A few weekends ago, I spent the weekend up in the Bay Area for the fourteenth annual California Extreme Classic Arcade & Pinball Expo. I first found out about the show in 2001, and every time I go, I'm always hit with waves of intense nostalgia for a very specific period of my childhood, from age eight in 1978 through my twenties in the mid-90s.
That entire time, I lived a block from an arcade -- not a big city block, but a short residential one -- on the corner of Whitsett & Vanowen in North Hollywood, part of the Malibu Castle chain. It was on my walk home after getting off the bus from school.
The Malibu Castle I grew up with was originally a Golfland mini golf; the North Hollywood location was built with a large arcade in order to accomodate the pinball craze (strange historical tidbit: pinball games were illegal in Los Angeles until 1971, so after legalization arcades enjoyed a huge resurgence). The park and its arcade interiors were designed with an "Old-West" theme, which has been immortalized in the arcade scenes of the 1980 teen comedy Midnight Madness.
In the early 1980's Time Warner bought both the Golfland and Malibu Grand Prix chains and combined the two companies, but my hometown minigolf arcade changed very little during that decade. They tried adding waterslides, the kind made of concrete troughs, and my brother cracked his head open on it sometime in the early 80s. The slides were razed and became a go-kart slick-track, but it was such a tiny oval in comparison to the larger Malibu Grand Prix only eight or ten miles away that it was never popular, so it became batting cages in the early 90s.
There were certainly bigger and better arcades in Southern California. Over on the other side of the valley, Sherman Oaks Castle Park was much fancier, with a larger arcade and more golf courses. It was the one you took dates to, had birthday parties at, and was generally the more notable arcade of the region and era (and, in fact, is still operating today, about a mile from where I live now). It was the one that had the most current games, and would nearly rotate its entire collection every few years.
However, my local Malibu Castle's smaller collection was far more diverse, with a mix of both current hits and classic machines (many of which would be extremely rare and difficult to find today). In my mind's eye, it was the "perfect" arcade from the golden era of video games. Well into my twenties, I would still regularly drop a few dozen tokens into its machines every week.
Williams, Bally, Exidy, Stern, Atari -- they were as recongizable as record labels or movie studios to me at the time, each with their own signature "house" style. With Atari, you knew you were going to get some sort of high-concept game mechanic with a "Crazy California Design Studio" aesthetic (Tempest, Food Fight or I, Robot). Exidy always had a sly sense of humor in their graphics (Death Race). You knew you were in for a grandiose space opera with Williams games (Defender, Robotron, Sinistar).
Looking at the games in today's context during the Expo, I was struck by the strong graphic design and branding of each game. They don't feel like they were "product" that had been focus-grouped within an inch of its life, but rather they feel vibrant and funny and scary and goofy and iconic, unhinged from the kind of corporate "style guide" mentality we see today. It's very clear that, at the height of the video game industry's success, they were sort of making it up as they went along, in a really refreshing and creative way. I was surprised how iconic many of the characters and logos were for me; for instance, I saw a sweatshirt for sale at one of the vendor tables, screen-printed with a giant electrified behemoth. There was no other text on it, but I instantly recognized it as the beast from the marquee & side art of Space Invaders. That's pretty powerful brand recognition -- and in the case of artists like Invader, it's also very resonant cultural inspiration.
As physical objects, the games are a culmination of the era's aesthetics -- encompassing graphic design & fonts, illustration, product development and industrial styling. Dozens of different control schemes and interface designs, different display configurations, special-effects gimmickry like mirror reflections and special lighting effects -- all designed to get your attention above the chaotic din of the arcade and suck some money out of your pocket. On one hand, it's crass and carny -- but on the other hand, some of the physical designs of the cabinets & controllers, as well as the classic graphics & gameplay, are totems of modern design. The fact that collectors from all over the country haul over four hundred machines to the Expo every year is testament to their status as important design objects, worthy of their iconic status. In a few more decades, perhaps a broader audience will accept them as true antiques of the post-modern era -- as we already do for classic cars, or Eames chairs, or album covers, or Leica cameras. As examples of design, many arcade games certainly deserve the same treatment.
There's something incredibly social about arcade games, when compared to home video games. Obviously that's mostly because they're in public -- but it's hard not to notice that the gameplay itself, even for one-player games, rewards being watched by an audience. Many people can't stomach watching other people playing contemporary first-person videogames because of motion-sickness issues -- but watching other people play classic top-down games is a shared experience. Cheering on your friends, or watching your opponent's strategies, or howling at their defeat -- it's very different in an arcade environment. It's inherently theatrical and everyone is on stage.
My local Malibu Castle closed for good on August 31st, 1998 -- coincidentally, and somewhat ironically, around that time I moved away to work in Orlando. A week later, the building was completely destroyed in a fire, and an apartment building quickly went up in its place. I'm actually glad I wasn't in town to see the builldozers. Like most neighborhood arcades, it was just an ordinary fact of life -- something routinely enjoyed but never particularly celebrated. Now, every time I drive by the corner of Whitsett & Vanowen, I get a pang of regret for not having taken any pictures -- not a single one in twenty years.
Visiting California Extreme every year is a head-spinning exercise in reminiscing through multiple sense memories. That signature buzzing, ringing hubub of a noisy, crowded arcade -- the kaleidoscope of colors on flashing marquee signs and pulsating color screens -- the feel of an industrial-grade control stick, or roller ball, or steering wheel under your fingers -- the film of sweat on your palms as your score climbs and you cling to your last life -- the only thing missing is the smell of nachos and pizza.
Click here to see a few years of my photos from the show.