SANTA MONICA, Calif.--There was a time, not all that long ago, when the only way to play a decent (or indeed most any) "computer game" was to seek one out at a local pizza parlor or bowling alley--or, if you were lucky and your neighborhood had been blessed with such an establishment, the local arcade.
In fact, computer games weren't computer games yet. They were video games, or arcade games.
I can remember the excitement my friends and I felt when our neighborhood suddenly witnessed the arrival of a "real" video arcade. Space Invaders had been around for a while by then (how cool was it that the Pretenders had recorded an instrumental in its honor, complete with a sampling of the game's throbbing, threatening sound effects?). But the newly opened Louie's brought us a startling array of bright, beeping, and then-revolutionary games with strange and thrilling names like Pac-Man and Centipede.
I recall walking the several blocks to Louie's, my hand in pocket silently translating the feel of my allowance into a tally of the games I might enjoy that day. If I played well, I could theoretically extend the value of my allowance money forever, racking up bonus points and high scores, leaping from level to level until the end of time. (Of course I never played that well. Not even close.)
I remember the brightly colored car-lot flags that hung from the arcade's facade. They festively flapped as I walked toward the door to be greeted by the day's first strain of Pac-Man's hurdy-gurdyish between-rounds theme. (It was the day's first strain, but very far from its last--indeed, after hours spent at the arcade, I'd hear that theme in my sleep.)
And I remember well the ritual and pageantry of the world inside the arcade: the staring over shoulders to watch a friend's gameplay; the eye-popping graphics on the machines themselves; the solidity of the machines--the heavy plastic buttons, and the joystick knobs like golf balls or stones. And, of course, I remember the most important machine of all: the one that spit out quarters (provided you had a bill or two to offer up as a sacrifice).
Of course, all that's changed now. Home gaming consoles long ago pushed the arcade and its hulking machines far off to the periphery. And more recently, mobile gaming on smartphones has threatened to wipe out the arcade completely.
But there are still some to be found. And perhaps they'll be around in some form or another for a while yet: the one I encountered most recently even held relics that spoke of a time long before the existence of Pac-Man, Centipede, or even Space Invaders.
The Playland Arcade on Southern California's Santa Monica Pier is truly an arcade. It features not only beautifully battle-scarred Pac-Man machines, but also an old-school (though coin-operated) shooting gallery, a line of Skee Ball lanes, an arrangement of air hockey and foosball tables, many pinball machines, a gizmo that makes mementos of pennies, and a mechanical fortune teller or two.
Opened in 1954, it's still owned by the same family, and it still seems to be chugging along rather healthily. Perhaps it's the ocean air. Whatever the case, Playland feels like a living museum of sorts, a curio shop of pop culture, a last resting place for the all-but-forgotten recreational rituals of yesteryear.
iPhones or not, and Angry Birds aside, this particular arcade endures. I offer up a selection of photographs as an homage to gamers and games of years gone by, as a tribute to the possibly endangered, but not yet dead, atmosphere of the arcade itself.
And, please, share your own fond memories of visits to your local arcade. If we all had a dime for every quarter we spent...