As anyone who reads this knows, I’m a legacy gamer of sorts, at least insofar as my mom was playing video games before I was ever born. I was never scolded for playing too many games, even when maybe I should have been, but it was not long before I surpassed her in breadth of knowledge and skill when it came to gaming.
Before any of that, though, I didn’t know the difference between a penny and a quarter.
Back in the long ago days of, uh, the 1980s, arcades were ubiquitous. More pertinently, though, so were arcade cabinets. Even outside the confines of the ever-so-terrifying world of short shorts, tall socks, and cigarette smoke, you could find an arcade machine anywhere. Including QuikTrip.
My love for QuikTrip goes back a long way; it is probably the first ill-considered brand loyalty of my life, and it persists to this day when I am back in my hometown. I can’t do anything so particular as point out when and why this might have occurred, as it predates my ability to perceive such things, but I can certainly say that the video games they had in the store helped.
Among my earliest memories is taking the three-block walk to the QuikTrip down the street from our house with my mom. We would go and grab whatever; in the immortal way of convenience stores, they had a little of everything. Frequently, we would go and play games together.
In my memory, my mom is playing Pac-Man. This could just be embellishment, me romanticizing the way things were (as most people tend to do), but the truth is, I don’t recall exactly what game it was. On my end, though, there is no question. I played an awful lot of Castlevania.
Back then, it was not uncommon to have the same games released in arcades and on the home system. I remember playing an arcade version of Super Mario Bros that was dramatically harder than the NES version, a fact that my dad didn’t believe even though it was was clear as day to me. I mean, Koopa Troopas replaced many of the Goombas and the platforms were set up differently. HOW COULD HE NOT SEE?!
*ahem* That’s a fairly logical design strategy; after all, you make money on arcade games by killing the player and making them spend more money.
I can’t tell one way or another if this applied to Castlevania. I was, quite simply, too small to notice or care, and on top of that, I had not yet played the NES version of the game, so I had no point of comparison. Then again, in the beginning, that barely mattered.
I wanted to play a game because my mom was playing a game, but let’s be honest: I was tiny, and was going to be terrible. She knew this, and found a workaround.
By handing me a penny, she would get all the time she wanted to play on her own. While she (maybe) blazed through the mazes eating dots and dodging ghosts, I dropped that penny into the coin slot and “played” through the demo screen. After it was over, I gleefully grabbed that penny out of coin return and dropped it back in, just in time to play the demo again. I would do this for as long as it took my mom to exhaust her quarters, and then we would leave.
Unfortunately, I have a long history of being quick on the uptake, and this situation was no different. The ruse with the penny was successful for a while, but it had its limits, and given the fact that I could barely see the screen over the edge of the control panel, I think it’s fairly impressive that I was able to grok that there was no relationship between the things I was doing with the joystick and buttons and the things that were happening onscreen. When I realized this, I started demanding quarters of my own, and actually playing the game.
And then I proved my mom right.
I was very, very bad at that game. Was it harder than the home version? Maybe. Probably. But that is not especially relevant, because I wasn’t beating Castlevania under any circumstances. In fact, it was nigh-miraculous the one time that I actually beat the first stage. That fucking bat.
(Full disclosure: that small victory remains the only time in my life thus far that I have beaten the first level of the game.)
It probably goes without saying that this posed a problem. After all, it was fine when my mom was playing for what seemed to me like forever when it wasn’t costing her anything; she even got the penny back at the end of my escapades. However, when I was running through my lives in approximately the amount of time it took her to get from the start of a map to the nearest power pellet, well, her quarter well spent was turning into dollars questionably spent.
Before long she was budgeting me, giving me what it literally just occurred to me as I was writing this were probably the other three quarters from that dollar she would break. I could play for as long as those three quarters would last me, which as previously stated was somewhere in the range of eleven seconds. I would probably have lasted longer in a fistfight. And I am… not good in a fight. (I know, what a surprise, right?)
Even that was not good enough, though. I guess that after I spent all the money I was just too annoying, and that little aspect of our visits to QuikTrip became less and less frequent, until it stopped happening altogether. It never occurred to me to really miss it, not least because this was right around the time that I got an NES at home and thus didn’t need to play arcade games quite as much.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it was sort of a metaphor for what happened to arcades generally. In the ’80s they were so prevalent that you could go practically anywhere and find a couple of machines, even if they were oftentimes older than me. (Admittedly, this was less impressive when I was five.) It was not long before the game cabinets began disappearing, leaving public spaces gradually until they were segregated to the arcades. Then the arcades themselves started to wither and die, propped up not by tremendous quarter-eaters like Pac-Man or Space Invaders or even Street Fighter II, but by gimmicky machines whose experience could not be well-replicated at home and which often looked more like amusement park rides than video games. Now virtually all we have left is Dave & Busters and the recently reopened, tragically neutered Chinatown Fair.
None of this is the fault of the arcade operators, of course. I largely stopped going, and I was hardly alone. The money just wasn’t there. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be a little sad that I’ll never be able to share that experience with my currently hypothetical children. At the very least, I would like the opportunity to mislead a child about the value of a penny.