Arcade Age exhibit traces video game history and lets you play
It’s hard to believe, but at this point in gaming history, we are on our eighth generation of video game consoles with Wii U, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One leading the charge. But while there are millions of people holed up at home or interacting on the Web with peers around the world, it was arcade culture that planted the seed for what would eventually supplant cabinet games.
According to Steven Kent’s Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon—The Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World, there were 24,000 arcades and 1.5 million active arcade machines by 1982. It’s the kind of mania that infiltrated seemingly every corner of Long Island and the tri-state area and spurred Seamus Keane, the director of special events at the Cradle of Aviation, to curate what became The Arcade Age.
The Arcade Age traces the history of these cabinet games, shares stories of the innovators behind these groundbreaking technologies and even has an on-site arcade featuring between 50 to 60 games that are part of the museum’s collection and can be played by museum visitors. It was a labor of love for the 37-year-old Bayside native whose childhood haunts included the Bay Terrace Peter Pan Arcade and whose arcade obsession wound up having him track down the actual Frogger machine for this exhibit in which the world record for the game was set.
“I felt like it was a story that needed to be told. I felt like the popular culture aspect of the arcade in America is that it was one of the first social networks of the time in the 1970s, 1980s and the early cusp of the 1990s,” he explained. “That’s before home consoling either caught up to the arcade or really outdid the arcade with Play Station and X-Box and the arcade just couldn’t keep up. I felt like the history behind the electronics and the development of the video game needs to be told as well.”
And while it seems like most every kid growing up in the 1980s through the early 1990s (of which I count myself) could be found lining up to wait their turn at a Pac-Man, Donkey Kong or Street Fighter game at malls, delis and stationery stores all around our area, the history of arcade games has its roots out east at Brookhaven National Laboratory. It’s here where late American physicist William Higinbotham created Tennis for Two in 1958, which was the first interactive analog computer game and one of the first electronic games to use a graphical display.
It also predated Pong, one of the earliest arcade games that was also based on a tennis model and was debuted by Atari in 1972. It’s these kinds of historical nuggets that fuel this unique exhibit, which does a fine job showcasing different corners of the arcade world, whether it’s the array of video game marquees (Robotron: 2084, Satan’s Hollow, Ms. Pac-Man), the chronological display of Golden Age Games or the display case dedicated to video game characters in popular culture that includes a Pac-Man lunchbox, Zaxxon board game and Mortal Kombat action figures.
But fittingly, it always comes back to the games. As you enter the main exhibit, you walk into what is essentially a dark tunnel solely lit up by the glow coming off different video screens. As different theme music chirps out, the museum sets the tone by keeping the soundtrack of the era courtesy of songs by the likes of hard rock acts of the time like Bon Jovi, AC/DC and Cinderella. For someone who grew up in this kind of environment, it’s pretty easy to feel like you’re 15 again with these arcade denizens coming across like old friends. It’s the kind of allure that finds fans with a younger generation of video game fan (like my 16-year-old son) used to snazzier graphics and more sophisticated technology.
“As someone living in an era where games are more cinematic and advanced, it’s nice to see an exhibit that shows a simpler age of video games,” said avowed gamer Carter Gil de Rubio. “I was surprised at how much I liked the games there. For most of them, you didn’t have to know any kind of advanced button combinations with the exception of a few of the games. It was nice to be able to hop on and play right out of the gate. My favorites wound up being Street Fighter 2, Final Fight and Donkey Kong, even though I sucked at it.”
While the rotation for a future return of The Arcade Age is still up in the air, Keane is getting immense satisfaction from not only being able to temporarily provide a time machine back to a simpler time, “I think this is something that everyone who grew up during that time period should come in and see. We come across a lot of people in their 30s and 40s that just will say they met their wife playing Scramble at the arcade. To me, that was a social network,” he said.
“We’ve met guys in their 40s who’ll say they hit puberty while hanging out at the arcade or where they discovered girls. And when they come in, you should see their faces light up. They’re bringing their kids in, telling them to get off the phone because this is what I played. So it brings a line of discourse between parents and their children. We’ve had people meet here who hadn’t seen each other since they were kids. That’s another great thing—people meeting up who haven’t seen each other in 20 or 25 years.”
The Arcade Age is on exhibit at the Cradle of Aviation on Charles Lindbergh Boulevard through April 3. Visit www.cradleofaviation.org/ArcadeHistory or call 516-572-4111 for information.
For more on the games at the exhibit, see Five Most Popular Arcade Exhibit Games.