Arcades: It's the 80s again.
In case you hadn't heard, it is not 2021. Nope. It's still the 80s.
The world of popular culture, and in particular the gaming industry, has realised that people with nostalgia for the aesthetic of the 1980s and 1990s have a disposable income, and they have been working hard to make us spend that money on immersing ourselves with tech, clothes and memorabilia associated with said decades. The funny thing is, many of these people with an attachment to the style of these decades were barely even around to experience it the first time. However, our culture is so saturated with a longing for the days of cassettes, toy X-Wings, He-Man figures and blasting a-ha from a boombox that many young people are experiencing what I've decided to term: second-hand nostalgia.
Second-hand nostalgia noun A pleasant longing for another time, inflicted entirely by consumption of media and word of mouth, rather than direct first-hand experience.
Bumbags are back in style. HMV is once again filled with vinyls, and people are flocking to arcades to play Pac-Man, Galaga, Street Fighter and the like. For those who lived through the 1980s, it must be like deja-vu. And for the rest of us, our second-hand nostalgia gives all of this an uncanny sense of familiarity.
After decades of being seemingly restricted to bowling alleys and run-down seaside piers, arcades are on the rise again. Fuelled by both genuine nostalgia and my newly-coined second-hand nostalgia, there is sufficient appetite across the population for the tactile, refreshingly clunky and often innumerably challenging world of arcades, packed to the brim with classic cabinets.
Last week I visited The Pixel Bunker in Milton Keynes which recently opened up, and in their own words; "We're packed full of classic arcade machines such as Pac-man, Galaga, Donkey Kong, Star Wars, OutRun, Street Fighter 2 and many more. With every machine set to free play, the only cost to play is the admission fee." Abandoning the arguably outdated coin-op system for their cabinets, The Pixel Bunker have instead opted to set all of their machines to run with endless credits, and allow visitors unlimited access to all of their offerings. For around £13 I was given unlimited access to all of their 30+ games within a three and a half hour window, which I think is pretty good value for money. I could have easily spent a tenner on Metal Slug alone while I was there - old games are tough. The arcade itself isn't huge, but you could easily spend 15 minutes or more on each game on offer. Obviously there were some games in higher demand than others - there was one kid who was playing Space Invaders for a solid 30 minutes - but generally you didn't have to wait long to play whichever game you wanted.
It was really nice to see such a diverse mix of age groups at the arcade, too. There were a number of middle-aged guys who I imagined were reliving their youths and trying once again to beat their old high scores. There were families with young children who were no doubt experiencing classics for the first time. And then, there was us. The twenty-somethings with a fondness and almost academic interest in what came before us, nurtured by popular culture. I'm a self-confessed fanatic for the culture of the 80s. Many of my favourite films are from that era: Back to the Future, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Aliens... it's all good. And when it comes to video games, I've always had a great interest in the birth of the industry, and the truly immense boom of video games in the 80s, and arcades were the proving grounds for the early years of the industry. The Pixel Bunker's wares are all proudly original units, with only minor replacement parts used where necessary to keep some of the older cabinets in good shape. A couple of machines were out of action for refurbishment, but all of the games I played were running on very well looked after cabinets. So, for all accounts, this is about as close as you'll get today to the authentic arcade experience of the glory days of yore.
And, in a world dominated by touch screens, virtual hangouts and Twitch streams, there's something colossally satisfying and refreshing about the palpable inputs of the machines, the warm glow of the CRT monitors and the snug huddling around the cabinet in the dimly-lit arcade. In the same way that the physical nature of vinyls gives them a unique selling point that music streaming services will never be able to offer; arcades offer something that is altogether unachievable for the typical modern gaming setup.
Additionally, It's very much a social experience, with many of the games built with two players in mind. Dance Dance Revolution, Bubble Bobble, Time Crisis, Magic Sword - you name it, many of these classics were designed with drop-in multiplayer in mind. Even the solely single player experiences can offer social elements and competition in the form of high scores, and even just watching from over the player's shoulder can be great fun - especially if they're actually any good at the game they're playing! So, in case it wasn't abundantly clear, I had an excellent time at The Pixel Bunker and would absolutely recommend a visit.
As well as the more traditional arcades, there are also the arcade / bar hybrids which are proving popular across major cities across the UK. Bars such as Kongs, NQ64 and Retroids are popping up across Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Worcester and the like, and offer a selection of classic arcade cabinets along with craft beers and cocktails. Many of these bars are fully leaning into the retro aesthetic, with low lighting coupled with the vibrant sci-fi synth style often attributed to the 80s, and it's awesome. And of course, there are also many Virtual Reality arcades that offer affordable VR gaming experiences for folks wishing to try it out without having to fork out for a headset.
So, whatever your preferences are, I'm sure that there is something for everyone to enjoy at the plethora of arcades across the country. The nostalgia overload we're experiencing may in many ways be a capitalist cash grab, but I think that there is a lot of genuine joy to be found in the triumphant resurrection of these neon centres of sweaty button presses.
Let's just hope that mullets stay in the 80s, hm?
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