Among the Cabinets
For much of my childhood, the highlight of my days were sitting around my basement playing video games with my friends. When I finally got my driver’s license, it opened a whole new world of places I could go to play video games.
By then, the Dream Machine and other arcades were already on the decline, instead replaced by pricey fun centers aimed at families or young professionals with expendable income. This meant I had to drive a half hour out of Boston to Natick before I found a large, functional, reasonably priced arcade.
Walking in, you could see the hierarchy of genres. Along one wall were all the racing games, two, four, or eight machines linked for head to head play. Along another were sports games, be it quick shot basketball and skeeball or NBA Jam and Arch Rivals. In the middle stood the majority of other games, from Golden Axe and Double Dragon to Terminator II: Judgement Day and Time Crisis.
Right in front, however, were the premier arcade games of the era: Street Fighter II, Virtua Fighter, and the brand-spanking-new Tekken. They weren’t obvious at first, for despite the flashing lights and cries of “haidouken” ringing out, the cabinets themselves were hidden behind a throng of people. And it was the crowds that drew my eyes.
Andy and I were solid gamers in our own right. We had ripped up Sonic on my Sega Genesis, destroyed the entirety of monsters in the World of Xeen, slaughtered everything on our adventures through Icewind Dale, and played through every worthwhile title on my Sega Saturn, from Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter to the oft-overlooked Guardian Heroes and Worldwide Soccer. But seeing these boys (and yes, there was not a girl among them) slapping buttons and flipping sticks so deftly made games seem like more than just entertainment. They played as though it were a worthwhile skill, and we were newfound converts to the cause.
The reigning champion stood haughtily over the Tekken controls and successively slaughtered his challengers. We ground our quarters between our fingers, jingling the change antsily in our palm as we inched ever closer to our turn. And when the moment finally came, I slotted my quarters into the cabinet, grabbed the joystick, and took a deep breath.
It was over before I knew what had hit me. The hours of practice and study on a home console with friends had ill-prepared me for this cabinet champion. Andy fell nearly as quickly. I felt like I was still reeling from defeat when Andy joined me, slinking away poorer, wiser, and with the realization that we needed practice before we could challenge again.
But he champion held his station for the entirety of our visit. Sometimes, he’d even allow his opponents a few hits to start before pulling out an outrageous combo to grab a seemingly last-second victory. But it was false hope he gave his opponents, steadily grinding them into gelatin one after the other. He traveled with a retinue, his cadre made up of a handful of barely lesser fighters. When his arm tired, he would wait to face one of them, lose by a slim margin, and hand them the reigns until he was ready to take it over. The rest of us, he swatted like gnats.
We had no opportunities to practice. The only way to keep playing was to win, and the only way to get good enough to win was to be rich and throw money at the machine and its champion. We could look at move lists and read strategy guides, but without access to that cabinet for an extended practice, we were doomed to die at the hand of this video game master monopolizing his cabinet meritocracy.
Andy suggested we find other similar games to practice on, but every fighting game had its champion. The lines may not have been as long, the crowds not as thick, but Tekken only stood as the cream of the crop of fighters. Street Fighter II had another boy and his compadres at the controls offering one and done matches against superior competition. Its moves, while similar, were no less easy to master. Virtua fighter was dominated by a champion of its own.
Each of these champions was he same. They stood with the same egotistical demeanor offering the same profanity-laced trash talk to their competitors. They would deride me as I walked away, tail between my legs, cheeks red with frustration. They would slander even solid players with epithets of “button-masher” and “one-move marvels.”
It wasn’t long before I started to see them not as champions, but as bullies of the arcade.
I swore I’d get good enough to defeat one, even if it meant getting good at a completely unrelated game just to have time on a joystick.. Just off-center, slightly toward the NFL Blitz cabinet, sat Virtua Tennis. There was never a line for it, and the two-sided cabinet offered literal head to head play. Popping in my money bought me a chance to play through seven stages en route to victory. If a challenger came along, it would rip me out of my campaign, and, if I were victorious, would restart the campaign from scratch. Andy and I soon learned we could practice for fa cheaper by challenging each other toward the end of the campaign.
Before long, we were masters of the cabinet. Kids would see us put up extended rallies, jumping from hard shots down the line to vollies effortlessly. We grew to know exactly which characters strengths would counteract another’s weaknesses. We learned tricks to drop shots and spin, deftly slapping the right button combo for whatever move we felt like at the time.
At some point, a line began to form, each kid wanting to challenge me as the king of the cabinet. I didn’t even notice that I was dispatching them in the same demoralizing fashion that I had been at Tekken. I looked over and saw the excited faces, listened to their hopeful jingling of coins, smiled kindly as they took their position, and then proceeded to shred every last vestige of their dignity without remorse. I avoided the litany of language, keeping my hands and game talking instead of my mouth, which was my one saving grace.
I had, without realized it, become a bully myself.
But it felt good to win. It felt good to have the respect and admiration of my challengers (or at least that’s what I assumed of them). It felt good to be able to exercise my skill and take my determination into battle.
For months, Andy and I would roll into this arcade once every couple of weeks and take up our position as guardian of Virtua Tennis. While I performed my mastery, Andy would practice at other games. Eventually, he found himself good enough at Tekken to challenge the master, and soon we had two cabinets under our control and new friends among the other champions.
One desolate Winter night, with the arcade mostly empty, I stood, joystick in hand, when a nine year-old boy walked up and challenged me. I didn’t look up from cleaning his clock until the first game had fallen by the wayside. When my eyes finally met his, I could see the reddening cheeks of embarrassment and frustration.
“That was a nice try,” I said, my heart suddenly aching with sympathy.
“No,” he said, “I sucked.”
“You’ll get better,” I told him. “Here, try this.” I showed him some of the early moves I had mastered on my way to becoming another cabinet junkie. It took a few tries and I gave up several unnecessary points, but he mastered the net maneuver I had taught him quickly.
It was in this moment that I found myself taking more joy from his learning and his success than I had from my dominance. I extended the game for a long time, trying to teach him everything he needed to know. Eventually, I threw the game and walked away, congratulating him on his improvement.
“What the fuck?” asked Andy when he saw I had ceded my throne to a nine year-old. “Is he that good?”
“He will be someday,” I said, “now that he’s got the chance to play.”