Gaming 001: Pizza, Fried Dough, Bells, and Video

If someday you find yourself in San Francisco and are looking for the next obligatory tourist stop after the Golden Gate, it is worth making your way to Fisherman’s Wharf for an excellent sour dough sandwich at Boudin Bakery. Go say hello to the sea lions perhaps, but then make your way over to Pier 45, where you will find the Musée Mécanique, an arcade museum of over 300 antique games, pianos, pinball tables, fortune tellers, animations, racing and shooting games, and other machines. In operation since 1933, the museum hosts an amazing collection of electro-mechanical entertainment that can not only be seen, but experienced. Entrance here is free, but bring your roll of quarters, as many of these machines are still in operation and can be played or activated.

On my first visit here I was surprised by this. Many of these wonders are very old, turn of the century and yes, the 19th-to-20th turn we are talking about here. And yet in spite of their age, they continue to operate, continue to fascinate. Curators of this museum work hard to make it so. You can plainly see that the philosophy here for the visitor experience is meant to be a hands-on one, and the idea that these are not sacred items, but ones meant to be used is very much on display.

I did not research what the oldest machine in the Musée collection is, but I am assuming it is probably at from at least the late 19th century. I would also expect that, if someone were to make the claim of having the ‘oldest working mechanical game’, someone else would eventually come up with something even older. It would similarly not surprise me to learn that even simplistic, ancient machines such as abacuses played a frequent role in gambling or gaming, and you would be hard pressed to find a definitive start date for when machines were used for games. Our need to harness what we create for our own entertainment is that great; it spans the ages.

I’m not here to explore ancient game history to that degree, so I will stop here, and let any more knowledgeable readers fill me in on any good parts I missed. I’m much more comfortable speaking about what I have actually experienced, in my lifetime. Going to the Musée Mécanique is a powerful context-setting experience for me in this way, a kind of “you-are-here” on the timeline thing. We are all consumers of entertainment of one form or another, we arrive on the scene at some point in time, and take advantage of what the world is offering at the moment.

For me, the journey starts where the Musée ends, in a world dominated by electro-mechanical games, but about to be turned upside down by the arrival of the microprocessor, and the video game revolution it begat.

Which brings us to:

Atlantic Beach Park - Westerly, Rhode Island.

Summer of 1977. New trends seem to make their way in the US from west to east. Living in New England, it always seemed like we were the last to get new stores, restaurant chains, or fashion trends that almost always originated further west of us. So it was pretty much the case that the video game revolution was already well underway in California and elsewhere by the time I actually experienced it myself. Allan Alcorn had invented Pong and Nolan Bushnell founded Atari years before, and home versions of the game were already commonplace.

I am pretty sure I played Pong somewhere before 1977, but even so the idea that the technology could extend beyond a simple paddle/ball game on your TV really had not hit me yet. Prior to this development, the games I played were probably all pinball machines. It seemed every diner, bar, or pizza place would have one or two tables tucked away in back, and I clearly remember bugging my parents on a Saturday trip to the pizza parlor for quarters so I could play. There was that satisfying ding-ding-ding sound as the steel ball bounced around the bumpers, and the click of the paddles flapping. All very tactile and full of light and sound, a feast for the senses! But quarters in my case were not in unlimited supply, nor were trips out for Pizza, so I can’t really claim to have been a pinball wizard by any degree. I’d miss the easy shot or nudge the table too hard into TILT, where all the paddles go dead and you watch helplessly as your ball sinks through the table. I guess pinball arcades were more common in urban areas at the time, but I lived in the woods of Eastern Connecticut, and although video arcades would soon come, there was no equivalent in our area in 1977.

So now to Atlantic Beach Park, at last. Sometime in the summer of ‘77, our family along with my friend Dave went on our annual trip to Misquamicut State Beach in Rhode Island, maybe an hour and half from where I lived. Great memories of jumping the cold Atlantic waves there, bringing a big cooler with cold plums and sandwiches that we would attempt, in vain, to keep sand out of.

Adjacent to Misquamicut State Beach is the mentioned Atlantic Beach Park, a (let’s face it, average) seaside boardwalk and amusement center, featuring the 1915 Herschell Spillman Carousel, other rides and attractions, and most certainly fried dough. I would like to say my friend Dave and I went there for the fried dough, but I doubt it was in the budget. It would probably be a primary motivator for me to go now there now though.

At the time I was 13 and he was 11, so we were old enough (by 1970’s standards, anyway) to explore the boardwalk unattended, probably too old for the Carousel, but still young enough that the whole thing was a bit of an unusual and exciting adventure. I remember making our way into the busy arcade there, full of skeet tables, mechanical shooting and racing games, pinball machines and other oddball amusements. Unlike the solo ding-ding-ding of the local pizza pinball machine, the combined noise here was a deafening symphony of bells, clacks, bangs, and other assorted mechanically-induced sounds. Dozens of different machines dotted the room with tight spacing between, people weaving in and out among them, trying their luck.

I remember going through my supply of quarters playing several of these, mostly the oddball ones, like driving games where you steer a miniature metal car suspended over a conveyor belt simulating a road moving below it, trying not to crash. On my way through the maze, I spotted a steering wheel attached to an upright cabinet, perhaps my next selection. I came around to look at it. The sign at top read: “Night Driver”. Below it I expected to see the typical diorama box of painted mechanical models of a car and road, but instead there was a TV screen, with a glowing display of a road, shown only as a series of fence posts.

And it was playing by itself. The road posts moved and accelerated, turning corners as the digital speed numbers at the top of the display rose. INSERT COIN, it demanded.

Now the computer engineer in me can clearly tell you now that the reason this game was called “Night Driver” was that the CPU of the day (6502 @ 1Mhz for any interested nerds) was really not up to the task of handling a high-speed driving game with actual road graphics, so they cheated and went with a night scene, where only the fence post rectangles needed to be drawn. And the gamer in me can look at this and say, its a pretty poor approximation of a driving game by today’s standards. But in 1977, the 13-year-old me was simply amazed. It was unlike anything I had come across, as if some alien robot named ‘Atari’ had landed in the middle of an otherwise normal arcade.

With a few quarters left, I stepped up and sunk one in. The synthesized sound of an engine came out, rising in pitch as I accelerated. Stepping on the gas and eventually figuring out I had to shift to go faster, I was soon careening around corners that rapidly came upon me, and it did not take very long before I crashed. And then, crashed again. I would not say it was the best game play, even by my standards back then. Turns out “Night Driver” is way too hard a game, if it is costing you 25 cents a try, anyway. But the damage was done. The idea of a video game, using a TV screen to show images that I could control had set in, and I never looked back from that point for any mechanical games to play. From that point on I was always in search of the next new video game.

And I was not alone in my opinion on it, it turned out. In a few short years, all those electromechanical games were replaced with video machines that could pull in quarters much faster. A lot of the old games ended up on the trash heap, but luckily some survive, in places like the Musée Mécanique, and the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame (which I’ve yet to visit, will report on it if I do though). Others are in private collection or gone forever, sadly. In the links below, check out the pinrepair site for a great compilation of obscure old electromechanical games.

My feelings on it all now are a mix. It’s easy to get nostalgic about these things, but in the end, we all live in our own time, and get to experience what the world has to offer now. I’m glad these things still exist in some form, but also very happy to see how we’ve journeyed onward, and looking for what’s around the corner (hopefully without crashing into a fence).

Next time: Gaming 002: Attack of the Arcade Era

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