Golden Age of Coin-ops
When people talk about the golden age of coin-op video games they often speak wistfully of the giant arcades. Massive, multi-floored temples built purely for us kids. The only adults were the weirdos who played the strip poker games in the back.
I get the nostalgia, I loved arcades and the sad games section of modern Dave & Busters doesn’t compare to the constant stream of new machines that graced the front of any successful late 80’s gaming establishment. But depending on your city and mobility arcades were a special outing. In Windsor the only proper arcade was downtown (Fast Eddy’s which I see sadly sold it’s final memorabilia in 2015) – far out of my allowed bike range.
Instead my fondest video game memories of that era were for the smattering of machines present everywhere kids might have to spend 15 minutes. They turned painful errands with my parents into joyful excursions. The mind numbing tedium of Sears and The Bay was replaced by 2 blissful hours spent with a dozen machines in a disused hallway of Devonshire mall. Every corner store had a couple of machines in the back. The bowling alley had a respectable selection.
Parental frugality was the only barrier to perfect gaming joy. I treated every quarter with the gravity reserved for economy shaking mergers. That mall trip had to be endured with only $2; 8 quarters for 2-hours. 15 minutes of gaming from each quarter despite the best efforts of 80’s game designers to separate you from your quarters as fast as humanly possible. Going in without a plan meant 10 minutes of fun followed by an hour and fifty minutes of tragic sadness as you watched others play.
Balance and investment in the future was the key. One had to weigh the desire to experience new machines (which you had no skill with and therefore minimal playing time) with ones you mastered.
Ignoring the new offerings wasn’t a solution as one day your favorites would be replaced. You had to gain an understanding of which machines were likely to stay so you don’t waste your training on something that won’t pay out in future long sessions.
And forget anything with a novelty console – no sit-down jets or motorcycles. Even machine guns were suspect. Those games took 2-quarters to play and ended quickly before you could amass much skill. And never continue. Games got harder the longer you played and if you wanted to maximize playtime you had to ignore the siren’s call of the countdown and start over.
Double Dragon was edgy. The opening sequence starts with thugs punching your girlfriend in the gut then hoisting her over the shoulder like a sack as she crumples. I’m not sure I ever saw a woman punched in the stomach by that point of my life. It was shocking and left me with a thirst for vengeance and ass kicking matched only by the consumption of Rocky or Bruce Lee.
The violence you inflicted also had an edge to it. Other games settled for punches and kicks. Double Dragon let you grab someone by the hair and knee them in the face repeatedly before throwing them at their friends.
Once you got good you could make it halfway without using exploits. Then conjured by the will of greedy designers, a pair of huge balding men attack, too swift and durable to finish without taking damage. If 2 people were playing you could try to hold on to a limited use aluminum bat while your partner fought single handedly until you reached the two giants. A fresh bat lasted just long enough to finish both.
For months, if I played solo, that’s where my games would end. Then I learned how to exploit the only way you could before the internet. By looking over a shoulder while someone else played.
Pressing both buttons and moving the joystick away from your current facing threw an elbow. It didn’t do a lot of damage but it did two very important things. First it was an auto knockdown on every enemy type. This nullified the quarter eating enemies who were so tough they walked through your normal attacks.
From a design point of view this powerful attack was balanced by very short reach. But the animation was long and lingered on the screen. By moving slightly below the line of an enemy, throwing the move and letting the enemy walk down into it you could knock down foes whose reach should have made it impossible to land the elbow. Once discovered I elbowed my way to the end of each game on a single quarter.
Golden Axe was both more fair than Double Dragon and more of a dick. It was aware of DD’s elbow move and gave you that same sort of auto-knockdown attack with the exact same key sequence. But 2 of the 3 characters threw it too slowly to be of much use. The 3rd character, the dwarf, performed it best, rolling backwards halfway across the screen and poking with his axe. But instead of holding the pose he rolled back eliminating the animation exploit. Just in case the designers specifically put in enemies at the halfway point that reacted quickly and kicked the rolling dwarf before he could land.
You could squeak by those tougher encounters if you were very careful and saved your screen clearing magic. Then you’d lose to Death Adder – the final boss who knocked you down as he got up. Like DD my progress was stalled for months until I saw someone exploiting Death Adder’s weakness. You could time a jump attack over his kneeling form so it would land the moment he rose. The final climax became a silly bunny hopping affair but it worked and you could finish on your first quarter.
While the side scrollers were reliable time-wasters they required exploits. The last quarter was always reserved for what I considered to be the purest form of time extending play – the head to head. I was competent at street fighter 2, getting good at the amazing new Virtua Fighter, but if I wanted to play indefinitely I relied on WWF Superstars.
The single player version usually ended during the title match against Ted Dibiase and Andre the Giant. There was no way to win without using a few quarters to continue. Courteous fellow gamers would place their coin on the lip of the machine to show they had next game. But they wouldn’t initiate until you were about to lose a match. Then, instead of letting the referee count you out you they’d hit the challenge button and you got to play head to head.
Eventually I reached the theoretical skill limit of WWF Superstars. I’d roll a single kick into a long, frustrating, perfect win every time despite the game having systems built in place to prevent this exactly. A combination of exploits let me never stop the offensive and steadily drain health until the inevitable pin. Or the 80’s version of a humiliating tea-bagging; throwing you out of the ring, body slamming you for 18 seconds then making you run headlong into the fences for an inevitable 20-second ring-out. Fighting an equal master meant a 50/50 match depending on who landed the first blow. Anyone lesser was toyed with and dispatched. The only other game I know every permutation to every scenario is tic-tac-toe.
Winner stayed in, loser was replaced by the next person whose quarter was on the lip of the machine. Continue winning and you could play until you heard your frustrated parents pacing behind you. Invariably my kind parents tried to let me finish out the quarter but after three or four opponents I’d hear an annoyed parental tsk and knew my time was up. Then I got to give the greatest boon a 10-year old had the power to grant; I would look around and find a sad younger kid who had spent their quarters unwisely and call him over to finish my game as I walked away glowing with largess.
My Week in Nirvana
While the financial restrictions stayed until I was 16 and had a job there was one glorious week in which all limits were off. The week we went to Vegas for our family trip.
Back then slot machines still gave out physical quarters and everyone who played walked around with jingling buckets emblazoned with the hotel logo. Every casino had a respectable arcade explicitly designed to entertain the children while the parents gambled the college funds. My parents didn’t gamble much but they took full advantage of the omnipresent digital babysitters.
Every morning would start with a bucket full of quarters and a designated meeting spot for lunch. After the meal the bucket was refilled and I was free until supper.
The endless resources were spent to set myself up for the next few years of efficient gaming. I didn’t play the games, I trained methodically. And I got to finish a dozen games that I was too poor to ever continue, fly in full motion jets, race and shoot with abandon at the shocking rate of $1 (American!) per game. This glorious vacation was capped with my crowning pre-puberty achievement – learning Shinobi (awesomely full of ninja but brutally hard) well enough to get to the final boss on one quarter.
I’d love to hear what games you used to extend your playtime with. I was jealous of the people who could pull it off in bullet hell sidescrollers like R-type or Raiden. I also wanted to get good at Wonderboy and Rolling Thunder but never managed to make them efficient time wasters.