VGT – Coin Operated Blast from the Past

I spent part of the holidays visiting friends in Park City, Utah.  There I experienced some of the best skiing on earth and some of the best food I’ve ever tasted.  But as the Video Game Theologian, one of the biggest highlights was getting to play one of the two coin operated video game machines in their play room.  One of the machines had Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, and Galaga.  The other machine had a collection of over 120 video games.  Best of all, both of the machines were rigged so that no quarters were required.  All I had to do was push the start button!

No coins required!

No coins required!

Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga

This was a 25th Anniversary edition of the game cabinet but it seemed to be authentic in every way.  As I played each game, I realized how much I missed the excellent joystick control and nothing, NOTHING will ever replace the fantastic fire buttons.  My favorite game on this cabinet was Galaga.  I played it the most and was able to get a high score of 110,000.  I found that I had worked myself up into a sweat while I was playing.  If I ever score less than 100,000 on Galaga I will be forced to turn in my official “Gamer” card.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to play and take a picture at the same time?

Do you have any idea how hard it is to play and take a picture at the same time?

Galaga just can’t be played correctly on anything other than the real arcade cabinet.  Playing while standing and using the fire button gives it a completely different feel.  I felt like I was 14 again, playing at Time-Out.  I could almost see the video game attendants walking around with their coin changers on their belts, and see the high score cards set on top of each machine.

Arcade Legends

This is more of an all purpose arcade cabinet equipped to play a wide variety of games.  Although I was probably playing some sort of emulator, most of the games looked good – very good.  There were many controller options to choose from – including a track ball for playing games such as Missile Command, Centipede, or Golden Tee Golf.

This cabinet is prepared for anything

This cabinet is prepared for anything

I played a lot of games.  I was able to select the game making company on the right and then select some of their games.  I found myself mostly in the world of Williams, Taito, and Atari  but also found a new game that was surprisingly fun.  Robotron 2084 was played using both joysticks and was an authentic experience.  I’m surprised I didn’t experience a seizure after all the intensity.  I also played Berserk and Moon Patrol.

The Williams menu

The Williams menu

And then along came Atari.  I played Centipede and found the track ball controller to be as good as the original experience.  My only criticism is that some of the Atari games – the vector games – such as Lunar Lander and Asteroids Deluxe did not look as good.  The lines were not crisp and this is the only time I felt like I was playing an emulator rather than the original.  The last game I played was Puzzle Bobble, which is essentially the same game as Bust A Move.  I was just aiming balloons in a “Match 3” type of game but it was a blast.  What also made it great was not having to put another quarter in every time I lost.  That was the real magic of those classic arcade games.  They were designed from the ground up to make me want to put another quarter in.  I would love to have either of these machines installed in my train and game room.

This is Park City, Utah

This is Park City, Utah

I couldn’t play games forever.  I had two great days of experiencing a dream come true.  I had never gone skiing anywhere except the east coast.  I have become a Park City snob!  The views were tremendous and I skied on lots of beautiful, real snow.

VGT – Coin-Op Games That Were Too Hard (For Me)

Sometimes you start writing about one subject and you find your mind drifting to other subjects.  I started off this morning writing about zombies and why they are such a popular feature in video games.  I reasoned with myself that most zombie games are survival games in which you try to stay alive as long as possible.  That is not my favorite type of game and I found myself losing interest.  (It’s not good when you start to lose interest in your own writing!).  Then my mind started to drift to back to the days of my youth when I would hang out at Time Out Arcade…

The early days of video games were almost always based on that “survive as long as you can” premise.  Why was that?  There are a couple of reasons.  One, because the goal was to get players to spend their quarters and the best way to do that was to create games that tried to end your game as quickly as possible.  Two, there were limits to hardware and programming back then – a game could only do so much so wave after wave of increasing difficulty was the only way to go.

I have come up with three classic arcade coin operated games that were simply too hard for me to play.  I enjoyed watching others play them, but I just could not get the hang of them.

Land this perfectly or die

Lunar Lander – The game looked so simple.  It was black and white with vector graphics.  You controlled the spaceship with a simple left-right and thrust controls.  So why was the game so hard?  There was something about this game that made it feel real.  You knew it was just a simple image on the screen but you could almost imagine yourself to be an astronaut in training.  I happened to be a terrible astronaut.  You had to control the lander with precision and I was too reckless.  If you came down too fast or a little bit off the platform your ship exploded.  I loved to watch someone else play this game if they were good at it – it was almost like a ballet, a gentle dance.

Twin joystick action!

Robotron 2084 – A futuristic game in which you are trying to save innocent people from being destroyed by swarm after swarm of robots.  One of the elements that made this game distinctive was the fact that it had no fire button.  Control of your character was done by two joysticks.  The left joystick controlled your motion and the right joystick controlled your direction of fire.  You could move one direction and fire in another.  You could also fire in all directions very quickly – and you needed to.  Those robots would start coming from everywhere fast.  It was a little stressful to watch!  I would barely make it past the second wave.

Only the best could play this game

Defender – How could I not mention this game?  Just one look at the controls intimidated me.  There was up-down, thrust, fire, reverse, and smart bomb.  I remember thinking to myself, “Learning to play this game has to be like learning to type.”  But there were people who were good at this game.  They could pilot that spaceship with precision and shoot down the invaders.  It always unnerved me to watch this game – that sound the little space alien would make when picking up a human.  I can still hear it.  I’m still amazed that somehow they made a port of Defender for the Atari 2600.  They somehow took all those complex controls and put them onto a joystick with a single button!  I couldn’t play it on the Atari either.

All three of these games had some unique control features.  I have emulators but they simply do not reproduce the actual experience of playing these in an arcade.  If you really want to reproduce the experience.  Step 1: Buy an arcade game.  Step 2: Paint a room black, wire it with bad lighting, and put the game in it.  Step 3: Add the odor of a locker room and cigarette smoke.  Bam!  You are back in the arcades during the 70’s and 80’s!

VGT – Coin-Op Arcade Memories

The year was 1981.  I was in eighth grade.  I had some change in my pocket because I did not get a full lunch in the cafeteria.  Instead, I had figured out how to eat the bare minimum of a young teen’s daily food requirement – a frosting covered sticky bun.  Sure, I would be starving, and I wasn’t following the suggested food pyramid.  But, my greater goal in those days was not to eat.  It was to have a little money for the arcade.

Photo from

Time Out Arcade was a short detour during my walk home.  I crossed the street and headed toward a side entrance at the Cary Mall.  There, to the immediate left was a darkened room filled with blinking lights and futuristic sounds.  Often after school, there would be a small crowd of people watching someone play the latest game.  The newer games were always strategically placed near the entrance.

Here are some of the games I remember and the impressions they left on me:

Pac Man

Pac-Man – Up to this point, most games were based on outer space.  (mainly due to hardware limitations)  But the day I saw a crowd of people around Pac-Man and I finally had a chance to view the screen – it was truly remarkable.  A friendly yellow circle being chased around a maze by four ghosts.  It was the same maze every time, but it didn’t matter.   Something about that game sucked me in.  I remember buying a book about mastering Pac-Man.  The book had two patterns that you could memorize and play for a long time.  The first pattern worked pretty well.  But the second one would end my game.  It was still a blast.

Dragon’s Lair

Dragon’s Lair – This game was a true innovation in the world of video games.  Rather than traditional programming, it actually used a laser disc with cartoon animations (created by Don Bluth).  At certain points in the video, you had to quickly interact for your character to go up, down, left, or right.  The game was challenging and largely based on memorization as well as fast reflexes.  I saw a lot of that animation where Dirk the Daring (I think that was his name) would cross his arms, look at me with exasperation, and then turn into a skeleton.  I did not play this game very much but it was amazing to watch someone play who was good at it.


Gorf – There are two things about the game Gorf that affected me.  First, the game talked to me.  It would say, “Insert Coin” with this robotic futuristic voice.  Second, this game had levels, real levels that were different from the one before.  The first level was like Space Invaders, the second was like Galaxian, the third was like going through hyperspace warp, and the final level was against the mother ship.  I just couldn’t believe that they somehow made a game that could do that!  Four games in one!  Plus I thought the joystick was pretty cool.  It kind of felt like a fighter jet grip.  One thing I didn’t like about the game was that you couldn’t shoot more than one missile at a time.  As soon as you hit the fire button again, the previous missile would disappear.  I wanted to just spam that fire button!

Star Wars Arcade Game

Star Wars – This arcade game featured a cabinet that I could sit inside.  I felt as though I was piloting an X-Wing Fighter in the battle against (the first) death star.  The game featured color vector graphics and looked amazing.  When I played the game, I could imagine what it must have felt like to fly in space like Luke Skywalker.  The game had a space level against Tie Fighters, then moved onto the surface of the Death Star to blow up some towers, and last put you inside that famous trench where you ultimately sent a torpedo into an small exhaust port.  Then you had a front row seat as you watched the Death Star explode.  After that, you did it all over again, except it was more difficult.

I have many more memories but I try to limit myself to 500 words per blog and I’m already over by more than 100.  Let me know if you would like to hear more.