When The Best Part Of The Beach Is The Arcade

What do you think of when you imagine going to the beach on a hot summer day? Sunblock, towels, bikinis maybe? Not me. I think about Galaga.

Less than 150 feet from any shoreline near a beach boardwalk, there's probably a video game arcade. Beach arcades have been around even before there were video games – in the late 1880s and early 1900s, you could pay a nickel to have your palms shocked by an electric current or your grip tested by a challenge to squeeze metal handles at Venice Beach, California or Coney Island, New York. And then, since the advent of Pong in the 1970s and through the phenomenon of Dance Dance Revolution, video game arcades and beaches have been closely linked.

Your average trip to the seaside can be a trip back to childhood. We undervalue trips like this, especially since the bum economy has many people taking "stay-cations" to local beaches instead of vacations to tropical resorts. Even worse, we undervalue some of the last dedicated video game arcades in the country, which you can find at Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts, Weirs Beach, New Hampshire, Redondo Beach, California or Virginia Beach in Virginia. With a good listing of local arcades featuring classic video games, you're all set for a summer of time travel.

For me, my beach arcade nostalgia trip began with a visit last week to the arcades at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I walked up and down the boardwalk, watching kids try to drag their parents into the smaller arcades where redemption machines were visible from the walkway. I saw a group of preteen girls gather around MTV Drumscape, unsure of how to work the controls and apparently unwilling to read the instructions. I doubled back toward the Casino arcade and noted how the sand that people tracked in from the seaside gathered in little piles by the line of Mario Kart arcade machines. Turns out, people were sitting down on the plastic kart seat to empty out their shoes. And I saw a sunburned little girl who could have been me 15 years ago head toward the Galaga machine with a handful of tokens.

I'd never been to Santa Cruz as a kid, but I was overwhelmed with nostalgia as I walked between arcade machines and squinted against the flashing neon lights coming from their screens. It took me back in time 15 years to a noisy, air-conditioned cacophony of flashing neon lights and blaring 8-bit music in an arcade somewhere near Monterey Bay, California. On that fateful day 15 years ago, I was converted from a budding beach bunny into a total arcade animal when I got a high score on Galaga after two hours and $US10 in quarters.

That arcade in Monterey is gone, now. Like so many arcades across the country, it probably closed when Nolan Bushnell's Atari and Chuck E. Cheese empire declined and arcade machines across the country lost the 3D technology battle to Nintendo and Sega's home consoles. By 1997, there were maybe two arcades in my hometown where I could find Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Ms. Pac-Man, but by and large, those "arcades" threw out their video games and replaced them with kiddy gambling machines that spat tickets. The thrill I got from those kinds of arcades faded like a sunburn – it was nothing like the burning passion Galaga instilled.

The feelings and experiences of that long-gone arcade all came back to me within minutes of finding the Galaga machine at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk – tucked into the Classic Corner of the Casino arcade building along with a dozen other old-timers, even a Sea Wolf machine, circa 1976. There were actually several Galaga machines throughout the boardwalk, since there's more than one video game arcade. In the last few years or so, the management team at the boardwalk decided to merge their video game arcades with their kiddy gambling centres (a.k.a. "redemption centers") and now you cannot go twenty feet along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk without spotting Street Fighter, DDR, or Ms. Pac-Man right next to ski ball and UFO catcher machines.

The arcades at Santa Cruz have a reputation among hardcore arcade gamers for having one of the largest selections of classic arcade games of any beach arcade. There's only one other place where you can find more than the 50-odd functioning classic arcade games of the 70s and early 80s; and Funspot in Laconia, New Hampshire doesn't count because it's a museum, not a beach arcade.

What does count as a beach arcade but doesn't quite top Santa Cruz's collection is Half Moon Arcade at Weirs Beach, New Hampshire – about two miles away from Funspot. Like Santa Cruz, it's a tourist location with a lot of local traffic, but unlike Santa Cruz, it's only open in the summer. Arcade manager Robert Ames says that no matter what, there will always been an arcade at that beach.

"I grew up with this business," he says. "At one time or another, we've had just about everything in this arcade." Between the arcade's two locations along the shoreline of Lake Winnipesaukee, there are more than 200 machines (redemption and video game) for people to play. Ames says the arcades see a mixed crowd of families and teenagers as well as hardcore gamers who compete at DDR.

The crowds who gather at Santa Cruz's Casino arcade include hardcore gamers, first-time teenagers and a ton of families. Arcade manager Barb Phillips and chief technician Brian Gustavson say that the Santa Cruz crowd shifts from mostly families and 15-year-olds without driver's licenses in the summer, to hardcore Capcom vs. SNK and DDR crowds and students from nearby UC Santa Cruz during the off-season in the winter.

Even with the recent downturn in the economy, the boardwalk hasn't taken a hit. "We're seen as a local destination, so people think of it as an inexpensive vacation," says Phillips. "We've had consistent [tourism]numbers this year and even in the off-season we do okay." I can see how they would. The Classic Corner may not have gotten as much foot traffic as the rest of the arcade – it's tucked into an awkward location next to laser tag and a row of pinball machines and can only fit about 15 comfortably. But tight clusters of teens formed around light gun games like Time Crisis 3 and around fighting games like Virtua Fighter 4, feeding token after token into the machines with the same fervor I remember from my 15-year-old affair with Galaga.

Fuller would not disclose just how much money the arcade games pull in for the boardwalk total – but of the 176 arcade machines that don't spit tickets, every single one pulls its weight enough for Gustavson to justify the expense of ordering custom parts to fix them when they break.

Maintaining old arcade machines is definitely a challenge for beach arcades in a strapped economy. Gustavson talked about how sand gets where isn't supposed to go, overzealous gamers break joysticks and about how machines left in storage near salty sea air tend not to do so well when you try to switch them back on. Replacement parts for machines from the 70s can cost as much as $US200 on auction sites; and many arcade technicians have to improvise.

Flipper McCoy's arcade in Virginia Beach does pretty well on its own repairs. Most coin-operated machines in the South are run by the Southern Amusement Corporation – and according to arcade manager Jay* the chief technician at the arcade is the husband of one of the corporation's owners. "He never has trouble finding parts," says Jay. "We've got a ton of machines here and they run off quarters, so there's enough money to keep ‘em all running."

Jay says Flipper McCoy's hasn't had a hard time with the drop off in summer travel, either – mostly because their tourist crowd is made up of foreigners from Russia or Morocco. "We do get a lot of local hardcore gamers who want to play Marvel vs. Capcom, but there are a lot of [tourists]who are all like, ‘Hey, there's Spider-Man in a game, I want to play that.'" Arcade games and classics like the original Super Mario Bros. are a big draw for the Flipper McCoy's crowd, he says, but there are still way more redemption machines than classic arcade games.

Back in Santa Cruz, Gustavson observes that any game where you can show off or at least ride a plastic motorcycle is enormously popular with older kids and adults – while the ticket-spitters are mostly the domain of young children. "People like to compete with each other," he says. "And the games where you can sit down and pull a curtain shut – they're pretty popular with the teenagers out on dates."

Santa Cruz, Casino Arcade.

That made me blush. Jurassic Park, first French kiss, Chuck E. Cheese, 1994. See what I mean about time travel?

Beach arcades may not be that different from other arcades that survived the downfall of the Golden Age. A few arcade gaming experts I interviewed said as much.

Ken Chaney, co-conspirator and operator of classic video game arcade showcase California Extreme says that after the Golden Age ended, "Arcade games were relegated to niche markets, tourist traps." And what are beach boardwalks besides very large tourist traps?

Chaney's co-organizer, East Coast-based arcade tournament director Bowen Kerins, agrees and adds that the redemption machines are just as ubiquitous at beach arcades as they are in the Chuck E. Cheeses they conquered. "These games are not providing the kind of experience people will want to come back to," he says.

But there's something to be said for the nostalgia the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk brought me. Chaney and Kerins trade on that same feeling for their annual showcase – but with the right arcade nearby, anyone can take that trip back in time almost at any time of the year.

I take comfort in knowing both that there's a place where I can get my Galaga fix and in knowing that there will be other generations of kids after me that will one day grow up, go to the beach for a vacation, and find that arcade game and all of the memories attached to it somewhere nearby.

*Jay declined to give his last name because he's joining the Navy.


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