I’m not exactly sure when I first set foot into Major Magic’s. It was probably during one of my older brother’s birthdays that I got to tag along, but I do remember the intoxication I felt every time I set foot in that place. The red carpet, the cacophony of sounds, the smell of pizza wafting through the air. Arcades were mesmerizing and it wasn’t long before I requested to return on each of my own birthdays.
I may not remember when it was, but I remember the layout with near photographic perfection. As you entered the prize shop was on your left. This is where you could redeem tickets earned on the wall of skee ball lanes against the back wall. The prizes were always cheap and worth far less than the amount of money you likely spent to earn the tickets, a tradition we still see today at places like Dave & Buster’s. To your right was a small fenced-in area where infants could play. There were small slides and balls to knock around. It was all very cute and colorful since it was designed to look like an outdoor playground. There were benches just outside of the fence where my dear mother would sit patiently and read while her young son spent $20 (or more) on various arcade machines. I was a short kid for a while, so I often required the aid of a plastic footstool to stand on so I could see the monitor properly.
From the entrance, the main floor was populated by clusters or arcade machines with no particular rhyme or reason. They weren’t grouped by manufacturer or type of game – they were mixed in. Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja was coupled with Operation Wolf. Pac-Mania and Galaga sat back to back nearby. Street Fighter II: The World Warrior was clustered with Hat Trick and Time Pilot. Rampage was coupled with Ms. Pac-Man and Centipede.
From the entrance, the far left corner of the room was my favorite. While the right side housed larger environmental cabinets like Pole Position and After Burner, as well as nearby Xybots and APB machines (back-to-back), the left side was home to a row of classics. Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Dig Dug lined one side of the U-shaped nook. The original Pac-Man and Super Pac-Man were shoved against the back wall, near an emergency exit. The final side contained both Tron and Satan’s Hollow, two games I remember vividly for their distinctly bright colored joysticks – blue for Tron, red for Satan’s Hollow. The cabinet artwork for the latter was mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time, with a giant depiction of the winged devil himself. Sandwiched in the open space on the floor were Tapper and Frogger, both in wood-grain cabinets.
Around the corner from Satan’s Hollow, on a low wall with dark windows that enclosed the room where creepy animatronic robots sang and “danced” while kids ate pizza, was a bubble hockey table and the unique Hang-On machine shaped like a motorcycle.
There were plenty more, of course, and new games would often replace older ones. Double Dragon eventually disappeared in favor of the more modern Final Fight. Oddly enough, Street Fighter II: The World Warrior remained even after the addition of Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, which was placed back-to-back with Final Fight. Opposite the latter is where the larger arcade machines usually sat. Double-sized games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Captain America and the Avengers usually went here, and in a colossally bad decision, they eventually squeezed in a Simpsons arcade cabinet in the same area. That area was so thick with onlookers there was no room to move as kids waited, patiently and impatiently, for their turn on either of the popular beat ‘em ups. At some point, I remember the holographic Time Traveler arcade machine being added to my favorite corner.
Contrary to belief, arcades were a popular hang-out for both nerds and so-called cool kids. They were places to kill time, and cooler kids would often beg (or bully) for quarters or, in this case, gold tokens you exchanged real money for. The vast majority of games were still only 25 cents when I first started going, but later games like TMNT would cost double that. The biggest exception to this rule was Dragon’s Lair, Don Bluth’s now legendary laserdisc-based arcade game. As simplistic as it was, the Disney-quality animation was an instant draw even though each play cost one whole dollar in tokens. After many trips to the machine, I eventually memorized the patterns and finished the game at a cost of $18.
Deciding what to spend your allowance on was often the toughest part of any trip. The cabinets themselves vied for your attention with often stunning artwork and a multitude of control schemes. Sit-down cabinets like Pole Position brought you into the experience, but even APB’s more standard upright cabinet drew me in with its steering wheel and pedals. The bright red joystick of Satan’s Hollow drew me to it, and the game was one of a select few that I always made sure to play at least once on every trip. Though it was similar to Galaga, the addition of a shield to block enemy fire, the bridge mechanic, and awesome graphics made it my favorite static shoot ‘em up. Xybots had a very unique, futuristic-looking cabinet and a rotational joystick that you could twist to turn your field of view in the game’s maze-like environments. Operation Wolf really stood out with its mounted black replica Uzi machinegun attached to the cabinet. Then of course there were trackball games such as Centipede and Crystal Castles. Everyone who has ever played one of these knows the pain of getting your finger pinched between the ball and the hole it sits in.
Back in the 80s, arcade cabinets were practically ubiquitous. Super markets often had a machine or two just beyond the registers, usually next to the gumball machines or that incredibly loud mechanical chicken that would “lay eggs” for a quarter. It was an ingenious move, really. Kids would be spared the boredom of being dragged through a grocery store, and parents were spared being asked for every sugary item on the shelves – at least until the child ran out of quarters. I remember the Ghosts ‘n Goblins machine that sat in the Oak Ridge Market where we used to shop. Restaurants also typically had a game or two, usually of the cocktail machine variety – a sit down cabinet with a flat top.
Skate rinks and bowling alleys usually had small arcades of their own. I always found it strange that bowling alleys always seemed to have a bowling video game amongst the cabinets. I bowled in a kids’ league with several friends in my youth, and between turns I used to run to the Rastan arcade cabinet near the concession stand. That game was so hard that I would always die before I had to return for my next turn. They had an OutRun machine as well, if I recall. No trip to a skating rink ever resulted in me skating. Seeing as how my brother broke his leg ice skating when he was little, I never had much desire to learn how to skate in any fashion. Instead, I spent my time in the arcade playing games like Paperboy with its unique bike handle controller or Gauntlet, whether alone or with others. Even the indoor soccer arena where my dad played in a league had several cabinets, most notably Black Tiger. It was the only place I ever saw the cabinet in the wild, and I spent years trying to remember the name of the game until I rediscovered it in MAME in high school.
Lastly there were movie theaters, whose lobbies were often populated with several games. The local dollar show in my town used to be a haven for the latest and greatest arcade games. They were one of the only places that had the deluxe X-Men cabinet, a monstrous six-player machine with two monitors side-by-side. Unlike the bigger corporate theater in the area, they had fully uncensored versions of games like Mortal Kombat II, Primal Rage, and Killer Instinct. Whereas the Star Theater would turn off the gore in the dipswitch settings, Cinemark left it fully intact – drawing crowds just to watch strangers play against each other.
Lightgun games seemed to be prevalent in movie theaters too. Major Magic’s never got a Lethal Enforcers cabinet, but several local theaters had them. Years later, House of the Dead cabinets would replace those, and still to this day you’ll often find Cabela’s hunting games in the lobbies.
What struck me even as a young man was the quality disparity between the arcades and the home versions. As simple as Pac-Man seemed, the Atari 2600 absolutely paled in comparison to the graphics and sound of the arcade cabinet and it was tough to go back to the former once I had played the latter. Even the best ports couldn’t match the graphical and audio fidelity of their arcade counterparts, which would be a trend for several console generations to come.
It wasn’t just the graphics and sound that suffered, but often elements had to be removed or changed entirely. Many games were changed completely for their home release. Nintendo Entertainment System ports of Capcom’s Bionic Commando and Trojan, Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden, and even Tengen’s unlicensed port of Gauntlet shared a name and some basic game mechanics, but were more or less entirely new games loosely based on their arcade progenitors. Even Rampage, a game I adored from the first moment I saw it at an arcade in Mount Pleasant, MI, had to drop one of its three monsters on the NES, though Ralph the Wolf was present in the Sega Master System release. The NES version of Double Dragon eliminated the game’s two-player cooperative mode and changed several game mechanics, making the arcade version’s memorable final one-on-one battle versus the second player impossible as well.
As home consoles became more powerful, the ports got a lot better. The Super NES made waves with its Street Fighter II port early on. It wasn’t perfect, but it was markedly improved over what the NES was capable of. Sega launched their Genesis console with a port of Altered Beast that fairly close to the arcade, but still felt lacking. Furthermore, home consoles couldn’t compete with one of the arcade’s biggest draws – the competitive nature.
Most console games offer a 2-player mode, whether alternating for high school supremacy or simultaneous cooperative or competitive play, but you were limited to your friends and family. Nobody was going to invite a stranger into their homes for a game of NBA Jam, but in the arcade you were always at risk to be challenged, and potentially embarrassed. I’ve never been very into competitive gaming, so when I took a shine to Stret Fighter II: Champion Edition I used to have a friend stand at the second player side and pretend he was playing just to prevent strangers from buying in. Even still, the improved technical capabilities of the arcade machines kept me coming back even after I’d bought home ports of my favorite games.
Cooperative games were also a big deal. The crowds that surrounded the average Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles machine were thick as kids waited for their turn. You claimed your spot in line by placing a quarter or token on the cabinet's bezel, and it didn't matter which turtle was your favorite - when a spot opened, you took it or you lost your place in line.
Little more than a decade ago I used to go to a local adult fun center after late shifts at work. They had Go Kart tracks, pool tables, and an awesome arcade where we’d play games like Crazy Taxi and Gauntlet Legends until the wee hours of the morning. Now that whole complex is a labyrinthine home improvement store. Arcades are largely a relic of the past. You’ll still see machines in restaurants or movie theaters, but they’re often things like Golden Tee Gold or Cabela’s Deer Hunter. What passes for arcades these days are usually filled with redemption games, with a few proper games peppered in. High concept arcade games such as Star Wars: Battle Pod are more commonplace because they offer a more immersive experience with environmental cabinets, and operators can charge premium prices for them. I miss the vintage arcades. Putting a Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga combo machine in a dark corner of Dave & Buster’s certainly does not count.