The lost days of gaming past

When I was in third grade, I went to Disney World for the first time. I had a great time, but the best parts weren’t quintessential Disney moments. (Maybe it was because I was scared of rides [wouldn’t go on Space Mountain or even Big Thunder Mountain Railroad] and the slow-moving skyway cable cars [cried in my uncle’s lap] and the black-lit Snow White ride [cowered when the witch came out, cried in my uncle’s lap when I turned around and the man suddenly riding on the back of the car said “Boo!”] — heck, I was pretty much scared of everything.)

The best part for me was finding a huge arcade on Main Street U.S.A. (Second best part: One of the motels we stayed in had a small game room with Pac-Land, which was my brother’s favorite game along with Indiana Jones and Kangaroo.)

The first awesome thing about the arcade was it had lots of good current games. Nintendo was just becoming huge, but we didn’t have an NES at home so getting to play Super Mario Bros. and even Ice Climber was a treat. The second awesome thing: the place was a penny arcade. This was long before 50 cents became the standard cost of 1 credit or giant shooting/racing games cost up to $2 per play, but it was still pretty amazing to be able to play something for a penny or a nickel.

The most awesome thing was the reason for those cheap prices. Many of the games were mechanical machines from the early days of arcades: hand-cranked horse racing games, pinball-like cast-iron baseball games, pre-infrared shooting games and other bygone amusements. I had never seen games like that before, and while I’m sure I played more Ice Climber than anything else, I remember getting a kick out of the old-fashioned stuff (and the penny movies).

My family went back to Disney World several times, but I don’t remember the arcade ever being the same — it was either gone or fully modernized. I never found an arcade like it again.

Until last week, that is, when on vacation in San Francisco we stopped by the Musee Mecanique at the otherwise super-touristy Fisherman’s Wharf. The arcade is very much like the Disney one, with even more of an emphasis on the old stuff (though they also have some good games from the 80s till now, including — huzzah! — Addam’s Family pinball).

There was a great bowling game; a funny basketball one; horse racers; a hand-cranked game where you race firefighters to the top of a burning building; an early version of the claw ripoff game that features a crane you use to pick up piles of lentils and maneuver them over to a chute before they fall out of your grasp; plus player pianos, early “movie” machines (basically mechanically operated photo flip books), fortune telling dummies a la Zoltar, and other non-games that would have been in early penny arcades. Most were in very good condition, and many had placards explaining the game’s provenance and others like it.

The most time-warpy machines were essentially moving dioramas. There were tableaux of farms, musicians, buffalo apparently eating American Indians’ corpses, and other 19th- and early 20th-century scenes, and when you drop in a coin the figures start to move. They’re simple and kind of endearing (in an aw-aren’t-racism-and-colonialism-cute kind of way), but are the most effective time machines in the place. It’s easy to imagine people 100 years ago going to the pool hall and getting enchanted by these moving scenes. They certainly seem cooler than flip-book movies — it’s moving objects, not just moving pictures! — but I didn’t notice whether those predate movies. I wonder which was more popular, and whether movies killed these machines off or if they lasted longer.

The saddest part of Musee Mecanique is how unique it is. These games are a vital part of modern America’s entertainment history, but I’ve never seen a place besides this one that understands that and takes the kind of curatorial approach to old amusements that is necessary to preserve and show them to future generations. Disney’s arcade is long gone, and the few mechanical machines at Disney Quest were just for show. It’s tough to think that most of the old machines that haven’t long since been trashed are probably just sitting in someone’s attic fading into a rust-and-dust obscurity.

These days, there are any number of collections of 80s video games available. Anybody interested in seeing what the early games were like can download Joust from Xbox Live Arcade or try GameTap. But the arcade dates back much further, and it’s a shame there are so few places where we can see that earlier history.

The Smithsonian should be collecting these cultural artifacts; given the growth of video games in the last 20 years, the American History Museum should have a permanent exhibit dedicated to American amusements and include a room with playable games like the ones at Musee Mecanique so kids can see what their great-great-grandparents played long before there was Mario and Grand Theft Auto.

— June 13, 2007

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3 responses to “The lost days of gaming past

  1. Thanks for the great post about the Musee Mecanique.

    I want to point out that the Musee has a new web site at

    http://www.museemecaniquesf.com

    It’s long story, but the old site is not owned or operated by Dan Zelinsky, the owner of the Musee. It would be great if you could change the link in your post to the new site. Thanks!

  2. Link is fixed — thanks for the update!

  3. Pingback: Why pinball disappeared, and why it’s not coming back (sigh) « Korr Values

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