Chuck E. Cheese’s 1984: Where a kid can fight off teenagers to play arcade video games

For my 9th birthday in 1984, my parents took me to an establishment new to the Pittsburgh area that had plenty of games for kids and plenty of pizza for kids to eat.  Chuck E. Cheese’s was my funhouse as a child, and it looks nothing like the place I knew growing up over thirty years ago.

Each location in Pittsburgh had different activities for kids, and I appreciated the location west of town near Bridgeville.  Sure, they had an awesome ball pit and they had a cool and scary twisty slide (It would have been deemed unsafe in 2017, that’s for sure), but the real draw for me was that the Bridgeville Chuck E. Cheese’s had the best selection of arcade games to play under one roof.

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My favorite arcade game

The original Chuck E. Cheese’s had the same types of games that are found in today’s locations–skee-ball, whack-a-mole, wheel of fortune and other games where the object is to earn tickets which are then redeemed for cheap toys.  Toys that might cost a few dollars elsewhere, but at Chuck’s they could be obtained with the tickets earned from $10 worth of skee-ball games.  Today’s locations have many more of the “ticket games” than actual arcade games.

At my old age, I was curious as to why the old Chuck’s had so many cool arcade games.  I discovered that Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, Inc. was actually one of the original owners, and wanted the video game arcade to showcase many of the titles that Atari and its parent companies released.  What transpired in the arcade section of Chuck’s in the mid-1980’s was wonderful chaos.  In a place that was marketed to children ages 3 to 12, teenagers and college kids were lining up to play video games.

The arcade section was set up the same as other arcades in the 1980’s.  They were usually found at malls and amusement parks all across America.  Token machines were stationed throughout Chuck’s.  One token was worth twenty-five cents, and the majority of people playing the arcade games at Chuck’s would simply walk in, bypass all of the pizza and dinner theatre themed areas for the kids and spend $10 to $20 on the thirty to forty arcade games lined up in a U along the walls on one side of the main play area.  Some of the bigger cockpit-style video games were in the center of the floor, including two (TWO!!!) Pole Position games.

All of the games were not Atari games.  It seemed that Bushnell wanted whatever was hot to increase traffic and boot profits.  Many of the companies I remembered were very big names in the video game industry then and well represented at the Bridgeville Chuck’s.  In addition to Atari, they had Nintendo, Data East, Midway, Konami, Sega, Namco and Gottlieb.  Gottlieb was the video game equivalent of a “one hit wonder”, being responsible for the legendary game Q*Bert, which is pictured above.

By 1986 traffic declined at Chuck’s due to the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).  Previous home systems were mostly crude  versions of the arcade games, but the NES combined fun games with better graphics.  Teenagers and college kids could buy an NES, play games at home all day and not have to worry about running out of money to play the machines at an arcade.  Even though there were less people playing the games, for a few years the machines stayed at Chuck’s.  Toward the end of the 1980’s, the Bridgeville Chuck’s had the following games in one location:

Donkey Kong, BurgerTime, Bump ‘N’ Jump, Rampage, Defender, Joust, Gauntlet, Space Invaders, Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man, Galaxian, Galaga, Dig Dug, Pole Position, Q*Bert, Frogger, Centipede, Paperboy, Marble Madness, Zaxxon, Out Run, Mario Bros. (The original, not Super Mario Bros.)

Chuck’s had other arcade games besides these, but I remembered these games well.  They were fun to play and I even enjoyed watching the older kids play them because I would learn the game before spending my money.  The 13-25 age group that hogged most of the games taught me which ones were the best to play so I could spend my $5 a little more wiser than I would have.  And sometimes, the older kids let me in on the action.

At my brother’s 8th birthday party in 1986, the Bridgeville Chuck’s got a multi-player Gauntlet machine.  It would allow for up to four players to run the game at once and team up to beat the enemies on each level.  I was 10 at the time and while I was walking through the arcade, a teenage boy about 15 years-old asked me to be player four on Gauntlet.  I agreed even though I had no idea what I was doing.  The two other players with us were his friends, also around high school age.  During the game he taught me how to use the buttons and what areas to focus on attacking.  By the time we completed the game (We got about halfway through the game before we all ran out of money), there were a few other teenagers watching us run through the beginning levels.  Before the next batch of guys tried the new game, they were asking my new acquaintance and I about the game play features.  Not him and his friends–him and I.  Me, all of age 10.

The Gauntlet experience at Chuck E. Cheese’s taught me not to be afraid of unfamiliar environments.  Sometimes the people that seem intimidating end up being helpful, kind and welcoming.  If I would have said, “No, I don’t know how to play”, an early shred of confidence gained would have been missed out on, and it would have affected me going forward in life.

That fall, my friends at school wanted me to go out for the basketball team.  I never played before, but I remembered playing Gauntlet with the older kids, finding my place on a team and learning that new experiences didn’t have to be scary, unappealing situations.  I tried out for the team, made the team, and by the end of the year had become one of the better players.

So as you can see reader of this post, there is a lot to be learned from playing video games.  Happy 40th birthday Chuck E. Cheese’s, and thanks for the awesome place to learn the meaning of confidence.

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Soothe: Nintendo lullabies, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and my young son’s love of them

There’s the old adage, “Write what you know.”  Many writers over time (Including Twain and Hemingway) have given this advice.  This tale can be titled Sing What You Know and/or Put On Music That Calms You Down When Calming Your Baby Down.  

My wife and I have one son who is age three right now.  When he was a newborn, he did the usual things a baby would do in its first year.  He woke up at night many times, pooped six times a day, required burping after bottles and wanted to be held the majority of the time.  We both worked during this period of his life so trying to get enough sleep was becoming more difficult.

I have a brother who is eight years younger that me, so I remember observing what my mother and father would do to calm my little brother down when he was crying.  Some would obviously work (Giving him a bottle because he was hungry) and some would not (Taking off/adding clothes when he just wanted held).  Over time my parents learned his cues and my brother didn’t cry as much as he got closer to his first birthday.

During those early desperate nights when it seemed we could not get enough sleep before going into work for a full day, we tried to understand our son’s needs in an attempt to get him back to sleep.  When it came time for me to take my turn in the waking up rotation, I wanted to sing my son back to sleep but I didn’t know any of the traditional lullabies people would sing to babies.  I wanted my wife to stay asleep, but I didn’t want our son to keep crying for thirty minutes.  I needed something to hum or sing that was repetitive, and there was only one type of music that came to mind in my state of sleep-deprived delirium:

Video game music from my old Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

The first night I tried using NES music, I slowed down the background music used in the above-ground levels of 1986’s The Legend of Zelda.  It worked!  My wife would get so pissed that I could sing him back to sleep with the silliest method that would never be found in parenting advice books and blogs.  When our son didn’t want to hear the Zelda music, I slowed down the following music from other games (I challenge others to try this method to see if it works on other babies):

The podium win AND the “kick the can” music from Excitebike, above-ground music from Super Mario Bros., the game introduction/general background music from Bases Loaded and the count out/winner music from Mike Tyson’s Punchout.  I added a few from other platforms, including the original “hammer” music from Donkey Kong.

As my son got older and started going to day care, I had a problem keeping him happy in his car seat on the way home.  I always had CD’s of Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen in the car, so I would pop one in to see if the mellow folk music of Drake or Cohen would calm him down.  I could tell he was listening to the different instruments and the words being sung in the songs.  It was a sound completely different from what he heard in his early life.  After a few tracks, he would go to sleep.  If I knew he didn’t sleep well during the day, I would keep the music on and drive around for an hour to let him rest.

Even at three, my son remembers some of those drives home and knows their music well.  He has his own special names for each of his favorite tracks and when I pick him up from day care, we usually have Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left on when we drive home.  Instead of tossing a child’s DVD in the car and my son blankly staring at a small TV screen while we drive home, my son and I sing “Time Has Told Me”, we listen for the strings to kick in on “River Man”, all while looking out the car windows, seeing the birds fly, viewing the turkeys pecking at last year’s corn crop remnants and marveling at the big construction trucks when encountering road work being done.

I loved my old NES and when I have time again, I know I will eventually purchase the recently released Nintendo NES Classic Edition.  I love the music of Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen because their poetic songs bring calm to my worrisome existence.  The games and songs that have soothed my soul over the years have provided my son with the same feelings of comfort and familiarity in a unique form.