Last week, James regaled us with a wistful tale about his childhood visits to the arcade -- the colorful cabinets, the dazzling variety of peripherals, and just that feeling you get when you’re slogging your way to your favorite game with your pocket weighed down and jangling with tokens. With enough tokens, everything was all right with the world.
Just thinking about it strikes such a chord in me that I kind of want to talk about my own arcade experience. Yeah. I think that’s exactly what I’ll do.
Down by the highway from my house -- about ten to fifteen minutes’ walk -- is a dingy building whose entire ground floor is occupied by a warehouse store for new and second-hand imported clothes -- ukay ukay, as we call them in the Philippines. Outdoor stairs lead up to a collection of small businesses -- a bunch of hardware and textile stores, a video rental place, and a satellite office for a travel agency. The place has always been dusty and noisy and just a little bit seedy, but one thing has changed: one of those hardware stores used to be an arcade almost twenty years ago.
It was a proper arcade, too -- no silly and gimmicky novelty games to be found. It had all the good stuff of the time: Capcom beat-’em-ups like King of Dragons and Knights of the Round, vertical scrolling shooters, a generous number of shooty-shooty games like Aliens and that 2D one with the scary monsters on a rooftop, and unit upon unit of the legendary Street Fighter II. I used to bound up the narrow metal steps, waiting for the official chorus of any good arcade to hit my ears: five or more instances of a scratchy voice yelling “Hadoken!” over and over to the tune of screeching elephants. You know what I’m talking about. That was the good stuff.
The place was dark -- you wouldn’t be able to make out anyone’s face unless he was really leaning over an arcade screen. Homeless kids loitered around the area, both outside and inside. There was no smoking, but a haze and a funny smell seemed to perpetually hang in the air. A loud but tinny radio blasted out the latest pop hits from a pair of busted speakers mounted high in the corners, drowning out what little sound had escaped the thick blanket of all the video game noise. I would slide my money over a cheap painted wooden counter to the attendant, and she’d count out my tokens out of a little drawer where all the shiny coins would be lined up in neat little rows. 5 pesos (0.10 USD today or thereabouts) per token -- I think that was the going rate back then. I’d make my way to a vacant game, and if it was a sit-down cabinet, I’d reach out for the seat with the least number of holes in it.
I remember one thing quite clearly: the kids on the Street Fighter II machines were vicious.
I was part of the generation that elevated Street Fighter II into gaming legend, but when it was brand new, I was still too young to master it, let alone play it properly. The extent of my knowledge was a tip or a move here and there from the five minutes that I was able to rip the Street Fighter II Strategy Guide from a classmate’s hands in school before he took it back angrily. Besides, it was all the cool kids would talk about all day. I knew how charge moves worked in principle. I knew how to throw a Sonic Boom.
One day, I bravely stepped up to a surprisingly unattended Street Fighter cabinet and plunked in my tokens. Guile was cool and he had a mohawk and there was a jet in the background of his stage, so I picked him. Out of nowhere, a larger kid materialized and fed the machine, too. His fingers tapped at the cabinet anxiously. He gave no indication that he had noticed I was standing there, mouth agape, hands clammy, and terrified to death.
He chose Blanka, who was second only to Zangief in the schoolyard list of characters we never wanted to play. Blanka was ugly. Everyone wanted to be Guile and Ken. Who picks Blanka?
I had no idea at the time that my palms were sweating profusely. The announcer called Round 1, and I successfully let loose with a Sonic Boom that was cleverly charged during the round call! That should surprise my unwanted guest! Special delivery! I felt pretty pleased with myself.
Then the guy destroyed me with spins that went all over the place and attacks that interrupted my own at every opportunity like he could read my mind. To make things worse, he gave me round two, idly standing there and checking his fingernails while I beat up on Blanka with the sad resignation of a man on death row. Or an intelligent fat dude trying a fad diet.
I desperately tried to rally in the third round, but the big kid decimated my Guile with seemingly no effort. I stepped away from the machine, my hands still curled into little claws from when they gripped the controls. I walked away in a daze, and I kept walking until I was out on the street and on the way home.
Losing felt bad. Humiliation felt even worse. No one I knew was there to witness my graceless defeat, but I felt terrible and empty all the same. The big kid had swooped in and killed my fun like a big bully -- like a monster in his habitat, just waiting to be defeated.
Some people would have taken that as a challenge, but maybe it was too early for me. I was a veteran of Donkey Kong 3 and Super Mario -- a kid whose games existed solely to elevate me to hero status. No hero gets beat up and given the second round only to get beat up again in the end.
This story does not end with a mighty battle between the underdog boy (who had been secretly practicing the game throughout a rad New Wave montage) and the bigger punk who thought he was hot shit. I really did walk away. What’s more, I didn’t touch another fighting game machine in public again until I was well into high school, and even then, only very hesitantly. I came back to that arcade a few more times with my friends to play King of Dragons or the Simpsons arcade game, but I never did muster up enough courage to walk back up to one of those Street Fighter II machines for fear of getting sniped once again.
My dad got me a Super NES version of Street Fighter II during those dark years, and I regained my confidence even as I reveled in destroying my older cousins who couldn’t do a fireball motion to save their skin. I defeated them with Guile, and Ryu, and E. Honda, and even with Blanka. I threw a round or two to keep them interested, feigning defeat with all the smug sincerity of a dope pusher, but I was the hero. I came out on top in the end, and there was nothing the household could do about it.
And that was when I knew that I myself had turned into the monster of my own little world.