The Pac-Man, the Plumber, and the Cabinet: A Tale in Four Parts


I was born in 1983, right at the cusp of the North American video game crash. In many ways this makes me a lucky gamer. I was too busy being an infant to witness the steady decline of my now beloved pastime in the mid-eighties, and I came of gaming age near the apex of its resurgence—a time when the Nintendo Entertainment System had already reached the height of its popularity.

Christmas of 1989: a day of legend, and a day when a legend was born. Don’t even try me at Adventures of LOLO.

On the other hand, I missed the golden age of arcades. Long before Steve Wiebe came calling, Billy Mitchell and his baby mullet were coming to kick ass and chew bubble gum at his local gaming palace. Only he was all out of bubble gum.


Before the time of Call of Duty and Halo multiplayer sessions, even before the days of LAN parties, arcades were the bastion of social gaming. An arcade was a place you could while a few hours in the company of your fellow nerds, jockeying for a position on the high score leaderboards of your favorite cabinets, earning ultimate bragging rights if you managed to land the top spot. You could cheer on your friends, trash talk your foes, and perhaps even witness a small part of history in the making. Oh what a Utopian dream it must have been! And I was born too late.

Or was I? Like the seasons and the great circle of life, gaming moves in cycles. It wasn’t too long before I got my own shot at arcade glories. Here’s one gamer’s odyssey on the sea of beeps, blips, and flashing lights.

Chapter 1: The Call to Adventure


When I was about ten, I spent my summer days at the home of the woman who had provided daycare for me since I was a wee lass. I was raised by a single working mom, and I wasn’t quite old enough to be a latchkey kid. One summer week, my “daycare provider” as she called herself (did it become gauche to use “sitter” at some point?), went on vacation. That meant I was about to go on week-long adventure to another day camp sponsored by mom’s place of employ.

“You’re in luck,” the friendly counselor told me as I warily eyed the other kids, “your first day is the day we’re going to Big Fun!”


Big Fun was the Valhalla of kiddom. We’re talking ball pits, indoor amusement park rides (the small ones that go in a circle, and then do it again backwards—but with blacklights), one-storey spiderweb towers made from bike tire inner tubes, those weird scooters that you sit on and move your feet and butt side to side to make go, and of course the crown jewel—a noisy, jangling arcade.

My mom had given me some money to spend on the field trip, and since pizza was already provided, that cash obviously translated into all the game tokens that would fit in my plastic souvenir cup. I probably bought some Laffy Taffy, too. Banana.

What to play first? I was intimidated. Although I was already adept at several video games, I had never once used a joystick. I worried my skills would fail to translate in this brave new world without d-pads. But then I saw the line of machines that could ease my transition: skee-ball alley.

skee ball 1

The aforementioned daycare provider used to take her wards bowling every week. I think I started with bumpers at the tender age of three, and had an average of 101 by eight (without bumpers, natch). No prodigy, but I could hold my own. Fast forward to Big Fun, and I was handily setting off the sirens on top of my machine. A pile of tickets was pooling around my feet.

“You’re good,” a boy from the day camp said to me as I finished a round. I hadn’t noticed him watching. “What else can you play? Video games?”

Double Dragon?”

“You want to play?” He showed me his own cup of tokens. He was no schemer looking for a free ride, he was just happy to find another gamer.

“Sure,” I replied, glad to have made a friend at this camp of little strangers.

We broke into a run on the way to the arcade cabinets, the way children always do, easily finding the home of Billy and Jimmy Lee. Laughter from the ball pit drifted our way, as did the delighted shouts of kids getting dizzy in blacklights. We each dropped in our token.

We were on a mission to rescue Marian.

Tune in next week for Chapter 2: The Belly of the Whale

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  1. I joined the young girl occupying the Double Dragon machine. She appeared to be a noob and I knew this my chance to ruin a life. As I pushed the single quarter through the slot and punched the button to begin our partnership in ass-kicking I could tell this was a life-changing moment in co-op gaming for this adorable wide-eyed child. After battling Abobo together, I was holding an enemy for her to joyously punch, and I knew the time was right. I quietly leaned over and whispered “After this is all over, I am going to beat you to death and take Marian for myself….”.

    1. Now that you mention it, I think Double Dragon (home version) might have been my first experience with the twist ending. Wow, Double Dragon, way to be a touchstone in Sara Clemens’ development as a person.

  2. just bought my first cabinet myself last month. got a hold of a MKI that needed some love. man i miss those old days, even the arcade ambiance of multiple machines screaming out for attention. hope to hear that sound soon if i can get enough machines to fix up.

    1. Buddy Lee, I’m so jealous. I’ve long considered it a point of immense gamer pride to own one’s own arcade cabinet. Once I’m able to make that purchase, I’ll know I’ll have arrived. Good on ya, mate. Buy as many as you can.

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