Did Japan Kill American Arcade Games?

By Donald Ash | Japanese Video Games

I don’t know how it was in your state, or in your country but in ‘Jawja’ (Georgia) back in the early 90’s EVERY major mall had an arcade? American arcade games were as much a craze as they were a social gathering.

You’d walk in on a Friday night or a Saturday/Sunday afternoon and see gamers of all kinds! There were the little, quiet, nerdy assasins (who’d beat you without saying a word).

There were the thug gamers who would talk trash as they beat you senseless…virtually (but could probably kick your ass in real life, too (…gulp)).

Then you had the ladies, who I always found kinda hot for some reason...those ones who'd show up once in a blue moon to remind all the dudes that lady gamers have skills, too!

How Japan Killed the American Arcade Article

There was something special about those games. Sigh, I remember those days so well.

“Cue the fuzzy flashback effect!”


MY ARCADE NOSTALGIA TRIGGER…

I gave my pops a call one fine Father’s Day, and just talking to him flooded my mind with all of these wonderful memories. I feel so fortunate to have a father who wasn’t just around (which isn’t guaranteed, let’s be honest) but did his very best to mold me into a decent human being. I recalled all the times he was super strict (military captain & chaplain) and, now that I’m an adult, I have such an appreciation for what he was trying to do. Love you, Dad!

But life wasn’t all about discipline, sometimes things were just downright fun!

One of my favorite, recurring memories was when my Dad would peek his head in the living room on a Sunday afternoon would say to my little brother and I:

Dad: (in my best fatherly voice) “Hey boys, y’all wanna go to the arcade?”
Us: YES! (in our minds…”HELL YEAH!” but I wouldn’t say that to my Dad, because I enjoy having my teeth)

That was the magic question I don’t think we ever said no to. We’d be all grins, ear to ear, as we rushed to throw on our jeans and sneakers…

My Dad, my brother and I would go to South Dekalb Mall, and Pops would give us $5.00 a piece. It doesn’t sound like much now, but back in my day (crotchety, old man voice) arcade games used to cost a quarter. You put your bill in the change machine and out would flow 20 glorious arcade tokens. Cue the sprightly, happy, Sims Music! My brother and I would put our coins in our pocket, all excited and wide-eyed. We’d look at each other and ask “What are you gonna play first?” We got very good at strategizing the best possible way to get our tokens to last us as long as humanly possible.


Dad would mostly just watch…but he’s a gamer now, though

There were several arcades I would frequent with my little bro and my friends (Bobby, if you’re reading this…do you remember when we used to go to the arcades back in the 6th and 7th grade? Good times…good times.) The “Gold Mine” at Northlake Mall, “Challenges” at Market Square Mall (aka North Dekalb Mall), and the South Dekalb Mall Arcade were my Georgia go to spots. Or I remember staying with friends and we’d go to arcades on the other side of town. Good times…good times.


THE ARCADE GAME THAT STARTED A CRAZE

I remember walking into the arcade one of those Sunday afternoons and being puzzled to see how sparse it was around many of the arcade machines. It was weird, because from the outside, the arcade sounded quite busy. I knew there were a lot of people in there. I scanned to my left and BOOM! I saw a crowd of gamers absolutely packed around two machines. There were so many people, I could barely see the name of the game they were going ape sh%t over. As people would lose, the crowd would shift just enough for my slender, prepubescent body to slip through the crowd enough to get a glimpse of the title…Street Fighter II.

Did Japan Kill American Arcade Games? SF2

I classified American arcade games in either one of two categore pre-Street Fighter 2 and post Street Fighter 2. It was crazy how insanely popular this game really was!

Street Fighter 2 was the fighting game that changed everything! I mentally break down arcade gaming into pre-Street Fighter II and Post Street Fighter 2. Arcades went from being just good…to downright great! Don’t get me wrong, there were some amazing classics (Double Dragon, X-Men, Pac Man, Galaga, Rygar) that were released before that. But this game was like a hypnosis box. People would go to that machine…never to return again. Okay, they did come back, but this game had some serious pull on people, and their game tokens.

We would go to the arcade more often, and I remember learning how to play, but never really being all that great. My brother Derrick, though, was really good. He’d be one of those repeat players. You know the ones that beat like 7 or 8 people in a row. He would take on all comers. I loved watching him because he wouldn’t brag or boast, HE was one of those quiet storm players (love you, too, Derrick!)

Boy, do I ever miss those arcade glory days.


ENTER THE HOME GAMING CONSOLE

Which home-gaming console gaming started it all for you? Was it the Atari 2600? Was it the Sega Master System? An overpriced Neo Geo? Turbografx 16? I’m just kidding, nobody had a TurboGrafx 16 (hehehe). The first official console that my family owned was the Nintendo Entertainment System (cue the Hallelujah Chorus)*. I remember playing Pitfall & Popeye on an Atari 2600 as a VERY little boy.

But I think the systems that really changed what gaming was, were that Super Nintendo** and the Sega Genesis.

Sure all of the cool people owned Super Nintendos (hehehehe), but these were the systems that marked the end of the arcade era in the early to mid 90’s. My Nintendo was crazy amazing, fun, but it wasn’t the arcade. When I played the Super NES for the first time, it was a system unlike any other I had ever played. The controls were incredibly responsive and it had amazing capabilities that it’s predecessor, the Famicom/NES didn’t: namely 16-bit graphics (whatever the hell that means). The 16-bit systems revolutionized home gaming.

*I’m excluding the hours spent playing World Games, California Games, King’s Quest, and Death Sword on the family Apple IIe computer.
**Super Famicom, short for “Super Family Computer,” was the Japanese equivalent for the Super NES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) which was made by the same, wildly famous Japanese game company, Nintendo.

So many of my friends had these 16-bit systems. We would go over each others’ houses and game for hours on end.

Japan Killed the American Arcade Games

I miss the arcade days of old. While I love this system and think it was one of the best home gaming consoles ever created, it was the beginning of the end for the arcade (sniff, sniff)


JAPANESE GAME CONSOLES KILLED AMERICAN ARCADE GAMES

Anybody remember playing Street Fighter 2 on your Super NES or Sega Genesis? Amazing, right? Game companies didn’t always get these arcade fighting games to transfer well (right, Pit Fighter?). But when it was a big title, game companies made these games so close to the arcade experience that it was hard to tell the difference. Yes there were minor differences in sound but and slight graphic alterations, but it was ONLY minor.

Home gaming became more and more popular. You bought a game once and played it as much as you wanted to. My Dad eventually stopped asking up to go the arcade, because our desire to do so had waned. Now, with the blow of a cartridge (somebody knows what I’m talking about), a gentle press, and the slide of a switch, we had in front of us all of the gaming we could stomach, in comfort of our own home.

Once kids started bringing their instruction booklets to class to show of their new games, I knew then that the arcade was going to be a thing of the past. Other popular arcade games would go on to be released on the SNES: Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat II, Final Fight, other versions of Street Fighter, and more.

Arcades started becoming less popular, the buzz faded to a low hum, crowds started to disappear, and save a few malls…the arcade magic….died (Donnies eyes start to well up).

Yes, I loved the home systems just as much as anybody. They were as awesome as they were convenient. However, there was something magical about going to the arcade with my father and brother. Or having a sleepover and having friends join in the same bonding time, that the men in my family valued so much.


FAST FORWARD

After coming to Japan, though I realize that old school arcades still exist! While they’re a mere shadow of what they were pre-home console. Arcades are still quite common in Japan. There are several I can think of around Tokyo. On the weekends, you can see groups of kids there gaming, laughing, doing purekuri having a good time. The taiko drumming games are pretty popular as are the dancing and racing games (the ones that are more reliant on external equipment to fulfill the experience (dance pads, car simulation machines, etc.).

Admittedly, I don’t really game all that much anymore. But it’s interesting to see how gaming is changing. How people are busier than ever, how simple games have come back with a vengeance because of the popularity of apps, iphones, tablets and so many people on the go. But from time to time I like to slow down and get nostalgic. I’ll walk into an old school-style arcade just to look around and see what’s there.

I tried going in to play the latest Street Fighter installment at one of these new school arcades, and got completely WAXED!

Kinda felt like old school athlete competing with a new class of players, but then again, I wasn’t really all that good back in the day. It wasn’t about losing, it was about high-fiving your lil bro and your buddies after taking out Krang with your nunchakus and ninja weapons, it was laughing, it was about be amazed by what some gamers could do, it was about unabashedly being a part of a nerd community, it was about bonding and having fun.


MY TOP TEN FAVORITE ARCADE GAMES OF ALL TIME

You only have to do five (unless you want to do more of course). But I’m gonna do ten! This list is a mix of both 80’s and 90’s arcade games I loved. I wish I could say they’re listed in order of importance, but I that wouldn’t be trues. On any given day, any of these games could be an absolute joy to play:

1. Street Fighter 2

2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the very first one)

3. NBA JAM

4. Final Fight

5. X-Men (Couldn’t like 10 people play this game at one time?)

6. Marvel vs Capcom 2 (epic! I think the PS2 version sells for top dollar to this VERY day!)

7. Rygar

8. Dragon’s Lair/Space Ace (the ones that looked just like cartoons, where you had to react fast)

9. Gauntlet

10. Ms. Pac Man (Okay, so it’s not the manliest game in the world, but I like it. Or maybe it’s because that’s the machine where I got one of my first childhood kisses…sigh…oh no…I mean, that’s where I DIDN’T kiss that girl, Mom and Dad because you raised me right? Hee hee hee?)

WHAT ARE YOUR TOP FIVE ARCADE GAMES OF ALL TIME?

Let’s finish up with another top list. What are your top five favorite American ARCADE games? Let me clarify that. While I know the vast majority of popular American arcade games were developed in large part by Japanese programmers, which of those games that were released in the U.S., did you like best?

The twist is. Arcade only! Not NES, not Sega Genesis, not SNES, not Playstation, etc. I want to know the down and dirty, best arcade of all time.  And, YES! They can be old-school games, too.

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Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last ten years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of thejapanguy.com blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.
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