For the most part, I remember childhood birthday parties being held at someone's house, a fast-food restaurant or, if I was really lucky, a bowling alley. But there was one magical birthday party that this child of the '80s will never forget: it was at Mr. Arcade. Not only did I get to hang out with my friends and eat pizza and cake, but everyone got a roll or two of quarters. Happy birthday to me.
These days, traditional arcades may be hard to find in the U.S., but retro gamers (like this ‘80s-loving author) can still get their fill of joysticks at modern arcades like Barcade. So let's take a look at how the bright, pixelated stars of National Geographic Channel's upcoming three-night event The '80s: The Decade that Made Us have morphed from quarter-guzzling babysitters of yesteryear to powerful threads in the fabric of today's pop culture.
In the early 1980s our national appetite for escape was fed by the launch of a round, bright yellow, ghost-eater named Pac-Man. The game's bright colors and simple design were a pleasant change from the usual dark, more "violent" space-shooters and sports games, which appealed to non-gamers. And so the audience for video games doubled.
Before you knew it, the country was swept up in Pac-Man Fever. An eponymous album was released (featuring such classic songs as "Pac-Man Fever," "Do the Donkey Kong," and "Ode to a Centipede"). Cartoons like The Super Mario Bros. Super Show and Pac-Man: The Animated Series sprouted up on Saturday mornings. Arcades became the newest hangout for teens as machine after machine welcomed new devotees. Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., Burger Time, Frogger, Centipede, Qbert: the characters from these games were no longer just animated sprites moving across a screen; they now had personality. They were interesting. They were colorful. They were...family. At least to this video game fan, they were.
There's just something incredibly appealing about the characters birthed in the 1980s. Today, even with an increase of the average age of a gamer and the development of more violent, hardcore, action shooters like Halo or Call of Duty, retro fare like Mario, Pokémon, and Sonic, still helped the video game industry pull in $14.8 billion in the U.S. last year.
And that appeal isn't just to the nostalgic children of the '80s, but also to new recruits. Nintendo's Mario games are among the company's most popular titles, featuring the princess-saving plumber in every type of game imaginable, including Mario Party, Mario Super Sluggers, Super Mario Bros. Wii, Mario Kart, and even Mario/Sonic Olympic Games.
The culture born in the '80s resonates today. Barcade aside, in the U.S., arcades have been replaced by gaming consoles and, more recently, by mobile apps. Now kids (and adults) sit around shooting angry birds at green pigs, while friends and family cheer them on. But if you think about it, it's not that different from the gang that would regularly gather around that one nerdy kid from down the street while he made it seven levels deep in Pac-Man all on the same quarter.
And just look at Hollywood. The Frogger episode of Seinfeld. The starring role of the Missile Command kill screen in an episode of Chuck. Tony Stark giving a nod to Galaga in The Avengers. And then there's Wreck-It Ralph. They'd never have been made if Mario & Co. hadn't paved the way.
Tune in to the National Geographic Channel this Sunday, April 14 at 8 PM to see the story behind Pac-Man Fever and other ‘80s wonders that affect us today in the first of six episodes of their new three-night event The ‘80s: The Decade That Made Us.
Andrew Kardon is a freelance writer who lives to write about video games, comic books and the absolute coolness of the '80s.