Once a fixture of the American landscape, video game arcades have all but vanished, along with soda fountain counters, automats and video stores. But in a few sacred quarters, the golden age of arcade games lives on. The shiny plastic joysticks, flashing lights and familiar chirping sounds of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders and dozens of other arcade classics are as alluring as ever and still beckon die-hard gamers to set new records.
In 1978 Taito introduced Space Invaders, a radically new video game in which the player blasts rows of invading aliens with a laser as they descend the screen. Developer Tomohiro Nishikado modeled the invaders on the octopus-like aliens from the 1953 film adaptation of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, allegedly because he had moral qualms about shooting human beings, even in play. Urban legend has it that 100-yen coins (the arcade equivalent of U.S. quarters) soon became scarce in Japan as enthusiasts rushed to arcades to play the game.
In response to the breakout success of Space Invaders, publishers introduced several space-themed games, such as Asteroids, Missile Command and Defender. But there was no stopping the game that launched the craze. By 1981, 360,000 Space Invaders cabinets were installed in arcades around the world, and the golden age of arcade games was in full swing. At the time, video games brought in $8 billion a year in revenues—surpassing Hollywood films, pop music and major league sports. So addictive was video gaming that certain groups—Japanese PTAs, the U.K. Parliament—tried to limit the pastime. Physicians even began diagnosing joint pain as “Space Invaders elbow” and “Space Invaders wrist.”
Before it had been out even a year, Space Invaders had thoroughly invaded pop culture. First, Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra incorporated the game’s sound effects into its 1979 hit song “Computer Game”; then, a year later, British New Wave band the Pretenders sampled the video game in their instrumental “Space Invaders.” This heady era saw darkened video arcades fill with teenagers who enjoyed the rebellious atmosphere as much as the gameplay. In an episode of That ’70s Show, a character invokes the phenomenon: “I’m only here to make sure my boyfriend doesn’t sneak out to play Space Invaders.” In another episode, a Space Invaders console replaces the pinball machines in one of the cast’s favorite hangouts, the Hub.
Video games and their inimitable eight-bit soundtracks inspired Pac-Man Fever, a 1982 album and single by Buckner & Garcia named for the wildly popular video game franchise, which grew to include a Saturday morning cartoon show and products such as T-shirts and lunch boxes. Other songs on the album celebrate the sounds of Centipede, Frogger and Donkey Kong, but notably absent from Pac-Man Fever is any reference to Space Invaders, the game that launched them all.
The golden age of arcade games gripped the world in 1982, when American musical duo Buckner & Garcia released Pac-Man Fever—an album on which every song is about a different video game and includes actual sound effects associated with gameplay. The title track captures the passion and enthusiasm of gamers: “I got a pocket full of quarters, and I’m headed to the arcade… / ’Cause I got Pac-Man fever.”
Jerry Buckner came up with idea for the album after going into clubs and seeing people line up to play the Pac-Man machines. He did some math and saw an opportunity: With the right record, he could cash in on the craze. “They were spending money on the games and not on records, so the record industry was actually in a slump,” he remembers. With Pac-Man Fever, “they would spend quarters on our record and the game. CBS was so happy to have it, because they finally were able to get some of the quarters these kids were spending.” The single sold more than a million copies. Meanwhile, Pac-Man remains the highest-grossing, most recognizable video arcade game of all time, putting the “gold” in golden age.
In the hugely popular Donkey Kong, released in 1981 at the height of the golden age of arcade games, a hammer-wielding character, Mario (originally known as Jumpman), ascends ramps and ladders within what may be a construction site. His goal is to reach the top and rescue Pauline (the Lady) from the clutches of the malevolent ape Donkey Kong, who hurls barrels and other obstacles into Mario’s path. The challenge was ridiculously addictive to hordes of Reagan-era youth and continues to be so to a few die-hard fans. Two of them are subjects of the documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Billy Mitchell is a self-satisfied hot sauce salesman by day who sports a mullet, a haircut popular when he first became Donkey Kong champion in the 1980s; Steve Wiebe is a genial high school science teacher and father of two, who tried for years to unseat Mitchell. For some viewers, underdog Wiebe’s attempts to outclass Mitchell in an arcade full of cheering spectators may hold a Rocky-esque appeal. But to others, the only thing more tedious than the idea of two guys manipulating joysticks for hours on end is watching them do so.
In King of Kong, rivals Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe vie for the highest Donkey Kong score. Adding to the drama is Mitchell’s possible collusion with Twin Galaxies, a governing board that validates high scores and keeps gaming records. In High Score, gamer Bill Carlton attempts to break a 22-year-old record by topping a tally of 80,364,995 in Missile Command, a 1980 classic in which the player defends six cities from nuclear attack. The film follows him as he plays for two days straight, without sleep and subsisting only on canned pears.
Competition has taken many twists and turns since the documentaries were released. New York City physician Harry Chien set the Donkey Kong world ablaze in February 2010 with a total of 1,061,700 points, eclipsing Mitchell’s long-standing record of 1,050,200. Mitchell retook the title in July 2010 with 1,062,800 points, and a month later Wiebe finally bested him with a whopping 1,064,500. But in November 2012 Dr. Chien set a new mark at 1,138,600. Meanwhile, Bill Carlton has a new Missile Command world record to beat: In March 2013 Swedish gamer Victor Sandberg racked up a score of 81,796,035 in 56 hours of continuous play.
The first successful coin-operated pinball game was Baffle Ball, introduced in 1931. Pinball soon became all the rage—much to the consternation of some religious groups and other high-grounders, who considered the game a tool of the devil. In 1942 New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia ordered police to seize all pinball machines and posed for photographers while smashing one to smithereens. From La Guardia’s perspective, playing pinball was akin to gambling, and those who peddled the game were “slimy crews of tinhorns, well dressed and living in luxury on penny thievery.” Of course, nothing could have made the game more appealing to aficionados, and for decades afterward playing pinball in a bar or back room was a way to flaunt a James Dean–like rebel spirit.
Coin-op machines went mainstream during the golden age of arcade games, and by 1982 an estimated 13,000 video arcades were open for business nationwide. These days they are mostly a thing of the past, though some enterprises successfully keep the spirit of gamesmanship alive. At Ground Kontrol, a “retrocade” and bar in Portland, Oregon, more than 60 classic cabinets beckon players—and 27 pinball machines enjoy pride of place.
Baseball has Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. Golf has Augusta; horseracing, Churchill Downs. For the gaming niche, the few remaining video arcades are similarly sacred turf. In the documentary High Score, Bill Carlton—a regular at Portland, Oregon’s, Ground Kontrol, one of the nation’s most popular arcades—spends two days playing Missile Command, moving crosshairs on the screen to intercept ballistic warheads that threaten to obliterate six cities. Carlton’s goal is to beat the record of 80 million–plus points set in 1982 by Victor Ali. (Spoiler alert: He doesn’t make it, thwarted when the machine automatically resets itself.) For nongamers, one of the film’s intriguing revelations is that Ground Kontrol and other arcades are hotbeds of competition where a few hard-core gamers continually try to break records. When asked why he has worked so arduously to master Missile Command, Carlton says simply, “Because it is superhard, and most people never get it even after 20 years of play.” He adds, “I have to constantly be ready when a three-day weekend is going to come up, [so] I’m in good enough shape that I’ll be able to stand and play for two days.”
As 19th-century French realists were wont to say, Il faut d’être de son temps, which loosely translates as “You gotta keep up with the times.” Though the phrase isn’t likely to trip off the tongues of Ground Kontrol’s young denizens, that’s exactly what this highly regarded Portland, Oregon, “barcade” is doing. The arcade and bar hosts launch parties for a new generation of video games played as home entertainment on Xboxes and PlayStations—technologies that have contributed to the demise of arcades—as well as a weekly night dedicated to Rock Band karaoke. In this game, players equipped with controllers shaped like guitars, keyboards and drum sets follow notes on-screen to perform hits by the Who, Bon Jovi and Red Hot Chili Peppers, among dozens of rock legends. The best performers, often shredding soloists, earn the highest scores. Serving beer to those 21-plus, the arcade provides a stage, a giant screen, mikes and mucho amplification—such that spectators feel as though they’re watching a real rock concert. Ground Kontrol’s banks of classic video games lend the scene a nostalgic backdrop, though for old-school gamers, they inevitably steal the show.