They say nostalgia is for suckers -- but sometimes I can't help it.

If you were a guy growing up in the '70s and '80s like me, there's probably a better-than-average chance that old-school video arcades hold a special place in your heart. Sure, those early machines were primitive compared with today's fancy hi-def home systems, but they were the original games, starting a generation on the road to illiteracy. As evidenced by the recent "Grand Theft Auto IV" (more than $500 million in its first week of sales), today's gaming industry is getting more lucrative than Hollywood films. When I moved to Southern California in 1995, recent college grads were still streaming in to be screenwriters. Now they go there to become game designers, creating wildly impressive graphics with moronic plot lines, flat characters and more than a little "of the old ultraviolence."

Yet there was something about those early arcade games that, to paraphrase failed comedian Gallagher, was "magical." Just walking into a noisy arcade, one was immersed in a foreign world of neon lights and computer-generated sounds, a place where kids were the experts. It was a communal fun zone run on tokens or quarters, somewhat different from the setup for today's home gamer, who usually plays isolated for countless hours in front of a TV or within faceless online communities.

The arcades that I was once familiar with were at Putt-Putt on Midlothian Turnpike (or Slut-Putt, as we called it), Cloverleaf Mall, Chuck E. Cheese, Flipper McCoys at Virginia Beach and Time-Out at Crossroads Mall in Roanoke, where my grandfather took me when I was a kid, feeding me quarters from his coin purse while he smoked cigarettes on a bench with old men who had real memories of being blown up as young men. I can still remember some of my favorites (games, not old men): Galaga, Tron, Tempest, Punch Out!!, Gorf, Crossbow, Moon Patrol, Popeye, Dragon's Lair, M.A.C.H. 3 … stuff that would bore me to tears today. Actually, Gorf may have been one of my grandfather's buddies.

Recently I heard some new music that unleashed this flood of arcade memories on a CD by the artist DJ Scotch Egg. He's not really a DJ, or Scottish, or an egg — he's a Japanese producer based in Brighton, England, named Shigeru Ishihara, or "Shige." His latest release, "Drumized," was made using four Nintendo Game Boys and a mixer, and it sounds like the full-blast cacophony of a vintage arcade room tweaked by a punk rocker on acid. It's nearly unbearable to take in large doses.

Musical genres come and go too quickly these days to take seriously, but Shige is apparently considered part of the "chiptune" movement, referring to sounds synthesized in real time by a computer or video game console chip (an even better CD is a tribute to Kraftwerk by 8-Bit Operators). Shige has opened for Devo, Lightning Bolt and Shitmat, and his influences include Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich, John Cage and Moondog. Folks at this year's South by Southwest festival in Austin enjoyed his set — leaving him with three ladies' thongs, one contact lens and a half-empty wine-cooler bottle. For a local example of video game noise, check out the colorful MySpace page of narwhalz (of sound) playing July 7 in somewhere in Richmond.

It all got me thinking. Because Richmond always seems to strike out with museum proposals, be they NASCAR or slavery, maybe we should try something less polarizing, like a classic arcade museum. When our local natural resources are all paved over for office space and overpriced condos and the weather gets too severe to venture outdoors, you gotta have someplace fun to go rock out to "Pac Man Fever," by original chiptune gangstas, Buckner and Garcia.

"I'm gonna fake it to the left, and move to the right; 'Cause Pokey's too slow, and Blinky's out of sight."

[Guitar solo.]

  • Click here for more Arts & Culture
  • Add a comment