Many of us have fond memories of the arcade. As a kid, I remember there was a mall chain of arcades call Tilt hidden somewhere off the side of the food court.
Early on, it was filled with machines of games we would now call retro (your typical Namco Museum and Taito selection of gaming machines). There would always be a claw machine (otherwise known as a UFO Catcher), and a few Cruisin’ USA (or equivalent driving machine). It was a good old-fashioned arcade, much like the opening sequence to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Been to Chuck E. Cheese at least once? Good! You’re an arcade hopper.
I’ve always loved video games. Like most kids born in the mid-1980s, my family had a Nintendo. One of my earliest memories is when my Dad brought home Mario 2. We played it together for hours. I remember we were both blown away that you had to pick up Birdo’s eggs and throw them in his face. That was a big deal, the whole concept of picking things up. And for my seventh birthday, what do you think I asked for? Damn right- a Super Nintendo. A few months later, my older sister got a Sega Genesis. Needless to say, I was very lucky because my parents always support my sisters and my video game playing and tried to make sure we had lots of fun playing them. They drew the line at the Atari Jaguar. In retrospect, they made the right call.
In 1999, after meeting my best friend Tierney in an Anime/Comic Book store called Collector’s Guide to the Galaxy (yeah, let that one sink in for a while), she took me to a local arcade and mini golf joint called Sherman Oaks Castle Park. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid. But going in 1999 was the first time I saw a Dance Dance Revolution (known as DDR) machine. I played a round. I sucked. My feet didn’t know what to do. My arms were locked into stiff, weird fists at my side. I had no rhythm or chill.
But I was hooked. And at a $1 for 3 songs, DDR wasn’t exactly the cheapest game in the arcade.
Very quickly after my first dance on the metal-stompy-stage, I was taking over the arcades every Friday and Saturday night with my friends. After a while, (once I got my Driver’s License in 2001) it wasn’t limited to Friday nights, or even Saturday nights. Eventually, like any addiction, arcade hopping turned into a multiple day and night per week adventure, with me and my friends visiting a multi-circuit loop of San Fernando Valley based arcades.
And to answer your question in advance: Yes, my mom knew where I was. I got money for DDR by working and saving my cash, or mom gave me money because she encouraged DDR because it made me move. All good? Let’s hit it.
Howlin’ With the Pack
The bulk of this article will focus on my time as a DDRtist (what I call a Dance Dance Revolution master) but expands to all flavors of arcade dwellers. Rhythm Games took over my existence, but that’s what made arcade life so fascinating. There were dozens of people in the same room together, and all of us were zeroed in on something completely different. Hidden within the arcade was a vast, self-governed ecosystem of gaming personalities. Like Lord of the Flies, gamers split themselves up by game genre and didn’t often mingle with the other ones.
Sure, there were cross-overs, but for the most part we stayed separated. I can’t count the number of times the sexy floppy-haired Korean Beatmania players would roll their eyes at us Dance Dance Revolution kids for our “fake dancing”, then tear it up on their fake turntable and button mashing…to the exact same songs featured in DDR.
There were also the know-it-all One-Upper Nerds who scoffed at Puzzle Bobble, yet took their Puzzle Fighter playing very seriously.
And likewise, in spite of our rock-hard DDR thighs, we nerd girls just couldn’t grab the attention of those tough bad-boys playing Street Fighter 3rd Strike or Street Fighter 2 Alpha. The game was popular to the point where tournaments were held at my favorite arcade, the now defunct Family Fun Arcade in Granada Hills.
But you want to know what the best part of being bisexual in an arcade is? Getting to flirt with those dude’s poor, ignored girlfriends by teaching them how to play DDR, Popn’ Music, or treat them to a round of Bust-a-Move and let them win. The memory still brings me so much joy.
I mentioned the word “addiction” earlier in this article. I didn’t use that word to be cute. Not only did I get a literal thrill, a rush of adrenaline coursing through me every time I jumped on a Dance Dance Revolution pad, but just being inside the arcade was exciting.
The social aspect was enticing. You never knew who you were going to see, or who you could meet. The arcade lights and sounds were alluring. The poor ventilation and stench of nerd sweat was intoxicating. And the pounding bass of a Dance Dance Revolution machine with the incorrect audio settings blasting through the entire building was like the call of the siren. You could hear that shit from anywhere in the facility, whether it was a regular-old arcade, a bowling alley arcade, a movie theater arcade. It didn’t matter. Just the pulsing in your ears and the flashing lights in your peripheral vision and you knew you were home.
But again, like any addiction, it’s probably not the best idea to have only one dealer. In the early days of DDR playing, our default spot was The Castle. But sometimes, especially on the weekends, it was just too crowded there. Too many families and parties, and little kids who didn’t know the rules of gaming etiquette (like knowing that quarters lined up on the machine meant people were waiting in line to play). Sometimes, people were dicks and they totally snagged our quarters and stuffed them into the Galaga and PacMan machines. With the help of websites like DDR Freak, you not only had access to find every Dance Dance Revolution machine in your area, but it would tell you what version of the game it was.
And that mattered!
For example, The Castle often had two different versions of the game at once, and rotated every time there was a new upgrade. While Ultrazone, a laser-tag place down the boulevard had two machines as well, one of them being the neat 3rd Mix Korean version that had songs by the gateway drug to KPop queen herself, Lee Jung Hyun.
Further away, but also a stand-alone arcade was The Plant in Van Nuys, which not only had a DDR machine, but the bizarre “play with your hands while standing in a halo-tube” Para Para Paradise. This game was amazing, not only because you got to watch people flapping their hands all around, but the people who were really good followed pre-determined choreography, which I’ll link for you to watch right here if you’re curious. It was insane, it was geeky…but it was also so much fun.
But it wasn’t until I discovered Family Fun Arcade that the rhythm game addiction hit full force. I’m not kidding when I say that at one point, they had just about everything. Beatmania, PopN’ Music, Keyboard Mania, Dance Maniax, two DDR machines, a DDR Solo 2000 machine, Guitar Freaks, and Drum Mania. Not only did that arcade service the Fighting Game crowd, but us poor, dweeby rhythm game lovers could get our groove on and lose all our money. It was just the best, and I made a lot of friends there. I met one of my best friends Gil, who is now a successful local cosplay photographer. I met this cool dude named Ash, who was a fellow writing major and is a successful journalist today.
But with all good, there is some bad. Unfortunately, the arcade’s night manager was a complete creep who harassed most female patrons. He typically left me alone, but one time my underage-self went in there wearing a low-cut shirt. Big mistake- the fucker WATCHED me play DDR with a sickening intensity. I called him out for being a child-leering sicko. After that, he was intentionally rude to me and totally turned us in to the cops when they came to bust underage kids for curfew. And curfew ticket, I got. To that, you get all the middle fingers, Tim.
By Any Means Necessary
There was a very different vibe to all the different kinds of arcade settings. First, there were the stand-alone arcades, like I discussed earlier. These were typically your most hardcore, destination arcades. Sometimes, we Valley kids would even pile into someone’s car and leave the comfort of suburbia in order to take a trip to Japan Arcade in Little Tokyo (where they have those neat sit-down style machines) or Arcade Infinity, another Japanese arcade located in Diamond Bar. My mom would have killed me if she knew how far I drove to go to arcades sometimes.
Then you had your movie theater arcades, the kind with one House of the Dead machine, a driving game of some flavor, and a broken DDR machine. Fortunately, most of those theater arcades are disappearing and being replaced by a bar. This is a metamorphosis I fully support. There were the Bowling Alley arcades. These were such a treat because they were all so different. For example, there was an arcade at Brunswick Bowl in Simi Valley that only charged 50 cents for DDR! Corbin Bowl in Tarzana had a kick ass arcade that was almost always empty. The Studio City bowling alley had a Pump It Up machine instead of a DDR Machine. The biggest problem with bowling alleys is they were always riddled with cops because of the late-night tweakers selling meth nearby.
Lastly, there were your Tourist-Trap arcades. These were the most fun to play in sometimes because no one knew who you were. No one knew how to play DDR. But then you’d swagger up to that stage, feeling all confident and awesome, and blow that crowd away. I’m not kidding when I use the word crowd. Dance Dance Revolution used to generate a crowd of people, all dying to watch and see how you do it. People couldn’t understand how we made our bodies move like that. To this day, I have a friend named Matt that I met on the DDR machine. He saw me choose the song “Rhythm and Police” on Maniac Mode and to this day says he “knew I was serious.”
But the addiction was strong- I have to reiterate that. I would go to Disneyland…and play DDR. Go to Universal City Walk…and pay $3 per round of DDR. Go on trips to Las Vegas with friends…and have to go to every arcade in the damn city to play DDR. I can’t count the number of Dance Dance Revolution related injuries I’ve sustained over the years. I’ve twisted my ankle, sprained my ankle, literally fallen off the machine, fallen into the screen, tripped, and even stomped on a three-year-old once who jumped onto the platform while I was mid-awesome. I’ve played in boots, creepers, sandals, chucks, barefoot, you name it. And do you think I stopped playing to let myself heal? Hell-to-the-absolutely-not. I kept going, and never even lowered my difficulty to accommodate my injury! Lest people think I can’t play anything better than a 7-footer…
…if you don’t understand what that means, you’re in a good place…
Legacy of King
Rhythm Game culture in the early 2000s was really just an amazing time of nerd solidarity. We had a game, a genre that really brought us all together. I used to put on my gear and dance my ass off. I remember once this beautiful little girl watched me and then asked for my autograph. And yes, you better believe I cried.
To this day, I still remember the names and faces of some of the regulars I saw rotating through the same DDR machines as me. There was Andrew, the steampunk inspired dude in combat boots who was dating Claudia, a girl my age who was just a slight bit lot too young for him. There was Mike, the shy twenty-three-year-old Haley Joel Osment look-alike that worked at McDonalds who I always hit on. He never took the bait, which was smart because I was only sixteen. Damn it. Or Kai, the scrappy anime fan with his bitching-excellent afro who TORE THAT GAME TO SHREADS.
Dance Dance Revolution had reached its peak, and was visibly coming down, somewhere after the 9th mix of the game. Whereas there were once DDR contests in Garden Grove where the winning routine earned the player his/her own Solo Machine, those arcades were now shut down.
Rumors of a DDR movie starring Miko Hughes (from Full House, Pet Cemetery, and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare) circulated the web. The story was supposed to be a Weird Science type movie where a magical dream girl comes out of the game (the game did have its own assortment of character dancers) and teaches Miko how to something-something confidence with his feet. Unfortunately, I can’t find any information on it, but I promise, the rumors were real. Maybe some of you remember it, too.
And once DDR is used as PE in school? Forget it- officially not cool anymore.
The machines began deteriorating to worse and worse condition. Suddenly, it seemed like no one was servicing them. Then after a little while, the rhythm games just started disappearing. Good old DDR machines were being replaced by bootleg In the Groove machines. With a simple upgrade kit, every single DDR could be illegally stuffed into one machine, instead of the arcade owner needing to spend money to buy the newest version.
Games like the American Guitar Hero and Rock Band brought licensed songs to the home console. Players didn’t have to go to the arcade to play the cheesy songs brought to them by Japan. More capable home consoles allowed players to plug in the same guitar and drum kits into their machines, therefore saving time and money. Another reason not to visit the arcade.
Eventually, during my very last visit to Family Fun Arcade in 2008, I saw that every single arcade machine was gone, save for one lone fighting game. The rest had been replaced with home consoles, stand-alone Xbox 360s that you could rent by the hour. I was heartbroken and horrified. It was like seeing a family member on life support. Not surprising, the arcade shut down for good not too long after.
Luckily, I have my own metal dance pad that I got for a steal on eBay in 2006. It works perfectly, can support all two-hundred-and-fat pounds of me, and the response is better that most rotting DDR corpses out in the wild today. I’ll show you a picture of my sweet garage set up.
So, what do arcades look like today? Well, you sort of have two things happening. There’s your retro-style Barcade, where you get to play classic games and drink beer. It’s an awesome thing, if not a schtick, but hey, my age group digs it. More and more of them are popping up in the Los Angeles area.
You also have your new style arcade, where everything sort of looks like a ticket-machine or a blown-up phone app game. They are very expensive to play, don’t require much skill, and run on site-issued credit cards.
The silver lining to these places is that someone in Japan got the message, and a brand-new DDR machine called Dance Dance Revolution A has hit Dave and Busters. And as you can see by their website, they are very, very proud of that machine.
And as soon as I have free time or a babysitter, that machine is mine.
Unless you find the Unicorn off all Dance Games, the 9-buttoned insanity called Techno Motion. Then that’s where me and my sleeping bag will be.
Tell every Dance Dance Revolution fan you know to follow Loryn on Twitter!