Back in the ’80s and early ’90s you couldn’t move without coming across an arcade machine, they were everywhere. As well as in the arcades themselves, you found them at your local café, corner shops, takeaways, cinemas, amusement parks and who can forget the buzz of when the fun fair came to town? People would queue up to play the latest coin-ops and brag how far they could get on one credit; a 10p was almost like a magic token.
However, as consoles caught up with coin-op technology the arcades disappeared almost completely. The modern arcade is nothing more than a glut of gambling machines, coin pushers and the odd driving game at £1 a play. In search of the arcades of old I took a visit to the fabled land of Southend-On-Sea, where it’s rumoured that arcade is very much alive and well…
For many years now I have been searching for a seaside resort where arcades are alive and well. I have visited Weymouth, Brighton, Clacton, Weston-Super-Mare and many more without any luck; just the usual array of driving and shooting games alongside pointless tosh like Flappy Bird and Doodle Jump (I mean what the hell is a game that you can play on your phone doing in an arcade?). Then one day I saw somebody on Facebook talking about a place called Astro City, a modern day arcade that featured retro games. I liked the sound of this mythical place, and soon persuaded my family that our next weekend away should be a visit to the “Pearl of Essex”: Southend-On-Sea. I was super excited to see what I would find there, and Astro City was top of my visit list.
“After negotiating the long run-down flight of stairs I opened the door to a magical world. Were my eyes deceiving me or was that an original four-player Gauntlet cabinet I saw before me?”
Tucked away above a bookies in the town centre this was a most unlikely place to find an arcade, but after negotiating the long run-down flight of stairs I opened the door to a magical world. Were my eyes deceiving me or was that an original four-player Gauntlet cabinet I saw before me? And next to it? An original Gauntlet Legends cabinet of course! As I start to look around, I see so many of my favourite arcade games of years gone by. There was Crazy Taxi, Phoenix, 1942, Donkey Kong, Pac-Land, 18 Wheeler, The Simpsons and Gradius. But it was WWF Wrestlefest – for me one of the greatest arcade games ever – that took my eye the most, and I promptly grabbed that joystick and bashed those buttons until I completed it! I even did a video of the place for all to see I was so impressed by it.
Astro City left me in daze: I could have stayed there all day playing those wonderful machines, but I had to find out what else Southend had to offer. First up I took a visit to that Southend staple Adventure Island. Plenty of arcade games there but nothing out the ordinary; perhaps the most interesting feature is a Star Wars Pod Racer game alongside a display of all the original toys (behind a glass cabinet of course). But a visit to the regular arcades that make up the seafront yielded better results. There was Sunspot, Las Vegas, Electric Avenue, Monte Carlo, Funland and many more. There were so many similar-looking arcades that it’s hard to remember which ones I visited and which ones were the best! Walking along the path outside them leads you to believe they are all very much the same, but as I began to enter them and take a look around it soon became evident that video games were a big part of every single one. They may have been tucked away behind the array of coin pushers and fruit machines but they were there; the traditional arcade was very much alive and well. Not just modern games either, I also spotted a fair smattering of older machines too such Crazy Taxi, Virtua Tennis, Daytona USA 2, Time Crisis, Ridge Racer and Sega Rally. Nothing from the real golden age of arcade gaming I grant you, but still a pleasant surprise.
“I was tiredly trudging along the garish carpet past rows and rows of coin pushers when I spotted a mirage… well it had to be a mirage because I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. Was that a real, genuine Williams Defender arcade cab I saw?”
However, it would be a couple of days before I would come across my greatest find, and proof that the arcades of old were still very much alive. Towards the end of the parade was a very unassuming and slightly run down-looking arcade called the Happidrome. I was tiredly trudging along the garish carpet past rows and rows of coin pushers when I spotted a mirage… well, it had to be a mirage because I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. Was that a real, genuine Williams Defender arcade cab I saw? And, oh my god, was that a Pac-Man next to it, and a Track and Field? And were those real old school pinball tables? I actually had to rub my eyes, it was a struggle to believe these really existed. It was the Double Dragon next to them that made my heart beat the most though: this game hold a special place in my heart since I completed it at the old Butlins in Barry Island as teenager. All of the cabs were in amazing condition and even the hydraulic Namco Battle Hawk was working without a hitch. A talk with one of the staff soon made me realise that the people who ran this arcade were just as passionate about the games as I was, which is refreshing to see and hear in this day and age. Happidrome is definitely the jewel in Southend’s arcade crown.
So there we go, the arcade is still alive and well on England’s South East coast. Until now, Southend has always had a bit of a reputation for chavs in hot hatches, teenage mums and its dirty run down streets. But no more: Southend should, from this day forward, be remembered at the UK’s premier place for arcade games. So spread the word, tell your friends and, most importantly, take a visit yourself for some old school arcade action.
Just please make sure that you take a big bag of change with you, because there is no doubt you will be needing it!