Like music, arcade games were an important influence in my formative years. Throughout the ’80s and into the early ’90s, I’d jump at the chance to play the video games that seemed to be everywhere, in bowling alleys, restaurants, ski areas, and of course, arcades. But by the end of the ’90s, they seemed to quietly disappear from regular business and the arcades closed. I say “quietly,” because I didn’t notice and I’m not sure if other people my age did either. I was out in the workforce and had different responsibilities and interests.
It wasn’t until circa 1998 that I rediscovered the classic video games from my youth through a software emulator called MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator). It ran on your average home computer and could faithfully emulate the experience of all the classic video arcade machines from the 70s and 80s. It even worked with joysticks and other controllers. Since then, remembering these video games and playing them either in emulation or seeking out the actual machines out on location has been a hobby of mine.
This page is an attempt to share my experience with you. It’s amazing that I can remember many of the specific video games I played at specific locations, much like a song can job one’s memory of a certain place in time. I wonder if you have any similar experiences. Hopefully this can jog some memories.
I think my dad might have been the first person to introduce me to pinball. We didn’t play it very often, maybe just a couple times at a pizza place, but I remember him showing me how to aim my shots by having patience and allowing the ball roll down the flipper toward the ends so I wouldn’t always shoot the ball up the middle. By allowing the ball to roll toward the end of the flipper, I could go for the more premium targets and ramps. I remember late ’70s/early ’80s era machines like Firepower, (Williams, 1980) as the types pinball machines around at the time.
My first taste of video arcade machines was at a Holiday Inn (now a Red Roof Inn) in Woburn, MA, across Commerce Street from the Woburn Mall where my mom worked to earn money to pay for my Christian elementary school. Between 1980 and 1982, I would go to her job after school and help her work. If I had a friend with me, my mom would allow us to hang out at the indoor pool and use the whirlpool and sauna. There was small arcade in the loft space above the pool with classics including Space Invaders (Midway, 1978), Missile Command (Atari, 1980) and Battlezone (Atari, 1980).
At Whaleback ski area in Enfield, NH, I’d watch groups of older kids crowd around the Wizard of Wor (1981, Midway) machine which was a dark, dungeons and dragons type maze game. The game had speech synthesis and dark organ music that scared me at the time, but I was fascinated with the head-to-head, cooperative strategy that two players would use together in the maze.
Another ski area, Crotched Mountain in Francestown, NH had a Scramble game (Konami, 1981) in the basement of their ski lodge. I vividly remember the awesome graphics and deep bass sounds from this machine, although I think I only observed others playing it.
At my chess club in Malden, MA, I’d watch older players master a Mr. Do! machine (Universal, 1982), only when we had fulfilled our chess requirements for the night. Going to chess club was tolerable for the promise of being able hover around the one or two arcade machines at the end of the night.
Arcade games were irresistible for kids my age and older, but for younger, shy types like me, it was intimidating to play with other people around, watching. So at first I’d only play in low pressure situations.
I became a fair Ms. Pac-Man player (Midway, 1982) with practice at a burger restaurant in North Reading where our family would sometimes eat after church on Sundays. The highlight for me was the chance that my dad would give me a quarter or two to play while we waited for our food.
My family, often with neighbors and my school friends, would bowl at either the candlepin place in North Reading called Candlewood Lanes or the 10 pin place up the road on Main Street. Candlewood Lanes had an arcade with what would be one of my all-time favorite driving machines, an upright Turbo (1981, Sega). At this location, I remember playing Galaxian (Namco, 1979), but I was too intimidated to play the fast-paced vector graphics game, Tempest (Atari, 1981).
The arcade at the 10 pin bowling alley rotated their games and kept more up-to-date. This was where I first saw Dragon’s Lair (Cinematronics, 1983), a laserdisc game which was more of an interactive movie. I also remember playing the driving games Stocker (Bally Sente, 1984) and the four player Demolition Derby (Bally Midway, 1984).
I believe it was in the town of Wakefield, but possibly Wilmington, that I spent a couple hours on my birthday with my neighbor Ben and $10 worth of quarters at a great arcade that was in the building of a former train depot. Does anyone remember the name of this arcade or exactly where it was? I remember the owner telling us not to spend the whole $10!
Another great arcade was at Funland on route 38 in Tewksbury. The arcade was in it’s own building and was one of the better-themed arcades a I remember. It was located in the middle of their mini-golf course. This location also had batting cages. It’s probably best remembered for being across the street from an airport that offered airplane rides priced by the pound. I remember playing Pleiades (Centuri, 1981) and/or Phoenix (Centuri, 1980) here.
It was with the game Punch-Out! (Nintendo, 1984) that I remember video arcade games becoming more realistic and with better graphics. At the time, it felt like a second wave of games were coming out that were different from those of the early ’80s. I learned to play this game at Alladin’s Castle, inside the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers by watching an older guy. I quickly learned how to beat Mr. Sandman, “the champion of the world.”
In 1985, my family moved from Reading to Norwood. The local candlepin bowling alley, Norwood Sport Center (still operating today!) had a fun little arcade where I remember playing the three player driving game Super Sprint (Atari, 1986) and the four player wrestling game, The Main Event (Konami, 1988). My friend Mark and I would hammer our hands on the large, light up “action” buttons until we had blisters!
Living in Norwood, we were closer to Nantasket Beach where there were at least three arcades. Now only Dream Machine is left. I remember playing Mat Mania (Taito, 1985), or was it the update called Mania Challenge (Taito, 1986) which incorporated two player mode and defensive moves.
Once or twice, my friend Rahul and I skipped school and spent time in Harvard Square at 1001 Plays on Massachusetts Avenue. I remember being impressed with the detailed graphics of R-Type (Nintendo, 1987) and R-Type II (Irem, 1989).
Fun and Games in Framingham (now a shell of its former glory) used to have a great lineup of games with an awesome arcade atmosphere. It was here that my friend Joe introduced me to the 3d graphics of S.T.U.N. Runner (Atari, 1989), Hard Drivin’ (Atari, 1989), and Vindicators (Atari, 1988). I think I had started to give up on video arcades at this point, maybe because they seemed like they were getting too complicated.
It wasn’t until college that I gave any more thought to arcade games. But between classes, I’d kill some time at an arcade on Washington Street in the Downtown Crossing area and another on Arlington Street. Games like the Addams Family and Twilight Zone were very popular, and pinball was in the middle of a growth period. At the same time, games like NBA Jam Tournament Edition, Mortal Kombat II, Cruising USA, and Daytona were revitalizing the video arcade industry.
As I mentioned earlier, since 1997 or ’98, I’ve been playing classic video arcade machines on my PC through MAME (Multi Arcade Machine Emulator). More recently I got involved with Visual Pinball which works in conjunction with PinMAME to play classic pinball tables at my computer. Rediscovering my old favorites like those mentioned above and Funhouse, Fish Tales, Whirlwind, Black Rose, etc. got me to dive in and listen to 50+ episodes of a pinball podcast called Topcast. Hearing interviews with pinball luminaries who designed and marketed these tables taught me pinball’s history. And I heard it straight from the designers, engineers, artists, programmers, and heads of companies who made these games available to the world. I’m now able to play over 100 of the greatest pinball tables on my PC, using the flipper buttons on my HotRodSE arcade controller. If you don’t have access to actual pinball machines, Visual Pinball is the next best thing. The excitement, the rush, and the anxiety is all there.
Appreciating the history of pinball and learning about actual games I hadn’t played in real life (but could now experience with Visual Pinball) led me to seek out places to play the machines. The owners of arcades like Pinball Wizard in Pelham, NH, Fun Spot in Weirs, NH, Salem Willows in Salem, MA, and the arcade at the Acton Bowladrome in Acton, MA are committed to providing well-maintained pinball games for the enjoyment of the players. Now I know about places where I can play games from my college years to current tables from the last remaining pinball manufacturer in the world, Stern, plus some oldies from before my time.
I even purchased the classic video game consoles Atari 2600 and Vectrex. Both are working and are in excellent condition.