Games of the past

Video arcades were alive with action, sounds… and people

Dallas Hansen

November 4, 2006

Strolling through Winnipeg Square one afternoon this week, I aimed for an oasis of frivolity amid the underground concourse’s sober bustle — RC Amusements, a longstanding video arcade tucked behind the Kernels popcorn stand since before I could remember. So timeless did the place seem that I was stunned when I found it was gone.

Oddly enough, I fell in love with downtown Winnipeg because of video games. Among my early memories is a mid-1980s trip to Long John Silver’s, an arcade on Portage Avenue that seemed, at the time, the most exciting experience of my life. It wasn’t just the games. The sounds, people, voices, lights, and carnival atmosphere provided soothing stimulation to an easily bored, hyperactive child.

By the time I was eight, the Saturday bus ride downtown had for me and my schoolmate, Alan Charbonneau, become a weekly ritual. After a week of waking at six a.m. to deliver newspapers, we rewarded ourselves by leaving our parents behind to wander from Saratoga Amusements to Games on the Avenue — usually stopping at Comic World in-between — battling it out at Karate Champ or Bubble Bobble during the lull in home gaming that existed between the Atari and the Nintendo.

Your correspondent, at the wheel of a Wangan Midnight Maximum Tune 3 machine in 2009

There were other places to play. MagicLand offered unlimited gaming by the hour. KK Amusements in Eaton Place featured the newest and the best games, but the staff were particularly keen that you present a signed parental permission form if you were under age 16. Although barely 10, I had grown to be taller than one of the arcade’s employees, who upon snarkily asking, “Are you 16?” received my annoyed reply, “Are you?”

During weekdays, we had to contend with the local Double Dragon machine at St. Anne’s Food Store — invariably surrounded by what today would be the unthinkably politically incorrect spectacle of chain-smoking sixth-graders in full heavy metal attire. These older fellows were prone to shaking you down for your comic book money and most often smelled as nasty as they appeared.

The corner store arcade game was a cornerstone of the youth community even years later. During high school, the 7-Eleven near Glenlawn Collegiate played host to a seemingly incessant Street Fighter II tournament. Among the boys, social rank and popularity within the school’s halls were actually in large part determined by how well you played that game. By this point, heavy metal kids had become nearly extinct, leaving me jostling for status against the jocks, preppies, skaters, and hip-hoppers of the moment.

Arcade culture probably peaked around 1992, with the opening of Lazer Illusions — a giant, futuristic arcade in the east wing of Polo Park Shopping Centre that had a notorious rule forbidding ball caps worn backward. Lazer Illusions lasted just a couple of years, after which the mall no longer seemed to be made for young people.

Downtown, however, always remained the Saturday destination.

My explorations eventually led me off the Portage Avenue strip. Crystal Palace, a 24-hour billiard hall with a significant arcade, appeared on my radar when I was 12. Located at Ellice and Donald, in the basement of the building now occupied by the Giant Tiger discount chain, Crystal Palace’s menacing ambiance lent me a sense of toughness that seemingly pushed me nearer to manhood.

These days, gamers are more likely to be grown-ups than kids. Indeed, according to an poll in May, 40 per cent of U.S. adults play video games. Few, however, do so in the public atmosphere of a video arcade. Opponents are likelier to be across the world via the Internet, each player sitting solitary at home. Or perhaps at a cyber caf , seated at a terminal, matched against someone across the room. Either way, the social component of video gaming has been lost.

Ordinarily, I would count myself among the majority who do not play video games. Sometime in high school my leisurely interests shifted to things more tangible: Girls, skateboarding, billiards, books. About a year ago, however, my girlfriend and I rediscovered Winnipeg Square’s RC Amusements, and we began consciously visiting at least once a month. Somehow we both knew RC’s days were numbered. A combination of sentiment and nostalgia kept us coming back, perhaps hoping our occasional patronage would itself maintain the place. Possibly we were seeking to squeeze out a few more memories before the opportunity disappeared.

Thankfully, there remains one last video game arcade downtown, and it’s open 24 hours daily: Bourbon Street Billiards, at Vaughan St. and Graham Ave. Not that I’m itching to play, but these games are best enjoyed publicly, with strangers and with friends.