Flashing lights, simple controls, and the dead eyes of an electronically rendered woman have me constantly complaining that, these days, casino gambling feels more like visiting an arcade designed for the elderly and less like dressing up for a scene out of James Bond.
While action-based video games aren’t devolving into the primitive 16-bit machines seen in the casino slots, an investigative mission to Dave and Buster's revealed the vast majority of the games that spat out prize tickets were training tools for future gamblers.
You don’t win tickets playing Time Crisis. Wielding that pink gun is its own reward. I resisted the siren call of beloved games in order to complete my brave, exploratory mission into the kids' section of the arcade. This was a land of Stompin’ Spider (like Whack-A-Mole, but with your feet), Matching Madness (never play a matching game against a 7-year-old unless you want to lose both money and pride) and an entire crop of gambling games aimed at the elementary school set.
As I walked in, a dead-eyed, electronically rendered blonde in a jockey uniform (clearly a relative of the video poker woman who scared men from her machine at Harrah’s) told me I could learn everything I needed to know about horse racing while winning great prizes and playing with balls! Kids love it! I toyed with the game’s motion sensors long enough to figure out her target radius, then treated the invisible line like a restraining order she thankfully couldn’t cross.
Deeper into the arcade, I found a game called Hi-Roller. The graphics made it look like craps, but the game play was exactly like the old state fair midway scam where you drop quarters in front of a push arm in the hopes that the bottom layer isn’t glued down and you see some cash in return. You’re always wrong, but here, that game magically transformed into something that rewarded you with ample tokens tradeable for prize tickets. When gold coins tipped off the side, the 7-year-old watching me said, “Go on! Make it rain!”
I couldn’t respond to that, so I awkwardly slipped off to the mesmerizing Chip Away. It seemed to be a simplified version of Space Invaders in which your ships were replaced by poker chips. I was apparently the only person who didn’t win the game because I was too fascinated by the mechanics and iconography. It still spat out a couple of prize tickets. When you’re a kid, every game’s a winner.
I was fascinated. The simplest games in the arcade were either identical to or trying to look just like actual casino games.
The only other way to earn tickets was ski ball. That’s because if anyone dared set up a ski ball game that didn’t hand out tickets your grandparents wouldn’t need first person shooter training to hunt the guilty party down for retribution. You don’t mess with classics.
I noticed the cheapest games in the arcade happened to be the ones that gave out prize tickets while the most expensive were the athletic games. If you want to play Super Shot (cage match minibasketball), Mocap Boxing (the precursor of Wii Boxing) or Police 911 (the thigh-toning inspiration for the Kinekt) you’re going to pay extra for every calorie burned.
I’m on to you, arcades. I’ve seen the overall fitness level of people in a casino. When kids are young, you kindle the idea that fit, dumb brutes lose money doing fun things like playing sports or white water rafting (yes, there is an an arcade version of rafting where you furiously crank a paddle) while the smart, pudgy ones invest it in games with tickets where, as long as you spend enough money doing something kind of boring, you’re going home with a Dave and Buster's snuggie, a pair of bamboo finger traps and a fistful of hard candy.
The video versions of most casino games are dull and repetitive compared to the action of playing against live competitors. As Gen X ages into the gambling demographic, the current generation of simple video slots won’t be enough to entertain people who grew up on Super Mario and Street Fighter.
I suggest a compromise.
Retrofit four-player Gauntlet consoles, so whenever characters take actions in the game, it has real-life consequences. For instance, when Green Valkyrie "Needs food badly," the player automatically purchases a meal at the real-life buffet. When Blue Wizard "Shoots the potion," he’s charged for a new round of drinks for the entire table. Competing for coins and chests adds up to real money won gambling while failing the level means the players lose it all.
To heck with learning Texas Hold ‘Em. By the time I’m retirement age I’ll need razor sharp Ms. Pac Man Skills. I told Mom that Atari was an investment.