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Omaha Magazine

In Search of Dropped Quarters: Arcades, Omaha, and Nostalgia

Feb 24, 2023 10:09AM ● By James Vnuk

Design by Reneé Ludwick.

Listen to this article here. Audio Provided by Radio Talking Book Service.

Today the aesthetics of classic video games and arcades are synonymous with the very idea of nostalgia itself: “Retro” and “Pixel Art” have become interlinked ideas.

I learned how to use a soldering gun during the pandemic. While many spent the doldrums of 2020 learning how to bake bread or cultivate a second language, I was figuring out how to fuse wires together without accidentally electrocuting myself in the process. The goal? To convert my favorite arcade system, the Neo-Geo, into a home device that could be used with an ordinary television. 

Piece by piece, I ordered away for the components, learned how to modify its guts for home use, and even produced a 3D-printed case to house the mangle of wires and circuit boards. If I couldn’t go out an arcade, then maybe I could bring the arcade to me.

I love old arcade games. My fascination as a kid was fairly straightforward: video games were the coolest, most cutting-edge toys. Stopping into a 7-Eleven (between the ages of 7 and 11) invariably led to me hovering around an Ikari Warriors cabinet; family outings to our local Pizza Hut usually concluded with having to pry me away from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; and during vacations, the most exciting part for me was usually playing Outrun adjacent a hotel ice machine. 

As I approach 40, I’ve come to admire the marriage of sound, image, and industrial design each unique game experience represented—elevating childhood fascination to serious hobby.

Growing up in a turbulent and broken household, arcades eventually came to represent a kind of sacred space for me. A $20 bill was an opportunity for a latchkey kid to get away from an unhappy home on a Saturday afternoon and retreat into the warm glow of cathode ray tubes. Where else could you find dim, cozy lighting at 3pm? (Likely to hide the countless overlapping stains of spilled soda littering the carpet, but the vibe was there.) In the halls of an arcade, I could visit reliable friends and find new ones, and I’d usually head home with a new obsession to keep my mind busy until the next weekend.

Yet, even when I was a child, arcades had already begun dim into nostalgia. Growing up in the 80s and early 1990s, the arcade “Golden Age” that brought household names like Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Donkey Kong was a distant memory. I came of age during the brief revival that Street Fighter II had given to the arcade landscape, and before I was a full adult the Dance Dance Revolution craze, the swan song for the entire industry, had already run its course. By the time I moved to Omaha in the late 2000s, arcades were dead. By then, institutions like Family Fun Center were running on fumes and a dwindling interest in beloved quarter munchers. 
Even though arcades were uniquely special to me, I’ve come to find that they were special places for countless others—at all ages, in all walks of life. Though I didn’t grow up in Omaha, I asked my peers who had what arcades meant to them. Whether their memories gravitated around having beers around an Asteroids cabinet in the 70s, attending pizza-themed birthday parties at Johnny Sortinos, Showbiz Pizza in the 80s, or as mallrats killing time at Oakview and Westroads in the 90s, the arcade was always connected with potent formative memories—bonding with friends, learning harsh lessons for the first time, or finding young love. 

Today the aesthetics of classic video games and arcades are synonymous with the very idea of nostalgia itself: “Retro” and “Pixel Art” have become interlinked ideas. Establishments like Omaha’s Throwback Arcade Lounge and Beercade elevate nostalgia for arcade culture as a business model. It’s no accident that “Stranger Things,” a television show built entirely out of 80s pastiche, centers a whole season around a seedy arcade and the mysterious high-score initials MADMAX (personally, I always use ‘JAM’). The music from games like the aforementioned Outrun has become the urtext for the modern “vaporwave” genre captivating Gen Z—many of whom weren’t even born when arcades took their last breath. 

This allure is easy to understand in the era of slick smartphones and the ubiquity of devices all designed to retreat out of view, and away from any obvious visual identity of their own. An arcade cabinet is impossible to mistake for anything else; my kingdom for the harsh neon buzz of television phosphors, the screeching bleeps of an 8-bit microchip, and faux-wood paneling. 

Turns out I’m not alone; my quest to bring the arcade experience home revealed that the “experience” part really matters, and I discovered a whole cottage industry online of fellow enthusiasts each looking to restore, or outright reinvent, what mattered to them—whether it meant seeking the authentically muffled stereo speakers for a specific cabinet, or its factory joysticks and buttons, or a perfect reproduction of the original marquee designs. 

Nostalgia isn’t as simple as recalled memory; sometimes it’s the tactile sensation, the sound, even the smell of a moment lost to time that renders the past present.

I’ve made my peace with Omaha’s bitmaps fading into memory; time and progress march onward, hand in hand. I’m not the same person I once was, and it’s not the same world. It’s simple enough to get my fix these days, whether at home, or at the handful of metro sanctuaries keeping the arcade embers alight.

Still, I’ll light up like a flashing ‘INSERT COIN’ screen if I come across a cabinet out in the wild, perhaps in a grungy truck stop or a movie theater lobby; 20th-century relics, keeping vigil for a bygone era. 

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To subscribe, click here. 
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