Column: Back in the day, everybody had a case of ‘Pac-Man fever’

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 24, 2002

“I’ve got a pocket full of quarters, and I’m headed to the arcade. I don’t have a lot of money, but I’m bringing everything I made.&uot; &045; Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia, &uot;Pac-Man Fever,&uot; 1982

Last Monday my wife and I took our six-year-old nephew, Trae, to see &uot;Star Wars Episode II.&uot; We promised him that we would play some video games when the movie got out if the arcade was still open. It wasn’t, but there were two games in the theater concession stand area. (I hesitate to call it a lobby.)

One of those games was Super Pac-Man, which jogged my memory back about 20 years &045; to the Golden Age of Video Games.

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The arcade was the absolute place to be in the early 1980s. There were video games everywhere in Albert Lea, because they were guaranteed moneymakers. Even Hy-Vee had video games, and that was when it was out in the middle of nowhere. What is now Northbridge Mall was nothing but fields that my brothers and I would cut through while we were supposed to be watching our dad play softball at the J.M. Snyder Fields.

There were three arcades downtown alone. Two of them, Your Best Shot and The Wizard’s Den, made up what is now Sterling Drug. The Emporium was housed in the Rivoli Mini Mall and is now part of the Albert Lea Art Center.

I think I was in about fifth- or sixth-grade when Your Best Shot opened. That place was actually a bar and pool hall, but wisely capitalized on the video game juggernaut of the day. The laws governing drinking establishments at that time must have been somewhat more relaxed than they are now, because kids were allowed in there to play video games as long as they didn’t wander into the pool hall and bar area.

The Wizard’s Den opened right next door shortly after that, and quickly became absolutely the coolest place in the world. There was a line (horde, actually) of kids waiting outside for it to open on its first day of business. It was a room full of nothing but video games, with the exception of the token machine.

The Wizard’s Den later moved out to the Skyline Mall. It was a brilliant idea putting an arcade in a mall located right next to an elementary and a middle school (except it was called junior high then). The arcade was packed every day after school. I imagine it got some earlier business, too, from the kids who would skip school.

Virtually everyone in my generation had Pac-Man Fever back then. There was no escaping it. You didn’t even have to like Pac-Man. Maybe you had Centipeditis, or perhaps Robotronosis.

That was when games were games. Before they became limited to fighting, sports, shooting and driving games. Yes, digital technology has improved the graphics and the sound since then. The only things that were digital in the early ’80s told you what time it was. But the games had so much more

warmth, I guess

to them, in the same way that vinyl albums have more warmth to their sound than compact discs. Yes, now we have digitized pictures of actual actors in games, but when every game out there now is a rehash, who cares? Video games today lack the personality they had 20 years ago.

Ironically, though the games have become somewhat more &uot;adult&uot; themed over the years with increasing graphic violence, arcades themselves have become more &uot;family&uot; themed, with grab-the-toy mechanical cranes and those carnival-type games where you try to win tickets to exchange for prizes. It’s change like this that is killing off the arcade as I remember it.

There is a lot of talk about restoring historic downtown Albert Lea. I think it would be pretty cool for Destination: Albert Lea to bring back a little something from my generation. How about an arcade consisting entirely of video games made before 1984? Who knows? Maybe some thirty-somethings, former &uot;arcade kids&uot; like me would play hooky from work to blow a few bucks playing Tempest and listening to A Flock of Seagulls on the jukebox. I know I would be the first person in line on opening day.

Dustin Petersen is an Albert Lea resident. His column appears Mondays.