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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Game Over For American Arcades.

Game Over For American Arcades
For many new-generation console gamers, this news may not be of much significance. However, for those who have stuck with arcade-style gaming before the modern fighting game renaissance, this is sad news indeed. I never had the honor to attend either one of these arcades, but there is no denying they were centerpieces of the tournament culture revitalized by a new crop of competitive fighting games. These arcades were renowned as training centers for professional players, and Chinatown Fair in particular was responsible for producing some of the strongest Street Fighter competitors in the world, including EVO superstar Justin Wong. Knowing that these arcades were some of the only places left in the US where players are able to try out the latest games from Japan (such as Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition, which contains exclusive characters still not confirmed for a console release) also stings. But most important of all were the fans and supporters of these establishments. The communities centered around these arcades became the collective voice that brought fighting games (and rhythm games too, it could be argued) back into relevancy on the modern consoles. The death of these arcades means the scattering of the communities built around them, and that is truly a sad thing.
In Japan, the arcade is known as the "Game Center," and contains entertainment products for all ages and walks of life. There are crane games, purikura booths where Japanese schoolgirls create and decorate sticker pictures of themselves, and pachinko and horse-racing simulation where players gamble for "medals" – this is all in addition to the crowded, smoke-filled floors where arcade gaming as we know it (fighting/shooting/action) still reigns supreme. In short, they've diversified from day one and have managed to remain successful in the modern era by doing so.
In America, the arcade evolved a different way entirely. Rather than catering to different kinds of people following the arcade crash of the 1980s, they transformed themselves into kid-friendly playlands. The widely-held belief of many Americans that video games are children's toys is partially to blame. New arcade "titles" released for the few remaining American arcades are almost always mechanical redemption games, as the return on investment for these simple games is almost always higher for business owners than a brand new fighting title from Capcom or SNK. Rather than managing to diversify and provide something for everyone (the way Japanese arcades have managed to do),  a combination of cultural issues as well as pure capitalism have transformed the American arcade into something barely resembling its hardcore roots. The only place in the medium-sized Midwestern city where I currently reside that has any arcade games other than Buck Hunter and its ilk is – sadly – a Chuck-E-Cheese. The city itself has over 100,000 people -  the third largest city in the state – yet niche gaming culture is completely nonexistent. Chuck-E-Cheese and its ilk have become the arcade equivalent of shovelware: cheap and common. Unlike console and mobile shovelware, however, arcade shovelware has successfully managed to crowd out the hardcore gaming entirely.
There have been plenty of articles written by a variety of sources talking about exactly why arcades cannot succeed in America. These articles blame everything from a non-commuter culture, to online gaming, to shifts in player attitudes and tastes. As much as the tournament scene doesn't want to admit it, there really aren't that many people around anymore who cut their teeth on the first fighting games. Most gamers from that era have moved on. The industry, too, has moved on.
Arcades such as Arcade Infinity and Chinatown Fair have served as a reminder those still remaining active in a dwindling community to stay true to its roots. Best of luck and godspeed to the arcades that remain.
Chetan Bhatt

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