Visiting Nickel City Arcade, Family Entertainment Center
On Monday, Chris and I were helping Ben move some things at his place. After all the work was done, we decided to spend the afternoon checking out this fabled suburban arcade, where games were to be played for just a nickel.
En route, we were trying to figure out the arcade’s business model. It’s a $2 per person admission, and all the games run on quarters? And there were tickets and prize redemption? We were trying to factor in things like the cost of electricity, the cost of the prizes, the tickets, the decay rate of the arcade games due to abuse and germs from small children. We were unsure how they were able to stay afloat, all in all.
Also en route, we ended up having to pay a $1 toll on the highway. We all realized that this toll wound up costing us 20 games, and were actually kind of peeved at that.
Outdoors in the parking lot, outside of Nickel City. It was a bright day, with the sun out. What better way than to spend it indoors, playing nickel games?
At the door. Apparently, Tekken 6 is here.
This was about midway inside, to the left of me were other games and the Free Play area; to the right was the entrance and a few rows of ticket-based, redemption games.
Chris, contemplating spending his first nickels on Time Crisis. Inside, we quickly figured out the business model: while the games run on nickels, many of the games required more than one nickel. Playing Time Crisis was something like four or five nickels, which came out to about a quarter or so a game.
In the back of the room was arguably one of the more fun areas: the Free Play zone. There were about 30 machines or so that were set on continuous Free Play. Walk up to one, hit the one player button, and you’re in business.
Here’s Ben and Chris involved in a round of good ole Track & Field. As a kid, I spent a good deal of time in arcades (or at the very least fantasized about spending a lot of time in arcades). This game was one of my favorites, and it’s hard to sum up the sheer joy and anticipation I used to experience, walking in to an arcade with a few dollars to blow.
I’m happy to report that, as an adult, I did better than I’ve ever done before. My first game was awful, but my second was much better. I figured out the key: keep running with one hand, while the other hovers over the “jump” button. Using that approach, I was able to breeze by the Long Jump and Javelin portions of the game. Sadly, I never got past the Shot Put.
In looking at the screen here, and remember all the old games I used to love… it’s depressing. Playing these old games was a thrill, but if I stopped to compare the old school arcade games to anything out today, it’s not even funny.
Another big area in the arcade was the prize redemption games. Remember stuff like Skee-Ball? Where, based on the points you scored, you got tickets out of the machine? Well there were a few rows of these types of games – nickel eaters, every one of them. If you had to design slot machines for children, these games would be them.
Occasionally, I’d see a bored parent standing in front of one of these guys, and just feeding nickel after nickel into them. I didn’t try these games until the tail end of my time at the arcade, and found a few of them to be tantalizingly addictive. Most of the games had enough of a skill element to give you the illusion you had control, but enough randomness to ensure that your actual choices didn’t amount to squat.
I stand by my earlier assessment: slot machines for children.
And this was a first for me – I had never before today seen an actual ticket counting machine. Named the “Ticket Eater,” the thing sucks up tickets with a powerful, vacuum-like speed that’s actually a little intimidating. During the busiest part of the afternoon, parents and children formed a line waiting to use the machine.
It’s hard to tell in the bad photo above, but look at some of those ticket bundles. To me what was most telling wasn’t that people had a lot of tickets… but that they had lengthy, uninterrupted strings of tickets. Which tells me someone (either the parent or the kid) sat and worked a particular machine, for a particularly long time.
Another mildly sad/disturbing thing I saw were all the discarded plastic bags, strewn about the place. On entering, you could buy bags of nickels ($3 bags, $5 bags, etc). As the afternoon wore on, I noticed more and more of these discarded bags on the ground, on the machines. Everytime I saw one, I thought of empty crack vials and discarded baggies. It began to give the aura of the place a slightly sinister glow.
This is what I’m talking about.
At the counter, you could trade in your tickets for any manner of prizes. As was the case when I was young, as it is now… the decent things are well out of reach. And there weren’t all that many decent things available. On a really good round of Skee-Ball you might get maybe 8 or 10 tickets.
That’s a lot of games and tickets to win a 400 ticket blow-up Bart Simpson doll, or a 1000 ticket glass chess set.
The candy, on the other hand, was entirely within reach. Chris ended up getting a bag Reese’s Pieces for about 150 tickets.
Note: if you’re watching the video, you’ll likely see a discrepancy between the number on the machine and the 150 Chris needed to buy the Reese’s Pieces. He and I actually went back to play more games, to win enough tickets to hit the 150 mark.
Sadly, I don’t know that I’ll be returning anytime soon to Nickel City. It was a fun bit of nostalgia, but it ultimately didn’t hold up all that well.
As I was walking around the arcade, I felt the same bit of excitement that I used to experience as a kid. Trying to figure out what game to spend my money on, I walked up and down the aisles, checking out games, watching people play. The main difference now though, was that as a kid… after I played a game, I was giddy and excited. The game itself was a burst of pleasure that I rode like a wave, until I decided on the next game… and so on.
Now an adult, that burst of pleasure playing the games wasn’t as strong. In fact, it had the muted twinges of nostalgia, if anything. And that wave was a lot harder to ride. A lot of the games were definitely older, and simply not quite that enjoyable. All the PC and console games over the years have definitely taken their toll.
Another thing I realized was the notion of scarcity. As a kid, you only had a finite amount of money to work with. Usually it was either 4 or 5 tokens for a dollar, and maybe you had $5 max to play with (on a good day). Every game you decided to play was exactly that: a decision. A careful decision, weighed against all the other games you might be able to play.
Walking around, I had a $20 in my wallet and could easily go back to the counter to get 400 more nickels. Without the limitation of funds, I didn’t have the same feverish intensity I had as a kid, going in to each game.
This feeling was most noticeable on the Free Play machines, in back. Most of the games ended quickly, but they all had a “CONTINUE? Y/N” option come up. You’d simply hit the 1 Player button again, and off you’d go. After a while, it ceased to matter how well you did playing the game. If you died, you could always just hit continue and keep going.
Free Play actually sucked some of the fun out of things for me. On more than one machine, I simply just walked away, mid-game.
I have a huge fondness for videogames, and arcades in particular. But experiencing Nickel City today, I realized how much the rest of the world has changed (in terms of games). I wonder what arcades might look like in another few years, or if they’ll even be around at all. If you’re interested in arcades and the history behind them, I highly recommend J. C. Herz’s Joystick Nation. A really well-written book by someone who really loved arcade and early console games.
Pinball Expo: Free Play Heaven