No Fun Land
If anyone ever doubted the uselessness of the modern videogames media, consider this – when you're working in the specialist press, and your only job is to bring people news related to videogames, how shit must you be if you get scooped at reporting videogame news by the Metro?
But that's only passingly what I want to talk about today.
Last month, Funland at the Trocadero closed down, leaving the whole of London – a city of eight million people – with just two substantial videogame arcades (the large Namco Station at Westminster, and Casino Leisure on Tottenham Court Road, which is small but extremely up-to-date).
Everywhere else in London you used to be able to play videogames has either closed down entirely (the old Namco Wonderpark off Piccadilly Circus, the long-lost Sega World – also at the Trocadero – the couple of large arcades on the south side of Oxford Street) or gone over to fruit machines. And the disturbing thing is that I only found out about it when someone directed me to this story that they'd read on their way to work.
Urban-centre games arcades have, of course, been steadily disappearing for years, not just in the UK. At one point well within living memory even a pretty small place like Bath supported three, but now has none, and I no longer know of any in Bristol either. You can still find them in some out-of-town retail parks like Cribbs Causeway, and at the seaside (though even there they're in steep decline), but in towns and cities the arcade is now all but dead.
The final blow was struck by Nintendo. Home consoles have been equal or superior to arcade games on the technical level since the Dreamcast, but even then the amusement parlours still had a USP for the keen gamer. While the audience for traditional stand-up cabinets withered down to the fighting-game hardcore, people still wanted to play several kinds of games that you had to go to arcades for – multiplayer linkups (primarily racing games), light-gun shooters (which enjoyed a bit of a renaissance when modern plasma and LCD TVs appeared that didn't support the likes of the G-Con) and physical games where you had to exercise more than your wrists.
As home gaming caught up with its graphical power, the arcade diversified and specialised. It filled up with inventive games like Namco's beautiful Prop Cycle, Konami's duck-and-dive motion-sensing cop-sim Police 24/7, and of course an endless parade of dancing and rhythm-action games utilising every imaginable kind of instrument.
(Many of these titles were translated to home systems, but with limited success – Dance Dance Revolution on a tatty, creased plastic mat sliding across your living-room carpet just doesn't cut it, and the price of the dedicated controllers made most of them niche products at best, bar a short-lived guitar-game boom built on gamers' embarrassing and indefensible fondness for dire 80s cheese-metal.)
Then the Wii arrived.
The online gaming of Xbox Live and to a lesser extent PSN had already robbed arcades of much of their social function. But it was the Wii that really sounded the death-knell, bringing all kinds of physical-motion gaming into the home in a big way – and crucially, this time all with the single basic controller.
Suddenly people who only gamed in arcades (scared off by the enormous complexity of the Xbox and PS3's controllers) could join in too, and the hassle of gathering a bunch of friends together, organising transport to some huge out-of-town megaplex and spending 50 quid at a time for a couple of hours of fun (games at £1 or £2 a credit for three minutes play, extortionate food and drink, plus the cost of petrol/fares) became massively less attractive. Why go to all that effort when you could just invite people round to your house instead, to play games even your gran could get to grips with?
Motion gaming at home exploded. The Wii crushed all-comers in the console market, proving that there was a far bigger market out there for playing games than the increasingly nerdy, ultra-conservative and tiresome "hardcore". It was such a success that Microsoft and Sony jumped on the bandwagon, and Kinect sold millions in its opening weeks despite a hefty price tag and dubious software support.
You know all this, of course. But the irony is that while the videogames media has dismissed and ignored arcade gaming as an irrelevant historical relic for years (the last publication to devote any coverage to it was the aptly-named Arcade, way back in the mid-1990s), current-generation videogaming as we know it was born in those neon-lit amusement centres on city streets.
And I'm not talking about the burgeoning neo-retro market that's been revitalised by digital distribution and brought us things like Pac-Man Championship DX, though that's notable in itself. The pioneering physical-motion games that led to the Wii, and from there to Kinect and Move (and arguably even the DS and iPhone) were a direct result of arcades innovating to compete with and distinguish themselves from the home console experience. Without them, where will the next paradigm shift come from?
And that, viewers, is why it's so shameful and dismal that the passing of Funland has gone unremarked in the videogame media. If you let the oak tree die because it's old, and don't even tell anyone about it, don't act surprised when you start to run out of acorns.