Over Memorial Day weekend, my family went on a classic beach vacation — rent a house, go crawl the boardwalk, eat food that’s 87% grease by volume, things like that. And ~as is tradition~ for these outings, I took this opportunity to visit some boardwalk arcades.
I’ve got happy childhood memories from mid-atlantic beaches and their arcades. Notably Hampton Beach, up in New Hampshire, which had several absolutely stellar arcades in the late 80s and early 90s. I remember wiling many an hour away on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, after bopping from classic to classic, experiencing a wide variety of games. Fumbling with lightguns that were just a bit too large for me. Having Dad work the gas pedal while sitting on his lap and playing RoadBlasters. Good times, good times.
But that’s through nostalgia goggles, and many a decade gone by. How fares these beach arcades in 2017…? Let’s just say I went in with bottom-tier expectations and they did not entirely disappoint. (More below the click. Lots of photos, so I wanted to give you a chance to not load ’em if you’re just browsing the blog…)
Although I visited three different arcades, all three were basically identical — prize games (UFO catchers, string cutters, Stacker, etc) which are no doubt fixed as hell, ticket-based redemption games of varying skill and chance, and not a single joystick in sight. Seriously, none. Not even one of those re-release cabs of Ms. Pac-Man / Galaga that every arcade seemed to use as their obligatory nod to the past for dads to play while kids went crazy in a thinly veiled casino. Each game cost $1.00 for about ten seconds of play and a questionable amount of tickets, which could be exchanged for an extremely questionable array of cheap junk. (For some reason these arcades had a LOT of kitchen equipment priced at 30,000 tickets. Who goes to the beach and says “I gotta win me that cuisinart”?)
Want the worst offender of the lot? Here you go:
This is Frogger. This is also decidedly not Frogger. For starters, there are no controls. None. When you touch the frog-shaped button… Frogger automatically starts jumping forward at a steady pace that you can’t actually control. Meaning invariably, he’ll end up plopping in the water, because the only skill in this game is deciding when to start him jumpin’ in hoeps that you can time it to reach the end safely. Oh, and unlike the original game where the first half of the board are cars to avoid, now it’s bugs you have to grab. So the entire point of the original game, to dodge every moving hazard, is gone.
This is Pac-Man. This is also decidedly not Pac-Man. It’s a “medal game” or “coin pusher”, where you drop a coin in, and it plinks around a bit, adding to the hoard below. There’s a miniscule chance it’ll push some coins off the edge… and that gives you tickets. If you’re lucky. It gets by claiming to be a game of skill because you can sort-of time your coin release to try and push the hoard, but with all the plinko-like bopping around, it’s 1% skill and 99% dumb luck.
I saw this in common with pretty much every “game.” A tiny, tiny amount of skill (deciding when to release the frog) and a hell of a lot of random chance, resulting in a few tickets. It’s a slot machine, pure and simple. Amazing that this is legal, considering it’s straight-up gambling for kiddies — and just like Vegas, the house always wins.
Now, before I sound too Old Man Yells At Cloud, I understand why this is the arcade of 2017. It sells. It makes money. In a ruthlessly pragmatic view it provides small children the rush of gambling in a sketchy but legally safe way, and that translates to earnings. Even back in the joystick era earnings ruled the roost — it’s why the market crashed, to a degree, because of the glut of new games as operators rushed to replace games that kids got bored with, trying to keep those earnings up. We live in a capitalist society, and it’s eat-or-die.
But that merely explains the situation, not excuses it. And there are no excuses… not when I found two pretty good examples of how to make money and provide a satisfying game.
This is Crossy Road, a port of the popular mobile game. This is actually Crossy Road, with the only concession made being a lack of left-to-right movement. Otherwise, it’s the same game — like the actual, factual Frogger and not the bastardization above, it revolves around timing your movements to weave through traffic and across rivers. In the end, you get tickets based on how far you got.
Why does this work? Because it’s a fun game, and a ticket producer. It provides a satisfying game experience for the person playing, it earns money, and it still integrates into the ticket-driven casino economy. You can play this just for the sake of playing it, to see how high a score you can get, for the white-knuckled thrill of juuuust squeezing between two cars. It’s an honest-to-goodness video game, which rewards skill more than luck.
And then we have the grand champion of the entire 2017 experience…
This is Space Invaders. This is actually a supremely amazing re-imagining of Space Invaders. You sit down in front of a future space laser gun, and directly blast the hell out of trippy techno-graphic invaders, glowing with rainbow colors, gradually getting more and more intense until it lives up to the new name it’s been given: Space Invaders Frenzy. And as you can see here, it’s score-driven, providing an amazing skill-powered video game experience. And like Crossy Road, it rewards solid play with solid tickets.
I played this game multiple times not just to get more tickets to buy more plastic spider rings but because I was having fun.
And this is, ultimately, what I want from arcades in 2017. Games. Real games, which challenge and reward your rise to that challenge with a fun and engaging experience. I don’t want to just hit the lever and get a random amount of tickets based on a ridiculously rigged casino game, I want to sit down and put my skills to the test against a game’s rules, and be rewarded for getting better and better. You can do that and integrate into the prize structure of the 2017 arcade, as these two games prove.
Sadly, designing a game to be a game first and a slot machine second takes, y’know, effort. And a lot of these “game” designers just do not want to bother, not when they can increase earnings by slapping any old licensed property on top of the same Vegas mechanics they’ve been using for twenty years. And that’s unfortunate…
…but it does give me plenty of fodder for designing the villain in Arcade Spirits. So, thank you, lazy game designers and lazy arcade operators, for making my job even lazier.