The Arcade Pyre 

The Arcade Pyre

Video Game Tester
Sunday, June 18, 2006

David Wood used to frequent Pegasus, a video arcade on Minnieville Road.

In the dimly lit neighborhood hangout, Wood would drop quarters into his favorite fighting games, names like "Killer Instinct," "Street Fighter" and "Dark Stalkers."

He spent a good deal of his pre-adolescence at the arcade which, like so many of its kind, vanished over the past 10 years.

"There's not much money in video arcades," said Wood, 26, of Woodbridge, who now works as a clerk at Planet Fun, the video arcade at Potomac Mills mall.

Once a staple of American adolescence, video arcades and all they entail - neon lights, sticky joysticks, mechanical music and bad food - have become an endangered species.

"Console gaming is a threat to coin-op," said David Sarapa, 21, also a clerk at Planet Fun.

Video arcades, or "coin-ops," face threats from both console gaming systems like PlayStation or Nintendo and online gaming. Consider the technological advancement of console gaming: Ten years ago the Super Nintendo versions of popular games like "Mortal Kombat" or "NBA Jam" paled in comparison to their arcade forbearers, in both graphics and game play. Now, console technology easily rivals coin-op gaming.

Although it still manages to attract a healthy crowd of regulars, Planet Fun has seen better days. Now tucked away into a far corner of the mall, many patrons remember about five years ago when the arcade was much bigger and in a more central location.

"There were lots of games, even a carousel and putt-putt," said Planet Fun regular Arjay Nacianceno. An avid gamer, he owns five consoles and more than 50 games. Nacianceno, 17, still manages to drop $50 a week at local video arcades, but said it is much cheaper to game from home.

Ray Shackelford is the owner of Golden Coin, the chain of Virginia arcades that includes Planet Fun. The other two are in Winchester and Fredericksburg.

"It's nothing like it used to be in the 1990s," said Shackelford.

Ten years ago he owned nine area arcades, eight in Virginia and one in Maryland. Today he says 70 percent of the income comes from redemption games like skee-ball, where the player can win tickets to be redeemed for prizes.

Over the years, popular alternatives to mall or shopping center arcades, with a high concentration of redemption games and a healthy dosage of state-of-the art video arcades, have arisen; places like Dave and Buster's, a chain of large entertainment centers, sort of a Chuck E. Cheese's-meets-Applebee's.

Dave and Buster's features family-friendly arcades and redemption games, as well as a restaurant and a bar. Since alcohol is served, well-dressed bouncers check IDs at the door. All minors must be accompanied by an adult. On weekends, after certain hours, a cover charge goes into effect. Essentially, people are paying to pay for video arcades. What self-respecting teenager wants to deal with all that?

Interestingly enough, while Dave and Buster's didn't really hit their stride until the mid-and late 1990s, the first location opened in Dallas in 1982 around the height of the "Pac-Man" craze and video arcade boom.

" 'Pac-Man' was probably the most popular video game ever, or that ever would be," said Valerie Cognevich, editor of Play Meter Magazine, a New Orleans-based trade magazine for the coin-operated entertainment industry. She added that the industry would always exist, but probably never be as widespread as in the 1980s.

Cognevich said the gross annual income of arcade video games in 2005 was $3.4 billion. By contrast, according to Money & Business Magazine, the console gaming industry raked in $10.5 billion in the United States alone in 2005. The Fort-Worth Star Telegram reported last year that in 2004 there were 5,000 independent arcades in America, down from 23,000 in 1982.

Like most amusements, video games can be either social or anti-social. There's a big difference between the child holed up in his room logging 40 plus hours on Final Fantasy and the one competing in local Dance Dance Revolution tournaments. There is also some crossover, as some gamers practice at home to better compete.

There are, of course, obvious benefits to the video arcade experience.

Before he landed his job, Sarapa used to swing by the arcade after school. The Woodbridge resident met new people and made friends who shared a common interest. He even met his current girlfriend, Jennifer, who at the time was working there.

Charles Porch has been playing video games since he was 2 years old. Now 20, he frequents Planet Fun to test his skills at Dance Dance Revolution, his favorite game. Essentially a giant Simon Says, players compete against each other by tapping their feet on corresponding pads in time to music.

On an early Friday evening in June, it is the most popular game at the arcade, with a small crowd watching different pairs compete.

"I lost 15 pounds since I started playing," said Porch of Woodbridge, who visits Planet Fun twice a week. "Arcade games let you meet more people in person."

Porch added that the two arcades at Springfield Mall are infinitely better than local ones, and they feature DDR tournaments.

However, Cognevich said some parents are worried about sending their children off, afraid of modern realities, including kidnappings.

"The horrible thing is with the way the world is, I don't think parents like for their kids to go out," said Cognevich. "I think it's a Catch-22. You want your kids to socialize, but how do you do that?"

This social aspect is also threatened by online gaming, such as massively multiplayer online role playing games. MMORPG players enter a digital world and interact with people from all over the globe, all from the comfort of their home computer. Popular titles include "Everquest" and "World of Warcraft."

D.B. Weiss is an author whose novel, "Lucky Wander Boy," tells the story of an avid gamer whose nostalgia for video arcades causes his life and relationships to spin out of control.

"It's harder to see Warcraft as a way to pick up members of the sex of your choosing, for instance," said Weiss, 35, adding that it probably happens. Weiss is reluctant to pass judgment against online gaming due to his own nostalgia for the '80s video arcade experience.

"Rationally, I can see that virtual communities are probably a lot richer, more interesting and more complex than a room full of stoners playing 'Galaga,' " said Weiss, who lives in Los Angeles.

Even as the neon lights fade, some games now feature cards that allow players to save their progress, much like console gaming. Porch said that cheaper games would attract more customers.

Like most businesses, size, selection and location are big factors as well.

"You can't have an arcade devoted to one thing," said Wood, adding that he thinks Planet Fun is heavy on the racing games.

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