Anyone who knows me – or who has been to my place and seen my retina-wrecking low-light game room – knows that I have a fondness for the arcade of old. And when I say that, I don’t mean the places wrapped in bubble gum colors, but the places that were painted black, with mirrored ceilings and support columns, that just seemed to eat any form of light that didn’t emanate from a game’s screen or its backlit marquee. Yeah. Those were the good days.
Of course, I talk about these places like I’m remembering romantic teenage hangouts, and that simply isn’t the case. I’m remembering single-digit-age and pre-teen hangouts, places that my mom or my brother would take me. Sometimes they’d leave me there and go shopping. Other times they’d stay – even my mom, who could so kick your ass on Ms. Pac-Man. She was cool like that.
I thought I’d sit down and try to squeeze out of my synapses every available memory of the four arcades I frequented in my youth.
Games R Fun. This was a local franchise of a national chain that was owned by Bally (of Aladdin’s Castle fame). This particular arcade was located in the little shopping center next to Central Mall in Fort Smith, and is now home to…I forget if it’s a tax preparation place, or a tanning salon now. Or maybe it’s both. Even if it was someplace where you could get a tan while you’re having your taxes done, it still wouldn’t be as cool as the arcade that was in there. Games I remember playing there: this was the first place in Fort Smith with Ms. Pac-Man. I also remember playing endless games of Zaxxon, Super Zaxxon, Pole Position, Kickman, Tron, Discs Of Tron, Astron Belt, Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator, Interstellar Lazer Fantasy, Elevator Action, Front Line, Dragon’s Lair, Cliff Hanger, Sinistar, Change Lanes, and my older brother’s favorite, Journey. I distinctly remember, the first day they had Ms. Pac-Man, my mom played it and completely smoked whoever had the high score before her. The first time she ever played. (Confession: as much as I love video games, I never quite inherited my mom’s gene for actually being good at most of them.) I also remember driving home that day and listening to the radio talking about a potential tornado outbreak that night. Y’know, it’s amazing what one can remember sometimes.
Fun City. This was in Central Mall itself, in a spot that I believe is now a bank. (I certainly gave those people enough quarters to open one.) Fun City was the seediest place in town, bar none. I was pickpocketed there once – robbed of a ten dollar bill that my folks had left me with while they went to eat at a restaurant elsewhere in the mall. I seem to remember that being my last visit there too, not coincidentally. If you wanted old-school, Fun City never threw anything away. They had Fire Truck, Night Driver and Monaco GP well into the 80s, and I distinctly remember playing several knockoff games there – Piranha and the Popeye-graphics version of Pac-Man, neither of which was, well, shall we say, legal. Games I remember playing there for the first time: Donkey Kong Jr., Jungle King (as with their old games, Fun City never got around to the mandatory replacement of the Jungle King boards with Jungle Hunt; instead, they put Jungle Hunt in another cabinet and never returned the Jungle King boards to be destroyed! 😆 ), Super Pac-Man and Q*Bert.
Aladdin’s Castle. This was in Phoenix Village Mall, across town, which is now a virtual ghost town with hardly anyone renting so much as a single storefront there. This was the only place I ever saw Space Fury, Astro Blaster, Space Odyssey, Eliminator, and any number of others – picking up on a strong Sega theme yet?. I remember that whoever ran this place was fond of hooking up to his newest, flashiest games a second monitor which was perched precariously on top of the machine being played. (I wish I knew what the industry term for that kind of hookup was called – I always thought it was a great idea, making a spectator sport out of arcade games without forcing people to crowd around a player who was trying to concentrate.
Fantasy Station. This was a sadly short-lived place, set up in a place that had once been a car repair garage at the corner of Phoenix and South Greenwood Avenue. The garage doors were taken out and replaced with huge windows, and this place had some A-list games in it – Gyruss, Track & Field, Reactor, Star Wars, Millipede, Crystal Castles, Motorace USA, quite a few others. It was a lovely place that just didn’t last long where it was. I remember their ads playing on the radio, and pestering the hell out of my brother to take me there on the off chance that, with the place being called Fantasy Station (is that a great name or what?), they might have a Fantasy machine there. Which brings me to…
Honorable mention: Godfather’s Pizza. Not, strictly speaking, an arcade. Godfather’s Pizza on Rogers Avenue was in a location now taken up by a Chinese restaurant; it was shut down in the 1990s due to repeat alcohol-sales-to-minors busts. Nobody ever served me beer there, though. They served the best pizza I’ve ever tasted, and they had Sinistar, Defender, Stargate, a Xenon pinball machine, and Fort Smith’s only Robotron. My dad especially loved the place (see also the aforementioned beer), so I got to play gobs of these fine Williams classics without ever quite managing to become anywhere remotely good at them.
Honorable mention: Game Room at Gaston’s. Gaston’s is a fishing resort on the White River in north central Arkansas. It isn’t even close to Fort Smith, really, aside from the slight formality of being in the same state if one considers that “close.” My parents and I went on a summer fishing vacation there once, and I got sunburned to a crisp – so much so that I couldn’t be allowed out in the sun again, not for an all-day excursion on a boat. So my mom took me to the tiny little wood-and-glass game room they had near the tackle shop there. There were three video games there – Fantasy, Eyes and Warp Warp (all by Rock-Ola), a Rock-Ola jukebox, and a couple of pinball machines I’m having trouble remembering. I tried all three of the video games (I remember Mom playing a bit of pinball), but really latched onto Fantasy thanks to four little words: Insert Coins To Continue. I was obsessed with getting to the “end” of that game, and my mother was curious enough to keep pumping five dollar bills into the change machine in there until I finally got to the end…only to find that it took you back to the beginning. But what an accomplishment!
I remember, for years afterward, being steadfast in my statement that Fantasy was my favorite arcade game of all time. When MAME grew to include Fantasy in 1998, I was nervous about playing it – what if it wasn’t as good as I remembered, and its status in my mind had less to do with the game, and more to do with that time spent bonding with my mother, who died just a few years later in 1987? To my surprise, it was that good. Not only was it a good game (and it still kicks my ass and demands the MAME equivalent of Mom’s endless stream of fivers to this day), but it was a good game tied forever to my favorite arcade memory. I’d still love to find one of these machines even today. I’ve tracked down two marquees and a control panel, maybe I can build the rest. 😆 I’ve even gone so far as to track down a Warp Warp marquee just for nostalgia’s sake; I guess this means I need Eyes for the trifecta.
Grocery stores: a quick rundown of grocery stores that we frequented, and what was there.
- Safeway on Rogers Avenue (now a Hobby Lobby): Pac-Man, Kangaroo, Make Trax.
- Kroger’s at Central Mall (now a Price Cutter): Phoenix, Gorf, Crazy Kong, Pac-Man.
- Safeway on Grand Avenue (now a Harp’s): Pac-Man, Frogger.
- Kroger’s on North “O” Street (now also a Harp’s): Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong.
Quite why it’s so important to remember this stuff, I don’t know – I just wanted to see if I could remember it, and jot it all down somewhere. This was my childhood, plain and simple.