Arcade Gamers are Better than You

Don’t let the ambiguous title confuse you, this isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact. We’re not using the word “better” to mean the most popular, most successful, or the ones you’d want to hang out with most. We’re talking purely skill-based. Sure, console controllers have grown in complexity and sophistication with each new incarnation. At times, it seems the game developers feel the need to add additional in-game actions just to account for all the extra buttons. Arcade games, however, are simple, and the joystick reigns supreme. The physical dexterity needed to master the full-handed joystick, as opposed to the thumb-based “joystick” on controllers today, is a thing of beauty. It’s the difference between watching two artists recreate the Mona Lisa, one in Photoshop, the other free-hand.

Here’s a challenge: find the best Halo or COD player you know, and ask them to play Deer Hunter or House of the Dead at an arcade. Does their precision and accuracy remain?  “But those are completely different games,” you scream while reading this article. Let’s try another: dust off your old SNES or Sega Genesis, and pop in Street Fighter 2. Some of the basic moves, like the Hadouken or Sonic Boom, may even be solidified in your muscle memory. Perhaps you even make it all the way to M. Bison on your first attempt. Now stop by the arcade and try to beat the game on just one or two quarters. The joystick and button layout are completely different; larger, farther apart, and bulky. The skills that have become second-nature to you in the console realm don’t translate to the arcade. The sheer abuse some arcade machines take in their lifetime can cause button choppiness or “sticking.” It’s the arcade’s home-field advantage for the arcade gamer. It’s the equivalent of playing football at your home stadium, under a dome, then playing an away game in Green Bay, in mid-January. Environmental circumstances play a part, and work to separate the true expert gamer from the talented at-home gamer.

Back in the heyday of arcades, when games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong were all the rage, game developers had a difficult business dilemma to overcome. Arcades were fun, but also a business first. Making games too simple would lead to gamers spending a single quarter for an entire day’s worth of playing. Making games too difficult would alienate gamers who wouldn’t want to throw their quarters in to a game for 30 seconds of play. As a result, studies were conducted to find the optimal game length. After what were sure to be the most fun lab tests ever performed, the results concluded 90-120 seconds was the best length of time for the average gamer. This would assure, 1) the arcade made money from consecutive plays, and 2) the gamer felt they understood the game well enough to have a fighting chance with more plays.

How are these tests relevant to this article? Because they stand to illustrate how good arcade gamers had to be to become true masters. In console games, developers want the gamer to play for long periods of time. This has led to tutorial levels being included in all new games, cheat codes and walkthroughs being released by developers, and the option to retry a level. Arcade games, in contrast, were designed for relatively quick failure, to be fun yet difficult. They were designed to look simple on the surface, but actually be quarter-depositories. The gamer that masters an arcade game is more practiced and committed. The arcade gamer is accustomed to adjusting their technique based on the machine they’re playing on. The next time your friend dominates you in a game for Xbox, challenge them to the same game on Playstation; then see how well their skills translate, or how controller-dependant they truly are.

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