I recently attended an arcade bar, or to use the correct vernacular, barcade, for the first time. The spot in question, Tilt, located in downtown Toronto, was unlike anywhere I’d set foot in prior. Arcades never got a particularly strong grip on my native land of Ireland and an arcade-themed bar is, as of yet, not a concept back home (now pubs filled to the brim with farmers, that’s a different story). The interior was dark, but not in a dingy sort of way. The center of the space was mostly given over to tables and stools, whilst the main attractions lined the walls: a collection of pinball machines and arcade cabinets.
Never having been one for pinball, my attention was naturally stolen by the video games, many of which were instantly recognizable - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the original, not Turtles in Time), Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat 3, Pole Position...the list goes on. Anyone with an interest in gaming of the 80s and 90s would walk into that room and recognize at least one machine, probably many of them. Over the last few months I’ve been watching videos about the rise, fall and rise again of the North American video games industry and I’m currently reading the excellent Console Wars by Blake J. Harris, so it was safe to say I had the early days of gaming on my mind. What I quickly realized, however, was the difference between academic-esque curiosity and genuine nostalgia.
I was attending Tilt for a MeetUp event (which was super fun) themed for nerdy types (enter myself). We broke through the initial awkwardness of meeting a new group of people with small talk and eventually our attention turned towards the games surrounding us. The pinball machines were a mystery to me, so I didn’t feel awkward about being unable to contribute so much as learn from the experts in the group. What caught me out was the discussion surrounding the video games. Where I could only offer recognition, they had understanding, memory and reverence. It was a bizarre feeling - for one of the first times in recent memory, I was listening to people talk about something I loved and I felt like a grade-A phony. Favorite vintage Street Fighter characters or turtles of choice had no emotional anchor for me, I had nothing to offer.
For context, I’m a nineties baby who started with a Game Boy Color, grew up with every subsequent Nintendo handheld, a PS2 and a Gamecube, leading to my current stable of a PS4 and a Switch. I always preferred RPGs and single player, narrative-driven experiences over their progenitors born in arcades across Japan and the US. In both a literal and cultural sense, I missed the arcade, with the sole exception being a blurry memory of 8-year old me playing one of the Metal Slug titles while on vacation.
Now fret not noble readers - this is not a tale of doom and gloom. A great time was had, I met some cool people and had a blast playing TMNT (Michelangelo, but I think I’m a Donatello at heart). It really struck me though, that sense of feeling out of place with something I identify so strongly with. The arcade will never be a source of nostalgia for me, but a relic of where our medium of choice got started, a temple. Video games as we know them have been around long enough to leave behind sources of reverence that belong to one generation and are now studied by a later one. How cool is that? I feel like it gives us so much credibility -what CBGB is to punk-rock.
Now I have a fun new project - practical research. It’s time to back up my video-watching and book-learning with hands-on time with practical application. However, it’ll never be the same as having the real thing; genuine nostalgia, sage nods between fellow pioneers, grins and warm chuckles in response to tales of hour long sessions with friends and the brave quarters sacrificed to make it all happen.
What areas of gaming do you find daunting? Where do you feel you missed out or have you ever made an effort to break into a realm of gaming that initially passed you by? I’d love to hear about it!