The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade : 1981

After a vintage year for video games, 1981 seemed less of technological leap, a building of reputations. That’s not to say we weren’t introduced to some great games, and a few new genres first saw the light of day too.

1981: Arcade halls were getting more and more popular, with the games themselves becoming just one part of the culture. I was still too young to join in though, so for now the cabinets became a way into their world, my proving ground. I was developing my trigger finger and arcade reflexes in general, convincing myself I didn’t need to be involved. But I always was, beavering away in the corner. “ADY” was becoming a regular, part of the furniture as I skipped from arcade to arcade. I knew where all the games were, when the newest games appeared and I was always almost the first one to sample them.

The staff behind the change counters had become familiar faces as time and time again the 10p’s rattled down their metal till slides to be recycled in the coin slots and back down again like a perpetual waterfall of silver.  I was hooked on the games and hooked on the culture. Even the smell of the arcades was enough to up my pulse. I couldn’t get enough.

Moon Cresta

There was just something great about Moon Cresta that I instantly took a shine to. After the first round of vertical shoot-em up action you had to manually dock a second ship on top of your ‘base’ ship. This sheer tension of getting the docking manoeuvre right was often the deciding factor in increasing you firepower from two shots to four or wiping out both ships at once. The first time I’d experienced genuine anger in a video game.

Moon Cresta. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. Courtesy of Youtube.

Moon Cresta. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. courtesy of Youtube.

Scramble

Although it’s importance wasn’t fully appreciated at the time. Scramble was the first side scrolling shooter with multiple and distinct levels, and the template for one of my favourite genres and some of my favourite games of all time (Salamander, R-Type, etc). I could never get tired of the bombing button, strafing swathes of land-based targets, including a handy energy boost structure. Scramble was seat-of-your-pants flying over and between mountains and tunnels, culmination in almost labyrinth-like levels that gave you no room for error whatsoever. Although it didn’t seem that ground-breaking, like many of 1981s releases, it was still a great game.

Scramble. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. Courtesy of Youtube.

Scramble. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. Courtesy of Youtube.

Donkey Kong

With the exception of Donkey Kong and Punch Out!, Nintendo never really made it massively in the arcades. I was never really a fan of the tweeness and  repetitiveness of their franchises. With Donkey Kong, however, they made a fantastic start, introducing the world to its first platformer. Back then of course, everyone else was interested in space battles, or at least blowing the smithereens out of everything. But Donkey Kong was a change of pace, of mood, introducing humour in the form of future gaming icon Mario, and focusing on that hard to describe but unmistakable element : Gameplay.  Donkey Kong was just a pleasure to play, pure and simple and, like Scramble, set the template for next 30 years of gaming and beyond.

Donkey Kong. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. Courtesy of Youtube.

Donkey Kong. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. Courtesy of Youtube.

Centipede

Another oddity from Atari. This time employing the tracker ball first seen in Missile command. Like Asteroids,  I really think they dropped the ball with controls in this one. The tracker ball was much too twitchy in a vertically shooter scenario, particularly a fast paced one such as this. It was just too hard to be accurate with your shots. Despite this, like Asteroids, the Centipede package was difficult not to love.  The quirkiness and obvious heart put into the game concept kept you coming back, so much so that you were able to forgive its faults and get lost in its weird colourful world of frenzied arachnid death. As you can see from the screenshot below, it really hasn’t aged well at all.

Centipede. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. Courtesy of Youtube.

Centipede. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. Courtesy of Youtube.

Gorf

Gorf pretty much sums up the year’s gaming . Incremental improvement. Gorf doesn’t just rip off space-invaders and Galaxians, it makes it obvious it’s doing so by basically splitting up its levels into copies of its inspiration (plus a ‘Mother ship’ level to finish). Still, Gorf does stick in the mind. First of all there was my introduction to my first real joystick, complete with trigger, which was almost worth the 10p alone, but on your death an explosion effect that sent a shiver down the spine, not just the usual beeps and blips. The effect was so realistic I actually feared dying. so uncomfortably loud and real the sounds seemed at the time. I know you can’t polish a turd. But my God, Midway went out of its way with Gorf to distract your from its meat and potatoes gameplay.

Gorf. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. Courtesy of Youtube.

Gorf. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. Courtesy of Youtube.

Galaga & Stargate

I couldn’t very well leave out the sequels to Galaxians and Defender from this list. Of course, in my mind nothing could beat the perfection of Galaxians, Galaga seeming a little too cartoony, as though a little of Namco’s Pac-man success had rubbed off on it. The twin ship mechanic had been done a lot better in Moon Cresta, leaving just the gimmicky ‘seen it all before by now’ bonus levels. It was good, it just wasn’t great. 

Stargate also failed to surpass its predecessor, being if anything even more unwelcoming, over-complicated and unforgiving.  To me at least, the vector style graphics just didn’t work that well in a horizontal scroller, or maybe I just wasn’t up to the challenge yet.

 

Galaga. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. Courtesy of Youtube.

Galaga. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. Courtesy of Youtube.

 

Stargate. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. Courtesy of Youtube.

Stargate. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. Courtesy of Youtube.

Tempest

Which brings us neatly onto a game born and famous for vector graphics. Tempest was, similar to the later Tetris, difficult to describe yet incredibly simple to play and an instant classic for no particular reason other than ‘one-more-go’ addictiveness.  A couple of screen-shots tells you all there is to know, and yet the synergy of sound, visuals, controls and gameplay form a chemical reaction all gamers are instantly familiar with.  Of course, Tempest didn’t have the draw or glamour of the big-guns. There was no frills, no gimmicks, but it was still timeless.

Tempest. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. Courtesy of Youtube.

Tempest. The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade: 1981. The Blogging Musician @ adamharkus.com. Courtesy of Youtube.

More from The Golden Age of the Video Game Arcade.

9 Responses

  1. You really named some great ones, and I could hardly believe you had Moon Crests right up at the top. One of my all time favourites as well!

    So many wonderful memories from my local Arcades. “Laski’s” in Huddersfield was one of my favourites, they always had the latest stuff.

    Crazy games like Pengo, I, Robot, Battlezone and of course who can forget that huge Star Wars cabinet 😉

    Not all 1981 of course

    Cool stuff!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Such good memories from this time in my life. Where is Defender?!

  3. Michael Jordan says:

    Thanks, brings back good memories of being a kid. We rode our BMX bikes to every arcade we could get to. That was back when a parent would let a ten year old go out alone, without a cellphone.

  4. Tony says:

    Centipede is actually a pretty deep game. You should give it another try with the trakball. The gameplay stands up well today as a twitch shooter.

  5. Zaxxon says:

    add to that missile command, phoenix, quasar and amidar…happy days 🙂

  6. In 1981, my dad had a bar. He owned the bar for about 15 years. This wasn’t a glamorous establishment. Today, there are chains and upscale pubs. His place was the run-of-the-mill hole-in-the-wall. The bar built into a double-wide trailer that was fixed on a property in the middle of the woods. The only things on that street other than the dense forests were houses WAY up some dark, dreary side street, a golf course, and a home that resided at the top of a very tall hill that stood behind the bar. None of those places were visible from the main road, except dad’s bar. The parking lot did not have any marked spaces, it was just an empty gravel lot. Next to the bar was a beaten down single-car garage. Above that garage was an apartment. We lived there for a brief spell until we found a decent apartment. My dad simple woke up, walked down the steps from the apartment to the gravel lot, and took a few more steps to work.

    A bar is no place for a young boy to grow up, but during the day it was more of a lunch crowd than a rowdy drinking crowd. My memories are not of bar fights, a bathroom decorated in urine and vomit, or loud drunks. My memories are of the place where I’d hang out among maybe 2 patrons, 3 at most. Dad would make greasy burgers with onions and American cheese on rye bread.

    Once a week, a gentleman would come to unlock the arcades and jukebox. He’d wrap up the quarters that all of these machines took, and give them to my dad to take to the bank. While the coin doors were open, he’d cycle a single quarter through about 50 times for me – free play! So there I was, barely up to my dad’s waist in height and armed with free arcade credits. Dad’s bar was only large enough for about 3 games including pinball. So pinball stayed, and one game went on rotation usually between popular games like Space Invaders, Galaga, Pac-Man, and Centipede. The third machine, however, was so popular that it never left the building. I asked for most of my free plays to be placed into that machine. I must’ve mastered the sucker at one point, I remember the grownups around me being unable to reach the high levels like I was able to achieve.

    The golden game? Well, it was a game whose origins are a classic “chicken and egg” situation. A game which birthed dozens of classics since then based on their main character(s). Some venues called it Donkey Kong. We called it Krazy Kong. Whichever version you played, they were more or less the exact same game, and I loved it. I have to say, I have a surprising amount of memories from that time period and that venue considering my very young age. I blame the video games. They were the reason I was even in the place as much as I was during those morning hours.

    Soon after, yes, those machines seemed to show up everywhere! They were in new arcades, rollerskating rinks, bars, and just about anywhere you’d find kids hanging out. If you didn’t get an arcade, you weren’t going to make it in that scene. When I was about 9, I took a trip out to Hawaii with my folks to visit old family friends. They were well-off and had several arcade machines hiding around the house. Two or three of them upstairs in the large foyer between the bedrooms, and one or two down on the covered patio outside.

    Memories. Thanks for the nostalgia, Adam!

    UPDATE: The old bar was plowed down into nothing but a gravel pit a year or two after it’s closing. So sad. I have all of those games on my computer. However, sitting on my couch on my MacBook Air isn’t the same as that feeling of sitting on a barstool in front of this new “hi-tech” machine while others stood on each side of you and rooted for you to get to the next level.

    • Adam Harkus says:

      Thanks Niko. I tell you, the 1980s where absolute magic! A Pleasure to read about your trip down memory lane!

  1. October 8, 2017

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