The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: In The Beginning

Part 1: My first experience of video games during a day out to the Spanish City Fairground, Whitley Bay, in the North-east of England.

I never really enjoyed the rides, I was a sickly traveller, so the spinning waltzers and anything more extreme were out of the question. So one rainy day I ran indoors for cover, and into a brand new world I would call home for the rest of my school years and beyond.

The Empress Arcade was situated in the famous Spanish City Dome or ‘Rotunda’. Luxuriously carpeted in dark shades of warm colours. I stood wide-eyed, agasp at the bright lights and chiming, deafening sounds of the fruit and pinball machines that lined the circular main hall.  This was a smokey, strictly adults-only domain that strangely I felt instantly at home in.  Maybe it was the rain outside but I felt comfortable here, more comfortable than I’d ever felt in a place before. But these generic attractions never really grabbed my imagination, so I explored further, through to another room where crowds were gathering around futuristic displays of technology, leap-years ahead of anything I’d seen before. Strange cabinets decorated with imagery of war and alien invasion drew me further in, as though I was passing through a time-warp into another world, a more exciting one.

In the centre of the room, away from the crowds was a flat tabletop cabinet with a flickering monochrome screen facing up towards me. A primitive tennis style game was playing itself out between two oblong bats and a square ball. I had experienced my first video game: Pong. Just I was about to insert my first ever 10p into the slot, I heard a rumble of an explosion behind me that put the muted beeps of Pong to shame. Swivelling round an upright cabinet colourfully decorated in images of nuclear destruction stood before me.  It’s strange interface consisting of some buttons and a tracker-ball. I stood for a while taking in the on-screen action, explosions, missiles raining down to a vulnerable city below an arcing protective shield. I was hooked before I’d even began playing. I opened my sweating fist to reveal the 10p I was clinging onto too tightly in anticipation and located the coin-slot……

The screen jumped into life with the jolting, urgent alert/instruction “Select 1 or 2 Players”….. The message that would become the first interaction on every arcade game since. In a panic I checked the options I had available to me on the control console, selecting the 1 player button…. then without a warning, the missiles began to rain down. The too responsive tracker-ball directed a twitchy cross-hair on-screen, while the single fire button launched defensive missiles from your ground base. I was instantly immersed in my new roll of laying down shrapnel to activate the warheads of the falling nuclear strike before they hit the city.  The tension was almost too much to bear as I began to lose control, like a line of spinning plates, my defences began to fail, the shields was destroyed and the city was ready to fall.  In a last gasp effort of manic button bashing  I laid down an umbrella of suppressing fire, but it was too little too late.   As the warheads finally found their target, a sickening chain reaction of violent explosions enveloped the city as I look on helplessly. Still flailing about with the controls, I was solemnly, soberly presented with my first ever “Game Over” screen. As the adrenaline and my pulse died down I took stock of my first ever journey into the virtual world I’d go onto live in and love, which would take over my life. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the game was based on the only too real Cold War between the Unites States and the Soviet Union, but I was too young to know or care.

This game was of course ‘Missile Command’, which also serves to set the year to 1980 and my age to 6 years old.

Looking around at the adults towering over me, I was the bespectacled, nervous, but eager new boy. I wanted to be just like them, confident, cool and popular. I wanted to be part of their secret world,  riding high on the wave of this new technological miracle. Maybe if I practised, one day…..

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2 Responses

  1. Brad Nixon says:

    Ah, nearly the start of my own video game experience (quite a bit older than you were) and nearly the last. Just never took hold. Thanks.

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