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CULTURE CRAWL: Games people (occasionally) play
Story by David McKee
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A guide to the little-known (and neglected) oddball gambling games on the Strip. War, anyone?
In an Xbox-driven, app-addled world, the old-school amusement industry survives with scale and simplicity. (Tickets! Win tickets!)
The golden age of the arcade has long been over. Remember Aladdin’s Castle? Crumbled. Remember Flynn’s? Folded. Remember teenagers with quarters? What are quarters? Today, gaming happens at home, and the processor in a PS3 is often the most mighty in the house, offering high-def graphics, surround sound and wireless control.
Nobody told that to the American Amusement Machine Association and the Amusement & Music Operators Association. They co-sponsored Amusement Expo 2011 at the Las Vegas Convention Center March 1-3, hyping old-school, arcade-style midway games. As they tell it, the pay-per-play industry is … alive and well? Yes. Their secret weapon: Not by promising you something more than you can get from your Wii, Xbox or Playstation, but something less.
Not just less money, but less time — that other commodity in short supply these days. Consider that, despite the dramatic price increase of home gaming consoles since 1977, it pales in comparison to the increase in the price of the games for those same consoles. Adjusted for inflation, consoles are nearly half the price of their late-’70s counterparts, while the modern games are nearly double. At those prices, consumers now expect their home video games to endure, and not simply provide the disposable intensity offered up by their coin-hungry counterparts. Once something imagined exclusively by science-fiction visionaries, immersive, consuming virtual experiences have become ubiquitous to contemporary gamers and are offered in every imaginable flavor and setting, from cartoonish to dystopian to historic to brutally realistic. But for all these games give, they take in equal measure, their tolls exacted in a most precious currency: time.
What about those of us with time in ever-shorter supply — i.e., grown-ups? The value proposition of entertainment becomes much different. Just like when we were kids, we want our fun on-demand, without much investment, easy enough to allow us to play, but challenging enough that we can take some pride in being good at it. And, while we’re at it, we want something to show for it (aside from just a slightly lighter wallet). The 21st century iteration of coin-op manufacturers have learned to satisfy both of these appetites, and to do it with their characteristic, flash, sound and sense of scale.
Jeff Evangelista of NAMCO America showed me the company’s new Pac-Man Battle, reviving video gaming’s most storied and beloved character — with four players at a time, all battling over the same dots (and each other). And while I’ve played Pac-Man a dozen ways on a dozen devices, I’d never really played it against anyone. Being able to actually consume other Pac-Men along with the ghosts, fruit and other dots, managed to satiate my nearly forgotten video bloodlust without having to learn a single “secret combo,” study a tutorial or read a strategy guide. It was sublime.
Gregory Bacorn of Barron Games introduced me to a four-player air hockey table — square rather than rectangular, with a player and goal on each side, and up to four pucks in manic play. Even as my ADD-fueled mind worried frantically whether it could keep up, the simple objective of putting shots into goals was made impossibly more thrilling without being at all more complicated.
But the most popular type of machine at the expo was a reprise of my very first arcade experience (at the local Chuck E. Cheese, no less): the redemption game. Everywhere you looked, classic brands were used to hawk the chance to win tickets, from game shows (“The Price is Right,” “Deal or No Deal,” “Wheel of Fortune”), board games (Operation), heroic characters (Batman, Robin Hood), and even classic gaming icons (Sonic, Frogger).
Hopelessly old-fashioned? Hardly. Mike Springman of Betson Consulting Partners says the ticket redeemer is the strongest revenue model in the post-home-entertainment universe.
“You still can’t win tickets at home,” he said, and you still aren’t going to get a prize for playing. Despite the utter worthlessness of the items you usually exchange for these tickets, it turns out that winning something is better than simply winning. We want talismans of great times, great memories and the best of who we’ve been.
I tested more than 30 games that day. As I slowly came down from my arcade high, I realized why the coin-op industry abides in the home entertainment era. Dropping a coin, sliding a card or even paying with your phone into one of these devices is not just a pay-per-play proposition. In an age when home gaming demands a long-term relationship between players and games, coin-op games offer a fling — where you can enjoy the game for only as long as it lasts, and then move on to the next, living for the proverbial moment, and sometimes, even come away with the tangible spoils of your victory.
The manufacturers and vendors at the Amusement Expo have come to know what Vegas has always known: No matter what you’ve got at home, there’s still something exciting about the uncomplicated proposition offered by playing out on the town — and for that, all the deeper you really need to go is into your pocket for yet another quarter.
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