SANTA MONICA, Calif.--The giant gaming machines of the Pac-Man era were pushed aside long ago by home consoles. And now smartphone games like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja (not to mention ports of classics like Pac-Man itself) may be threatening to drive the arcade as a whole into oblivion.
But vintage machines are still in use, and the pleasure palace known as the arcade can still be found. We happened on one recently at the Santa Monica Pier in Southern California: "Playland" opened in 1954 and is still run by the same family.
Of course, Playland predates "video games" like Pac-Man by nearly three decades, with its offerings suggesting even the shooting galleries and carnival games of the 19th century and beyond. Indeed, the place 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.
The video game definitely made a place for itself here, so let's start with that and then move farther afield. We'll grab some quarters and drop them into that slot there on the time machine (we'll be sure to save a few coins so we can get ourselves back)...
Playland doesn't sit far from the ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier. And it's open on both sides to the ocean air. When you need a break from Centipede (or Skee Ball), you can step outside and feed the seagulls (the cries of which add to the feeling of timelessness). The arcade is open seven days a week.
(By the way, the carousel building in the foreground was featured in the classic '70s film "The Sting," with Paul Newman and Robert Redford.)
We'll start with something from the not-too-distant charming past. Seeing the graphics on these classic "video game" machines definitely takes you back (if you predate the iPhone--or perhaps even the Web 1.0--generation).
And if you're part of Generation i, well then they're simply dripping with retro awesomeness.
What do you suppose this fellow is so happy about? The Midway logo?
This Mario game has taken its share of knocks too (and proudly displays its battle scars). Again, the graphics take you back (and the wear and tear allows for a kind of silent communion with those countless gamers of yore).
But wait--it's some kind of bait and switch. As we said, there's no telling what you'll find in this strange pop culture museum. Here, the "Star Trek" cabinet has been gutted and now plays host to a first-person shooter called Maximum Force. (Or we suppose you could say Maximum Force has been assimilated.)
And speaking of first-person shooters, this is what they looked like way back in the day. Playland features two coin-operated shooting-gallery-type games, this being one of them. Some of the crow's mechanics are visible inside its beak.
Digital cameras and Webcam apps like Apple's Photo Booth haven't diminished the charm (and fun) of actual photo booths. Another thing about arcades is that they make for great people-watching. Folks seem to invariably tumble out of a photo booth like this with a smile on their face and a laugh on their lips.