There’s a terrific anime streaming on Netflix called High Score Girl. It’s a slice of life story about a budding relationship between two young kids but filtered through the ‘90’-s arcade scene, in particular the booming popularity of fighting games like Capcom’s Street Fighter II. Due to how authentic the show is of the era – the Street Fighter character Guile even acts as the main character’s conscience – I became immediately engrossed in it because I missed out on the arcade culture and in watching High Score Girl, it captures what it was like for those who weren’t privileged enough to live close to an arcade or just simply weren’t born yet.
When I watch YouTube videos or listen to podcasts, I always get envious when I hear anecdotes about going to arcades or playing cabinets in departments stores, bowling alleys or pizzerias because those are experiences I missed out on. For a short time, we had a small arcade in the T.C Square, Fun Land I believe it was called, but it was less an arcade and more of a dingy pool hall that happened to have a few cabinets.
I can’t recall when it closed its doors, but I have memories of pumping tokens into games like Midway’s Rampage, a game where you play as giant monsters with the end goal to demolish buildings, and Ninja Gaiden, a title I was familiar with from renting the NES games of the same name. This would mark the first time I would realize just exactly how much was changed between coin-op games and the modified versions created to fit within the technical limitations of the console we possessed at home.
In both versions of Ninja Gaiden, you play as Ryu Hayabusa, a masked ninja clad in blue. The trilogy of NES games are incredibly challenging action titles that demand mastery of their controls and strict memorization of levels and enemy patterns to complete them. The arcade game has far more detailed visuals from the NES games due to how sophisticated the hardware was that was running the game compared to what was offered by the NES, but the game itself is far less interesting.
As opposed to having to having to master death defying leaps and clever enemy patterns, Ninja Gaiden in the arcade is more of a beat ‘em up where you move left to right, punching and kicking bad guys. What stuck with me about this game most though was what happened when you ran out of money. With what little money I had, I gave Ninja Gaiden a try but didn’t make it that far before I ran out of lives. You’re then taken to a screen where Ryu is tied down, struggling to escape, while a buzz saw slowly descends down upon him from the top of the screen. Without any money to feed into the machine, I had to watch as this death trap claimed the life of the character I was charged with keeping alive. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven at the time, and needless to say this was something I was not used to seeing in a video game.
The closest real arcade to where I lived was an hour-and-a-half away by car in the city of St. John’s, a place that’s going to come up a lot in this book going forward. For people who don’t live here, one of St. John’s’ claims to fame is George Street, a long street packed with bars on both sides. For me growing up, St. John’s best feature was that it was the home of two malls: The Village and Avalon, the latter of which housed several toy stores, a multiplex, and an arcade, Electric Avenue. I’m apologizing now for that song being stuck in your head.
At the conclusion of the 2012 film Safe, a character played by actor Jason Statham with a small girl as his companion are about to drive west across the United States. Statham turns to the girl and says something to the effect of “it’s a nice drive, if you like trees and s***.” The people who I saw the film with and I chuckled. To this day we constantly reference that line, but neither of us could probably tell you anything else about the film without looking up its Wikipedia article.
Why we had that reaction to that particular line is that’s pretty much the experience of driving across Newfoundland. The island of which I’ve called home for my entire life will take you the better part of a day to drive across, and there’s not much in the way of things to look at other than trees. Though the distance has shortened because of the construction of new highways, it used to take upwards of an hour-and-a-half or more to drive from our house in Harbour Grace to St. John’s, which as a kid who’s bursting with excitement to go to the big city might as well have been ten years. You would start to pick up on landmarks that showed how much time had elapsed. If you saw the horse on a hill in the town of Roache’s Line, a small community you had to pass through to reach the highway, you knew you were half way there.
When I was smaller, I had to stick close to my parents when we were at either of the mall’s in St. John’s, but realistically speaking I could’ve been left at Electric Avenue all day without even a quarter in my pocket and be perfectly content. If you were lucky, you could catch someone playing a game to keep you entertained, but even if they weren’t, a cabinets looping attract screen was just as good. Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons were games that forever imprinted on me, both because I loved those shows and the arcade games looked like someone had magically taken these shows and transplanted them into a video game. If you were patient long enough, you would even catch the iconic opening of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series lovingly recreated, complete with the ear worm of a theme song.
Perhaps no game stood out more to me than another Konami hit, X-Men, quite possibly my first introduction to the popular comic series. For those who are unaware, X-Men came in two varieties: a standard size machine that allowed up to four players, and a much larger counterpart that spread the game across two monitors and could be played by up to six people. This was the version that Electric Avenue had. Suddenly no trip to the Avalon Mall was complete without standing there amongst the crowd of people waiting for their turn to play X-Men. I may have gotten to play it once or twice, never for very long, and that was completely okay. Like always, I was over joyed just to be in the machine’s presence, watching my favorite X-Man, Nightcrawler, zip across the screen, soaking in the game’s music and punching sound effects that somehow managed to break through the noise of the crowd.
Compared to a lot of kids I knew, and would meet later in life, I was fortunate that my parents would make semi-frequent trips into St. John’s, especially around the holiday season, so while I didn’t live around an arcade, I probably got to visit one more than a lot of the kids my age. What helped increase my odds of a trip into the city is when my parents signed us up for swim team. I’m not very a competitive person, and I enjoyed swim team enough, but as you can wager, I would’ve preferred to be spending my time playing video games.
Throughout the year though, swim meets were held across the province, many in St. John’s, or places surrounding in like Mt. Pearl and Conception Bay South – C.B.S for short. What this meant was that between the races in the morning and the evening, we would go to the mall to grab a bite to eat at the food court and then spend a few hours there. It was rough getting up early in the morning for these meets, I’m sure more so for my parents who would have to drive us, but what kept my energy up was knowing that I had the chance to maybe go to the arcade. I could only imagine how many gold medals I could’ve got placed around my neck if I was as focused on my swimming as I was the reward of going to the mall. I made it to the Summer Games – a youth sporting event held every four years in our province – in the year 2000, and what I remember most is that the lodgings they had set up for us had Crazy Taxi and Tekken Tag Tournament.
Seeking out opportunities to play arcade machines has been an ongoing quest pretty much all of my life. My grandparents on my mom’s side would take many trips to western Canada during the summer, and I was always willing to go with my parents to pick them up at the airport in St. John’s to see what new machines were there. Even in my thirties I’m not that much different now in a lot of respects to when I was a kid. During a family vacation in 2018 where we bounced around Ontario, I took every opportunity to look up if there was any arcades close to where we were staying. My brother upon graduating high school moved to the nation’s capital, Ottawa, where he has lived since 1999. Every time I visit, we always make a point to stop into the House of TARG, a pinball barcade that serves delicious perogies. I follow the place on Facebook and always tell my brother to play whatever new game they get in on my behalf.
What I feel I missed most about not growing up close to an arcade was the electrifying energy in the air from seeing a crowd of people huddled around a screen, rooting on complete strangers to complete a game or watch them go toe-to-toe in fierce competition. Streaming platforms like Twitch, Mixer and YouTube allow people to do this from the comfort of our own homes now, while getting to chat with people all around the world no less. Despite how connected this makes us, it still feels rather lonely and disconnected though compared to a time when people were leaving their houses and forming new bonds over a shared love of video games.
This could also just be related to my own personal longing for an era in video game history that I desperately wanted to be a part of that will never come to pass again.