd have to grab my remaining coins from the machine and follow her in disappointment.
This was the time of waiting for your turn. You'd place your quarter on the lip of plastic between the game's control console and the plastic that covered the screen. Typically there was just one coin up there for either side - particularly in fighting games - but sometimes the game would get popular and coins would be arranged over the lip, all of us knowing the order in which they were placed up there. There was a courtesy in the quarter order, even if there wasn't always in play against each other. I remember being at the local comic bookstore and burning a few dollars on Street Fighter II when it first came out against a guy who realized but never mentioned that I didn't know how to block.
The games might have seemed cheaper, a quarter versus today's $60 games, but the pay-to-play aspect was strong. Depending on the game, your quarter could be anything from a minute of time to ten minutes. Many games would ramp up the difficulty toward the end of the game. If you wanted to complete them, you found yourself pumping in quarters to get through until the end. When you died, there was a ten second countdown to continue. The decision to push on or to give up was always made in those ten seconds, one of the earliest pure impulse buy decisions. How long you lasted depended on where you were in the game. One of the old beat-em-up Dungeons and Dragons games had a boss fight versus a red dragon. The dragon's breath was an instant kill unless you stood in a certain place. I remember one time playing with a friend, dying, putting in a quarter to continue, pressing the Player One button right before the dragon breathed, so my dude dropped into the game right into that fire, immediately dying and putting me back into the ten second countdown that was ravenous for another quarter. Tough times.
Sometimes even completing the game was a many staged affair. There was winning the game, and then there was really winning the game. Sometimes the game was short. In Altered Beast you rise from your grave and in a few short levels you won. Sometimes the game was punishing. In Crime Fighters, you win the story of the game but are then put into a final round where you must fight every boss in the game simultaneously. And this wasn't an RPG or modern game where you are more powerful later on. You had to fight every boss in the game just as weak as you were when you first saw the boss. And the game did you no favors. Should you finally defeat a boss, then a thug was thrown into the battle to replace them, keeping a dense crowd of enemies to destroy you. That stage could suck the life out of your wallet very quickly.
There was also no internet to learn all of the game secrets in a faq or, more common these days, a video. It was all word of mouth. For example, the Mortal Kombat games have always had particular things (joystick movements and key presses) you had to do to pull off a fatality. You only knew them if you figured them out or someone told you. Back then we didn't even know which fatalities even existed unless we saw someone do them. When MK3 introduced things like Animalities and Friendships, we were shocked when we first saw them. In those old games, secrets were hidden for years. There were still uncharted mysteries for new or uninformed players. Nowadays we're spoiled. Get frustrated with a difficult or confusing part in a game? You don't even have to be frustrated for five minutes! Just go online and either read up on it or watch some person on Youtube talk their way through doing it.
It was a different time, and I don't miss having to put coins in the arcade machines. I do miss having the arcade, having the standing cabinets, having the semi-social aspect. I missed having arcades just around rather than only at home. In college there were arcades near some of the places we frequented and studied in, so sometimes a study break consisted of walking next door to feed the machine a few quarters before returning to books. My recent novel, The Case of the Dead Girl in my Apartment, has a scene in a video arcade, an homage to two that I spent a fair amount of quarters in during my college years. In more recent years, there has been a rise of arcades without the coins. Instead of paying per play, instead you pay a fee at the door and just play as much as you like. It's more up front, but it's better than always deciding "Do I want to play this?" and hoarding your money. It's not as useful for casual play, but it's more fun for an evening or afternoon spent with friends.
However, these arcades are few and far between. They're novelties rather than something reemerging. They're nostalgia. For good or for ill, the days of coin-op games are over. We may have fond memories, old stories, and no use for the quarters which crowd our pockets, but the arcades aren't coming back. Video games are still with us and always will be, but in a different form.
Here's the Iron Maiden video in question: