Growing up, one of the most important places for my social development was the Aladdin's Castle Arcade in Rocky River, Ohio. Aside from me simply loving video games, this was one of the first places where I was surrounded by people who did not find me profoundly strange.
There were “adults” who worked there who liked the same things I did. I remember these people being in their mid-forties but it is far more likely they were college-age. I felt cool for maybe the first time in my life the day I walked in and one of them remembered who I was.
Those years when I was 8, 9, 10, 11 felt almost exclusively defined by athletics. If you were good, you were OK everywhere else. If you were bad (as I was) you took what you could get. That dynamic would repeat each year of my life until college.
Permit me an aside to establish my ranking on this merit-based athletics social economy. You know those scenes in movies or TV shows where the big game is on the line and the scrub on the team strikes out to end it? I was that scrub.
So you can imagine how I felt the first time I beat one of the local heroes in Mortal Kombat or set a top-ten score in Ridge Racer. It was, in almost every sense, a new experience. Not that new experiences are in terribly short supply when you’re 11 but when you’re a nervous, uncoordinated, emotional child the good ones can be few and far between.
But it wasn’t just geek camaraderie and games that made Aladdin’s Castle an important place. It was also the space itself. Westgate Mall was a 10-minute walk from my house. Aladdin's Castle was located on the far side of the mall, far away from the department store anchors or the movie theater that would one day become a massive atrium food court (see, the trick is to hit up the Sbarro 10 minutes before the mall closes and they’ll sell you slices for a dollar).
It was quiet over there. Once you entered the mall the arcade was the first or second spot on your left. Across the way was a Radio Shack. A Radio Shack across from an arcade just had to be by design. Just a few steps up was an ice cream shop, a hot pretzel place (Hot Sam’s?) and a store where you could get all kinds of popcorn. These types of popcorn places are still popular. There success baffles me. But back then the popcorn place sold Icees so they were getting my money. If you continued north the mall opened up; Dillard’s to the left, Waldenbooks to the right.
So, Aladdin's Castle was isolated save for a Radio Shack, a symbiotic relationship if ever there was one. And the only things close by were junk food. As a mall-going slacker just finding his way this small, lonely appendage in a big pool of commerce was ideal. You could circle around the mall past all the people and essentially take the back way in, getting to the arcade without having to actually see anyone. As I got older and bullying got more serious this became even more important.
So games, what did they have? This is an incomplete and possibly inaccurate list untethered from chronology; Street Fighter 2/Turbo etc., Mortal Kombat/2/3 etc., Killer Instinct/2, After Burner, Numan Athletics, Revolution X, Area 51, Time Crisis 2/3, Tekken 2, Lethal Enforcers, Operation Wolf, Heavy Barrel, Shinobi, Ninja Gaiden, Tron, The Simpsons Arcade Game, NBA Jam, TMNT Arcade, Ridge Racer. There were hundreds more but at a certain point the Space Harrier at Great Northern Mall (the mall with the Taco Bell, as I remember it, and current home of MALL GUY) blends in with the Altered Beast at Westwood Movie Theater which overlaps with Battletoads at Swings-N-Things.
In between games there was the manager who told me what a great movie star Rowdy Roddy Piper was and how I needed to see They Live. There was a kid, maybe four years older than me, I think he was from Arkansas or Texas, who was there every day and, in two years, started working there. He was effortlessly good at MK2. I remain impressed by his ability to play as Shang Tsung and, during the limited “Fatality” window, transform into Sub-Zero, hit his opponent with a deep freeze, transform back into Shang Tsung, transform into Scorpion and then perform the “take off mask to reveal skull and breathe fire on the guy turning him into a skeleton that crumbed to ash” fatality.
If you know what I’m talking about I’m sure you’re nodding your head. If this sounds vaguely familiar I assure you it was so impressive at the time. And if this is all gibberish I just want to thank you for making it this far along without bailing on my story.
I can’t pinpoint it but I would guess the death of the Great American Video Arcade started in the mid-nineties. I would consider myself a part of the last great arcade generation. PCs and consoles started producing reasonable arcade ports. Then the internet started eating away at mall shopping. These were two spiked walls slowly closing in from both sides. Arcades were a novelty by the early 2000s and dead-gone by the end of the ‘00s. Which was OK, the cat’s in the cradle as they say. And if you were an awkward pre-teen in 2001 you had chat rooms and MMORPGs so you got yours.
They’re back now. If you are over 21 you can go to a “barcade” which is a portmanteau I’ll never like. I’ve gone to a bunch of them. Often they do more to remind me how terrible arcades were. Most of the games are bad. Most of the games are engineered to take your money. I never noticed this stuff when I was 11 and it sort of sucks to understand the business of it now.
But, there are still moments of brilliance. From 2016 alone I can recall: a long run through Crystal Castles, the sound from a working beefed-up Asteroids cabinet, an NBA Jam session with three friends, a deep Gauntlet game and finally, after twenty-five years, beating The Simpsons Arcade Game.
But there was also that night when, despite the game being free, a friend and I could not beat Terminator 2. We went on so long that I was convinced it was impossible and that this was the most cynical video game ever made. If the game wasn’t free I’d estimate we pushed $20 in quarters. Imagine being a kid and paying that much, only to hit a wall. But there we were, endlessly mashing “Start” and firing shotgun shells into the T1000 as played by Robert Patrick and that sumbitch would NOT fall into that goddamn vat of molten iron no matter how much we tried.
So, it wasn’t a perfect environment. And at 11 I was mostly too naive to notice drugs though a ton of the friends I made at the arcade were there or headed that way. But you’re going to get that mix when you’re a misfit with the misfits. And yeah, sometimes the place where you get your escape from reality is going to be full of computers designed to take your money. And sometimes the headquarters of your nascent rebellion is a business in a mall owned by a casino company. Don’t get me wrong, I was lucky to have it.
—Steven Casimer Kowalski