Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Second time around: Don't look back, (even if you've got an extra life)

If I had a time machine, the first thing I'd do is go back and talk to lost loved ones, one last time. All of space and time to choose from, and I'd still most like to talk to my Nana again.

The second place I'd go to is the Library of Alexandria, where I'd grab some of those scrolls before they were lost forever, because that's what Carl Sagan would do.

But the third thing I'd do is go back to a time when there was a Wizards video game arcade in every South Island town in New Zealand, loaded down with old twenty cent pieces, and I'd play every damn video game they had.

Fortunately, you can't go back in time, because I know the past isn't as good as I remember. But while I can never, ever recreate that old rush, there is still an undying fondness for those dark, dingy dens full of beeping lights.

In those pre-Playstation days, playing video games at home was prohibitively expensive, unless you settled for a cheap Atari rip-off with six slightly different versions of Tennis on it.

But this was also the days when video game cabinets started appearing everywhere, in every city and every tiny town, and you only needed a tiny bit of change to play those, and if you did it right, you could make that change go a long, long way.

I spent a measurably large portion of the 1980s in video game parlours. Entire Friday nights and Sunday afternoons would disappear down the back of Lester's fish and chip shop. Whenever the family visited a different town, the second thing I would look for – after scouring the shelves of local daires and bookshops for comics – were the video games.

I didn't have any particular favourites, although I was never really a fan of any racing games. I liked the wrestling games, and the shoot-em-ups, and the puzzlers. I liked barbarian adventures a lot, especially Black Dragon and Rastan, and after months of practice, I could make twenty cents last hours. There were a couple of games that could even be played indefinitely. Once you knew the tricks.

The parlours were always slightly dodgy places, full of kids who stunk of cigarette and marijuana, and sneaked around the back to sip on rocket fuel. I saw at least three full on brawls in video game parlours, but I only had to step away from my game for one of them. Most of the time, you could just carry on.

The parents didn't really approve, but that was part of the fun, and it got me out of their hair for a while. Besides, I liked hanging with the dodgy kids – you always knew they might pull a knife on you one day, but they were usually funny and had great taste in music.

I spent years in those arcades, in towns all over the South Island. I played Galaga in Invercargill and the fancy new Star Wars game in Christchurch and Time Pilot everywhere.

These places faded away in the nineties, as it became possible to play games like Doom without going out the door, or spending a small fortune. They didn't all disappear overnight, but it was an inevitable disappearance.

There are still some parlours around today, but they're usually bright and sanitised oddities, offering up a pitiful selection of racing games, dancing things and big-gunned mayhem.

I still see the ghosts of all those old parlours, especially when I drive past the buildings now and see they've been turned into banks and cafes. I still mourn their loss, and those days long gone.

But I'm not going to try and recapture them, because that never works.

It would be easy enough to do – all those games I have such a fondness for are available. You can buy DVDs with hundreds of those eighties classics encoded into them, and there are plenty of websites that offer Flash recreations.

I've given in to the temptation a couple of times, and I played Rastan for the first time in more than 20 years the other day – and it was rubbish. Dull and repetitive gameplay, with graphics that were so much worse than I remember. I was bored in literally seconds. You can't go back.

Because I'm not just chasing those old games, I'm chasing that sense of freedom and excitement I had when I did go arcade hunting in small towns on the arse end of the world. I'll never get that back again, even if I could go back in time and walk inside those lost parlours again.

It doesn't help that there have been several quantum leaps in video gaming technology over the past 20 years – after years of Grand Theft freedom and photo-realistic imaging, blocky pixels trapped in a platform format are just dull.

The simplest games are always the most addictive, but not if you have to squint at the screen to see what is going on.

It's like going back and watching the TV you liked as a kid. As a grown man, I've been pleasantly surprised by how well things as random as The A-Team or The Young Ones have held up over the years, but then I catch 10 minutes of Knight Rider or The Dukes Of Hazzard, and I'm bummed out by how bad they are – they were once my favourite things ever, but now they're unwatchable. The production and storytelling quality that we take for granted these days weren't always there.

It's worth noting that movies and comics fare better in this regard. Great movies never date - I watched Blade Runner for the first time in years the other day and it was just as spectacular and cool and thoughtful as it always was. Great movies are immortally good, and it's always a pleasure to see them again.

Great comics are also timeless - Kirby's most energetic work still has more power than anything the main comic companies are publishing today. I still read a lot of comics and watch a lot of movies for almost purely nostalgic reasons, but old stuff can still be genuinely and objectively good.

But while I associate these great pieces of entertainment with the theatres, houses and streets where I first experienced them, the appeal of all those old game parlours was always about the place, and their strange, wonderful appeal.

I can't go back and play those games in those places again, and that's okay. The fondness for that time and that place and the feel of a perfect joysticks will never fade away, but that's all right as long as it's just a fondness, rather than an obsession that I'm still chasing.

I'm not the dorky teenager hanging around the video games any more. I have new ways of finding those thrills, even if I'm not hanging around with the dodgy kids anymore, and something to feel fond about in another few decades.


Originally published on the Tearoom of Despair on April 6, 2014. I've been to a few retro arcades since then, including one in Portland on my 40th birthday in 2015, where I got carded at the door, and they're not the same, but some thrill is still there.

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