1983 was the year of the Great Videogame Crash, when the flood of overproduced and undercooked product forced a severe market correction that effectively killed the home console market until the NES started gaining traction a couple of years later. The savvier developers shifted their focus to home computers, which offered more functionality and perceived value than dedicated game hardware. Most either went belly up or divested themselves from the industry, dumping their remaindered overstock at fire sale prices.
Being a hungry-eyed eleven year old, I knew next to nothing about the mechanics of this economic implosion. I was too busy marveling at the sudden affordability and availability of 2600 cartridges which had previously been restricted to the narrow window of birthday or Christmas presents. Five bucks was the new normal. Between my allowance and what I could cajole from my indulgent maternal grandparents, that meant enough to buy a new game every weekend and still have enough left over to pick up a GI Joe or Star Wars action figure.
Over the course of 1983, my Atari 2600 game library went from a half-dozen titles to upwards of forty, conveniently stored in partitioned cardboard boxes for stereo components that my mom brought home from the factory and were perfect suited for their new role. Most of the games were utter crap, but that was mitigated by the low price and the fact that there’d be a new game to play the following weekend.
(A more detailed discussion of the subject can be found in the Growing Up 2600 feature I did a few years ago.)
The 2600 was undeniably the centerpiece of my gaming experiences in 1983, but it was still only one facet of the nigh ubiquitous popcult phenomenon gaming had become. The industry may have been on the verge of economic freefall, but the cultural footprint of the videogame fad was at its peak. There were stickers, novelty songs, t-shirts, toys, cartoons, and game shows. Gaming references popped up amidst the canned laughter of middle-of-the-road sitcoms, and ads for gaming paraphenalia were all over comics books and other youth-centric publications.
It was the only reason I begged my parents keep up my subscription to Boys Life, even though I’d soured on the whole scouting experience by then.
It got me chewed out during “lab class,” in which the “most promising” elementary school students in Woburn were brought together once a week. There we would listen to the wingnut teacher’s weirdly racist tirades before spending the rest of the day acting out Scholastic Magazine‘s abridged scripts of current movies. I was so enraptured by an ad for Choplifter that I lost my place and forgot I was supposed to be reading Donald Sutherland’s part in Max Dugan Returns.
As you grow older, you realize that your teachers were just human beings doing a job, and thus prone to human failings. Sometimes a nutjob manages to make it through the vetting process. Sometimes circumstances tip a previously balanced soul into the realm of teeth-gnashing eccentricity.
I know this now. I did not know this then, when the lab class instructor fell on me with a rage I hadn’t seen outside of my father’s worst drunken benders. All for flubbing a line because I was daydreaming over the ad copy of a helicopter themed shoot ’em up. To this day, I can’t boot up the Master System version of the game without experiencing a fleeting pang of unease.
Beyond the childhood traumas and Pac-Man bubblegum stickers and Zaxxon boardgames on Caldor’s clearance aisle, there were other avenues besides home consoles for getting one’s game on in 1983. Handheld and tabletop LED games were the rage, an endless supply of licensed and unlicensed ports of popular offerings. We played them with gusto, until the initial set of batteries died and our parents wouldn’t spring for more.
My maternal grandfather, an odd duck of an radar engineer who gave Lil Bro and me our 2600, used to spend his downtime chasing high scores on a Tomy Pac-Man handheld while cursing the Democrats and chainsmoking cigarillos. His preferred gaming spot was the far end chair of my grandma’s kitchen table. It was where he had the stroke that — following four years in a semi-vegetative state — would eventually kill him. He was a couple weeks from retirement when it happened, abnormally chatty about all the things he was going to accomplish with all that free time.
I wasn’t what you’d call a self-starter before my grandpa had his stroke, but seeing what happened to him made me extra-determined not to defer life’s pleasures for the sake of a job.
At the top of the 1983 gaming hierarchy were the gloriously loud and lurid arcade cabinets. Their allure was heightened among my circle because of their limited accessibility. Woburn didn’t have an arcade, and my friends and I wouldn’t discover one in biking distance (Trains & Games in neighboring Wilmington) until the spring of 1984.
The local Boys’ Club had Pac-Man and Donkey Kong Jr cabinets, but was also populated by semi-feral pre-teens who combined Lief Garrett’s wardrobe with Caligula’s sense of human empathy. The public service spots made the place seem like a confidence-building utopia rather than the Lord of the Latchkey Flies scenario it actually was. Opportunities to blow through your lunch money in fifteen minutes trying to learn the basics of the games had to be weighed against discovering new and painful ways your arm could be twisted backwards until you confessed to being a “total gaylord spaz.”
The multiplex and the Bowladrome both hosted a small number of frequently rotated machines, but neither place was open territory for unaccompanied kids uninterested in the central attractions. Gaming in those places was more of an incidental added value to playing a few frames or catching a movie. The multiplex was the first and only time I’d ever see a Looping cabinet in the wild. I couldn’t not get the hang of the flight-stick styles controls with the single quarter and five minutes of experience I had with the game, but I was mesmerized the minimalist, kinetic sculpture aesthetic shown during its attract mode. Looping would be the first arcade game I sought out via emulation, by which point my hazy childhood nostalgia had utterly outstripped the pretty lackluster reality, as these things tend to do.
There were other, more transient places for a North Woburn kid to experience cabinets. Class trips to Canobie Lake Park in Salem, NH invariably involved sneaking off to one of the park’s two arcades, if only to gawp at some older kid work his way through Dragon’s Lair while we tried to figure out how the game actually worked. The carnival held every spring on the Northeast Trade Center grounds (now a huge commercial-retail complex) brought with it an old military tent full of battered pinball tables and videogame cabinets. Stern’s Berzerk was the big draw there, as I dug the run ‘n’ gun simplicity, even if the machine’s voice module had long since shit the bed.
Any other arcade gaming I did in that year came from short sessions during family trips, as every service area or tourist trap typically sported at least one game machine.
As a result of this limited access, I never managed to get particularly good at any of these old arcade games. I enjoy playing them and they hold a historic and nostalgic allure, but I’m lucky if I can clear the first wave of Space Invaders or get past the third board in Pac-Man. The only exceptions to this are Mr. Do and Dig Dug, as I apparently have an innate mastery of the “garden-themed maze-digging mascot” microgenre.
So if if the fate of the world should ever require dropping a heavy object of a cute cartoon character, you know where to find me.