Where did it all begin? Where was that first quarter dropped into that first arcade machine? While I’m sure my Dad must have walked me past a boardwalk arcade when I was a toddler Down the Shore, there’s really one place that you could call the Event Horizon for my enthusiasm for arcade games: Time-Out.
If you grew up on the east coast in the 70s and early 80s, chances are that the best arcade in town was in the local shopping mall. And if you went to the mall, chances are your arcade was a Time-Out. We had one in the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove as far back as I can remember.
The history of Time-Out is one that involves hardcore entrepreneurship and a whole lot of luck. A candy maker named Tico Bonomo, the guy responsible for Turkish Taffy, was looking to get out of the candy business and noticed two popular trends at the time – shopping malls and arcade games. He sold his candy business, opened his first Time-Out at a mall in upstate New York and the concept of the mall arcade was born.
As is the case with many such ventures, timing is everything, and Bonomo had 20 Time-Out arcades open when Space Invaders ushered in the Golden Age of Arcade video games in 1978. Of course, by that time, he was making more from his arcades than he ever made with Turkish Taffy.
Even before Space Invaders came on the scene, though, Time-Out was the most fun place in the mall, and even at a very young age, I would beg my Mom to take me there whenever she had shopping to do.
Now, the helicopter parents certainly aren’t going to enjoy this next bit, but it was common practice in those days to hand your kid some quarters, drop them off at Time-Out, go take care of your shopping, and circle back to pick them up. And yes, I remember being dropped off at Time-Out when we lived in Smithtown, before our move to Wading River in late 1978.
I couldn’t have been more than five years old, and I’m sure my mother wasn’t far away, but I recall her giving me a couple quarters and letting me roam around Time-Out. And I also remember a lot of the games that were there in the early days – Drag Race, Killer Shark, Sea Wolf, and my personal favorite – Starship 1.
The object of Starship 1 was simple – shoot down the enemy starships. And the game had controls that looked like what I imagined the controls of a Starfighter might look like – a flight yoke with triggers built in for the lasers, a lever on the side that let you select whether you want to go fast or slow, and a big button that fired photon torpedoes and would basically annihilate any ships in front of you.
At that young age, I’m sure I couldn’t have done much more than randomly button-mash, but Starship 1 was my favorite game because while I couldn’t hit the enemy starships with the lasers, I could score points by slapping that photon torpedo button. Well, at least until the torpedoes ran out.
And that’s what got me in trouble.
My quarters had run out, but my Mom wasn’t done shopping yet. So I did what she told me to do – I stayed at Time-Out until she got back. And I figured that while I couldn’t play Starship 1, I could at least stand next to it and watch somebody else play.
An older kid dropped a quarter in and started his game, and I sort of crept up next to him and watched him. Unlike me, this kid could hit plenty of the enemy spaceships with the laser. Still, my five-year-old self reasoned, I could probably help him by killing a bunch of the enemy ships all at once.
I reached out and slapped the photon torpedo button.
“HEY! Quit it!” yelled the kid. I didn’t.
To this kid, I was severely messing with his game. To me, though, I was helping.
I “helped” a few more times, eventually depleting this kid’s supply of torpedoes and when his game ended, he grabbed me by the arm. I tried to pull away, but the next thing I knew, this older kid was pulling me toward the back of the arcade.
When we got to the back of the arcade, he told the attendant that I was messing with his game and wouldn’t stop, whereupon the attendant produced a Red Quarter – the ones given out when a machine malfunctioned and Time-Out needed to issue a free game to someone – and gave it to the older kid, who then immediately went back to Starship 1.
By this point, I was crying. Clearly, I was in trouble, but didn’t understand why. So I ran away – out of the back of the arcade and out the tunnel entrance at the front. Since I didn’t know where my Mom was, I just sort of hung out there at the arcade entrance, sobbing and wondering what would happen when my Mom found out that I had gotten in trouble at Time-Out.
Thankfully, it was no harm, no foul when my Mom came back. No arcade attendant was there to tell on me, and the kid who had grabbed me by the arm had moved on to hang out somewhere else in the mall. We just dried my tears and headed home, and the whole thing was quickly forgotten about. But I had learned one of the cardinal rules about video games – never mess with someone else’s game when they’re playing.
Certainly, none of this dampened my enthusiasm for Time-Out. That tunnel of electronic fun was vastly preferable to the circular clothing racks in Abraham & Straus, or the headache-inducing perfume counters in Macy’s, which is where I would end up had I stuck with Mom. There were always new games coming out, and some of them even had cooler controls that were even more convincing when I wanted to pretend I was in a spaceship. One became my new favorite – Lunar Lander, which had really awesome controls.
The object of the game was to successfully land a spacecraft on the moon, and it had two buttons. One rotated the craft left and one rotated it right. But you had to control the amount of thrust with this big handle – a bar that could go up and down. The spacecraft had a limited amount of fuel, and if you exhausted the supply, the lander would stop responding to the controls altogether and would just let gravity do its thing.
The game was incredibly difficult, especially for a young kid. I would tend to burn up all of my fuel getting the lander pointed in the direction I wanted it to go, and I wouldn’t have any left for controlling my descent into a landing area. The result was usually a crash, although occasionally I’d land successfully and be admonished by the computer for the resultant “hard landing.”
For the most part, it was about space games for me. My Dad had taken me to see Star Wars in the movie theater, and my favorite shows on TV were Space: 1999, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. Everything was about spaceships, especially ones that had dogfights in outer space. Going to Time-Out for me was like getting a chance to fly a spaceship for a little while and emulate my heroes on TV or in the movies.