It was 1983 and I was sat on my ZX Spectrum 48k, helping Horace cross the road to a ski shop, when my friend
asked me, “Why doesn’t this game look like the ones in the arcade? Why doesn’t it look… better?”
Too young to be able to give a technical answer, I just shrugged. It was just accepted that games in the arcades were always going to look and sound better than the ones you played at home. Computer games at home
were fun, but the really good games were in cabinets in arcades and that was just the way of things. Because of this, we’d soon get bored of playing Horace and would venture outside to do the other things young boys in small towns did. Cycled around for a bit, kicked a ball about, perhaps poked a dead mole with a stick if we happened upon one.
A few years later, when Commodore 64s were common, we’d ask, “Why can’t they make the actual games look as good as the loading screens?” and then with a resigned sigh, “Why aren’t they as good as the arcade games yet?”
Growing up in the UK in the 1980s, however, not every town had a full arcade and games were to be found and enjoyed all over town, their existence spread by word of mouth. In the café by the public swimming pool was a Double Dragon machine. At the local campsite, there was a TV room with a Ghosts and Goblins machine which was ridiculously difficult. Just inside a pub by the bus station was a Bubble Bobble machine, and despite being underage the bar staff would turn a blind eye if you came in and played. But if you had an actual arcade in your home town, it was the motherlode. Outrun, Spy Hunter, Gauntlet, Operation Wolf and the rest, all lined up in cabinets, all with graphics and sound better than you’d get anywhere else.
Sure, some of these games were available for home computers but those versions were a pale facsimile. Home computers had pretty much caught up with arcade games like Space Invaders, Galaga, Defender and Donkey Kong, but the arcade machines were now more advanced. Although you could get Spy Hunter for the Commodore 64, it was simply not as good as the one in the arcade. Even fairly basic games like 1942 were noticeably better in the arcade. Just better enough to warrant parting with 10p to get three lives.
There was no computer at home that could do that. Kids at school talked of the Cray Supercomputer and embellished things that it could do, (“It made graphics for the film Tron and that’s actually a real game, but you can only get it in America”) but no normal computer could match the arcade machines. The fact that a Cray Supercomputer had less graphics power than an iPhone 5s is a moot point, because as a kid in the ‘80s you weren’t getting you hands on either.
In truth, we mythologise the arcades of our British youth. We revere those noisy rooms with their sticky and threadbare-carpeted and glowing screens of pixilated escapism, but often they were also fairly grotty places
with at best a lowrent charm, at worst a grimy menace. At no point did we ever hear anyone say, “if anybody wants to see, there’s a Donkey Kong kill screen coming up” because nobody was really that good at any of the
games. And that was an issue.
The games were nearly all designed to give you a hit of noise and pixels, then beat you. The countdown and harrying of “Insert more coins to continue…” was only so much of a draw and by the time it got to the point of only having the bus fare left in your pocket, it started to feel like this was not a great return of fun for your investment. But in 1987, the year that Double Dragon came out, the Amiga 500 was also released.
During the summer, in a French supermarket on holiday, I was flipping though a games magazine in a language I could barely decipher, but it showed me everything I needed to know. The graphics were incredible.
They were detailed and smooth and looked realistic. They looked like the games in the arcade. Later that evening, back on the campsite, while shovelling two-Franc pieces into a Bomb Jack arcade machine, I knew that day in the supermarket I’d seen the future. I could have games that looked like those in the arcade at home.
An Amiga 500 – I needed to get an Amiga 500. Of course, there was always the wealthy kid who got one
first. In my case, it was a Canadian boy in my class who lived in a big house and, legend had it, was rich because his dad made a load of money mining for gold in the wilds of Canada. It turned out this was actually true. So sat on beanbags at his house playing Cinemaware game The Three Stooges it was a world away from Horace and his skis. Then, playing Arkanoid it was clear that this was every bit as good as the machine I had to pay to use in town. Others also got an Amiga 500 and we quickly learned how to copy games, so it was cheaper and easier than getting a bus to an arcade. Soon, we were just getting a bus to each other’s houses instead.
Consoles had already been gaining an advantage in the longer-form games with things like The Legend of Zelda on the NES – that meant adventures and not just short bursts of play – but the NES and Sega always felt separate and more of a companion to arcade games. What the Amiga 500 was doing was replicating what arcades offered in 16- bit bedroom-based glory.
The idea of shovelling coins into Operation Wolf when you had a version at home that looked pretty much the same seemed a bit pointless. The same with Arkanoid. Even more so with Arkanoid because games on that bastard lasted barely any time at all, but at home on your Amiga, once you had the game you could play as much as you wanted, multi-ball be damned. Pacmania, Bubble Bobble, and the rest. Once the 16-bit of the Amiga 500 – and to a lesser extent the Atari ST – was in full, flow arcade games rapidly lost their draw. To compensate, the arcade machines got bigger, flashier, with more sit-in booths and periscopes and guns, but they also got more expensive and more difficult. On one Star Wars game you could burn through a pound in next to no time. That pound could buy you a blank disk and a friend could copy you a new game that lasted as many goes as you wanted.
The arcade carried on of course. The pool and snooker tables still were regularly busy, but there seemed to be fewer and fewer games and more coin pushers and fruit machines. The gamers were drifting away and most of the regular faces who remained were there for the “fruities” – all believing they had a system, or knew a hack, or in the case of one lad, just put doublesided carpet tape up under where the coins dropped so it would capture a few on a payout for him to pick up when the sucker went to complain the machine had shortchanged him.
The arcade in my town eventually burned to the ground one evening, along with the chip shop next door and nearby nightclub in what was one of the biggest fires in living memory. But nobody really missed it, and tellingly, nobody opened another to fill the void – that void had been filled years earlier by the Amiga 500.
For Amiga Addict magazine