A few years ago, my old man and I built an arcade cabinet. On slow weekends in Manhattan, I’d drive to my parents’ house in Connecticut, and we’d chip away at the project, cutting the plywood, fitting the plexiglass, installing the joystick and buttons. The “Arcadium Newmanium” was (and is) a beautiful monstrosity, and with the help of an emulator on an old PC, it can play more than 100 classic arcade games.
But it was the kind of project where the journey was more exciting than the destination. Once I started playing the arcade games from my childhood — primarily, beat-em-ups like X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — I quickly understood how little appeal these games had beyond cheap nostalgia.
So forgive me if I’m not excited about X-Men Arcade coming to Xbox Live and the Playstation Network.
Like Ben Kuchera at Ars Technica, my local movie theater (or laser tag parlor, I can’t recall) also had the six-player version of the game. Friends and strangers would come together and waste quarter after quarter, desperately hoping that the next brutally difficult level would be the last.
Of course, arcade beat-em-ups like X-Men were not designed to be beaten. Like shell games, they were meant to string players along. Every so often, Magneto would float by and taunt you, as if to suggest that the endgame was approaching, only to reveal another level padded out by tank-like drones with superhuman strength. The rate at which you fed quarters into the machine increased exponentially as you reached the higher levels.
In fairness, all video games get harder in their later stages. The problem with arcade beat-em-ups is that skill has no bearing on whether you can beat the game. With enough quarters, anyone can push through to the end.
This is what I learned after building the Arcadium Newmanium. The luxury of infinite credits exposed the weakness of X-Men, Double Dragon, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, P.O.W., The Simpsons and so on. When I brought a longtime friend — a guy who was there for all the childhood laser tag trips — over to experience the arcade cabinet, I could sense his boredom as we plowed through each level of our favorite beat-em-ups. As kids, the limited number of quarters allotted by our parents provided a sense of danger that made X-Men exciting. As adults, the thrill was gone.
And now I read that the Xbox Live and PSN versions of X-Men Arcade will be straight ports, except with re-recorded dialog that presumably won’t be as lame as the original. If we can’t even have our nostalgia in full, what’s the point?