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)...
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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.)
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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?
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Aha! (And hubba hubba.) It's Ms. Pac-Man, star of the sequel to Pac-Man that appeared in the U.S. in 1981.
About 30 years old, huh? She doesn't look a day over 21.
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Well-used and well-loved
This Centipede machine has obviously seen a lot of use over the last three decades or so.
Battered as it is, it remains a thing of beauty.
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One player or two?
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).
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Discovered at last!
The real Ms. Pac-Man, in the flesh. Still trying to beat her own high score after all these years.
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Galaga. You could pound the sturdy buttons on these machines all day with your fist. They didn't seem to mind.
As long as you offered up your quarters.
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Attack bugs from outer space
Galaga again, and more vintage graphics. The cabinets that housed the actual machines always seemed to have nice touches like this.
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Of course, there was always one of these...
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...and one of these. All told, this machine probably worked every bit as hard, if not harder, than the game machines themselves. And it was almost an altar.
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Playland is a kind of museum, full of the detritus of pop culture. There's no telling what you might find.
Here, a terminator in high tops gets down to business, as mom looks on. (And to the right, Rambo wears a pom-pom.)
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Ignite your lightsaber
Sci-fi and fantasy are popular themes. Anakin peers forth from a pinball machine...
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Welcome to my spaceship
Even "Star Trek: Voyager" makes an appearance, as Seven of Nine gives a come-hither look and tempts you to part with your quarters.
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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.)
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Quoth the raven
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.
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Big mouth strikes again
This one's even more carnivalesque, requiring the toss of a ball (it's still coin-operated though).
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Mole in one
This little critter has clearly been whacked a few times.
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Barbie is No. 1
And the pop culture fun continues, with Barbie and Ken busting out the Jet Skis for some racy action.
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Take Homer home
Homer pleads to be rescued (and given some pants).
(This wasn't staged--the guy actually seemed to have come to life and made his way to the glass.)
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Swabbing the deck
Obviously they take care of the Skee runs.
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Photo Booth precursor
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.
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"Come, let Zoltar tell your fortune."
Playland has a pair of Zoltars out front, and they seem to have a following. Many of the people who walked by greeted one or the other of them with a hearty, "Hey, it's Zoltar!"
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Still more vintage graphics. This Sun and Saturn design definitely speaks of another era, even though it's been freshly printed.
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Three modes of transportation: Space Shuttle, train, and pelican. The Shuttle's iconic status is here confirmed beyond a doubt.
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And another day nears its end. But the air hockey (and video gaming) continue into the evening.
As fun as smartphone games might be, let's hope the sun never truly sets on the old-school arcade.