I like to say my gamer’s soul was forged in the arcades of my youth. I guess this makes me an “old school” gamer (or to younger folk that share the hobby, just plain old) and it’s shaped a lot of my gaming habits and console purchases over the years.
Dennis’ Place for Games on Clark Street was my neighbourhood arcade and it’s not just rose-tinted spectacles when I say it was a really special place. Dennis I remember as short of stature, but no nonsense: the sign on the front door said clearly “Shirts and Shoes Required. No Gang Colors” (that should tell you about the neighbourhood in Chicago I grew up in!). It was the kind of place people took their kids to and everyone partook of the entertainment on offer.
Long and narrow like a corner bar (tavern we called them), there was a small raised platform on the left with a couple of cocktail games. The wall immediately opposite went down to the right for some ways and had more than a dozen upright machines and half as many pinball tables; opposite these was another raised platform with a few more uprights and a couple of cocktail games. In front of this area was a couple of cockpit games: Pole Position and Spy Hunter I recall having their day there most of all. Just to the right of the front door was the change counter with a jukebox to the left of it. In the middle in front of the change counter was a foosball table and an Atari Football table, both of which saw some uproarious action in their time.
The place was all class. Dennis and his employees dressed like casino workers wearing waistcoats over white shirts with bow ties and black trousers. The ceilings were mirrored and lighting was provided by electric chandeliers: the effect was as if you’d gone to gaming heaven. Sunday mornings were a special occasion with the arcade opening at 10am and for two hours you could have unlimited plays for a $2 entry fee with free play on all the machines. Needless to say all subsequent arcade experiences have paled in comparison.
My love of old arcade games is shaped by the experience of this place, so the launch of the Virtual Console Arcade has really energised my feelings about the Wii. It’s not just about being able to play the games again, it’s seeing them validated on a console that’s re-invigorated my own interest in gaming that’s so exciting and satisfying.
I took a trip back to my old neighbourhood in the late 90s and the Place had gone. It turns out they moved to new digs on Belmont Avenue, but sadly it finally folded October 2008. It seems nostalgia isn’t enough to support an arcade any more, but I’m impressed it lasted as long as it did. Thankfully Nintendo and other publishers have recognised the power of arcade memories and have given my nostalgia a home on the Wii.