February 21, 2008


Me, showing off a piece of artwork from my Q-Bert Period

The Land of Oz arcade was hidden in an obscure alcove of the Northwest Arkansas Mall. To a kid, finding it was a challenge in itself. On more than one outing I completely failed to locate the place and left the building wondering if I had actually dreamt earlier visits. (My folks were no help. They stayed intentionally aloof, preferring to avoid the blaring music and the scuzzy teens.) This lent a truly mythic quality to the venue, as though it were a portal which only presented itself under certain conditions.

Its futuristic entryway was reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange with its series of white archways of descending sizes, each layer concealing a row of glowing florescent lights. The dimly lit gaming floor was jammed with coin-operated machines, but these weren't of the video variety (yet). I had caught the tail end of the penny arcade era, therefore the amusements were purely mechanical in nature. The playing fields were three dimensional and games were played using items like miniature metal baseball players that pitched steel balls, or plastic wildlife you shot with dummy rifles. For a dime, a kid could operate the pushbutton console that made Peppy the marionette clown dance. The same price bought a song from a tiny animatronic marching band. But the main draw always seemed to be the wall of pinball machines.

I was in first grade (1979) when a routine trip to Oz revealed something very different. The whole place was rearranged to accommodate a new centerpiece for the room. It was a table with a large black and white television screen embedded under glass. A crowd overlooked two young men at either ends of the furniture who were both viciously running their hands over what would come to be known as "trackball controllers." The game was Atari's Football. The name didn't make a lot of sense to me because all I saw was a bunch of little white X's and O's. This was the first video game I ever encountered.

Coin-operated video games taught me a new kind of brutality. The moment I plunked in that first quarter (I think it was Asteroids), the game set out to do what it was programmed to— to mercilessly destroy me. The machine had complete disregard for my tender age, lack of experience, or the tasks I had to perform to earn those quarters. My first game ended swiftly. My nervous smile turned to anguished tears, and my adventuresome spirit was replaced by the pain of both financial loss and public humiliation. Upon my defeat the cabinet just stood there, tall as any human adversary, but with no capacity for remorse– only hunger for more money. Ironically, there was zero fun in those early lessons of video life. However, video games would eventually empower me like nothing else had. For the first time in my life there was something I could do better than my parents (and most of my friends). This was a very big deal.

My imaginary alter ego

For me, the outcrop of original characters was as appealing as the very act of playing the machines. There were a couple of years there before the games went the way of the toy industry and became saturated with subjects from existing movies and cartoons. Limited onscreen graphics allowed for personal interpretation of these new video worlds and the liberties taken on the cabinet artwork taught me how a dose of imagination could enhance the playing experience. The units themselves were a whole new art form. The relationship between the art on screen and the art on the sides tickled my brain. Naturally, these icons wedged their way into my own artistic vernacular. I soon found myself dwelling on the lives and worlds of these video game personalities even when space and money separated me from the arcade.

I cyclically revisit my classic gaming roots several times a year. During these seasons I binge on the likes of Robotron, Satan's Hollow, and Black Tiger (to name but a few) and my mind retreats into the glowing sanctuaries of Land of Oz, Baily's Pizza Emporium and numerous other family fun centers. Obviously, I'm currently on one of these kicks and I thank you for allowing me to publicly wallow in nostalgia as I escape a particularly ugly February. But let's not stop just yet. Here's a quick batch of visuals from my own video game heritage...

I drew this on site at Crystal's Pizza in Tulsa, Oklahoma the first time I saw Donkey Kong Junior. I wanted to capture every detail so that I could accurately tell my friends. Video game sequels were still rare at that point, and the site of it was so exhilarating I felt like I was dreaming. Ms. Pac-Man had the same effect on me.
Playing Zaxxon at the roller rink. Somewhere Journey was playing.

There's a whole mini-drama taking place in this picture.
Tron: "Hi, I'm Tron."
Warrior: "O, Tron" [thows deadly disc]
Yori: "Duck, Tron!"

The perfect marriage of film and video games

The Pac-Man Fever shirt was custom assembled by me at the local T-shirt emporium. It had my name on the back in fuzzy letters.

The Summer of Pac-Man

Self portrait
My love of Pac-Man meets my love of Frankenstein

Just when I thought all was lost on the video game front, the Nintendo Entertainment System came out. Mine came with a R.O.B. the robot. The drawing above is my Junior High take on the game Kung-Fu.

Previously on the Secret Fun Blog...


The Vintage Reader said...

I'll bet you got the t-shirt at that place at the Annex, right by the theater... Townsend Top Shop? Townsend Tees? Something like that. The arcade was on the other side, and then Swensen's.

I still love video games, but there will never be another video-game-based thrill like breaking the top 10 on Tempest at Crystal's. Your posts often make me miss the Tulsa of my youth.

Interesting to see the evolution from Kung-Fu to Flip, BTW.

Kirk D. said...

I wish the shirt had come from one of such fine establishments. Unfortunately it came from a tiny operation located down a lonely hallway of a "mini-mall" in Siloam Springs. The only other store in the "mall" was Radio Shack.

A high score on anything at Crystal's would be a major achievement. Competition was so thick in those parts. Another great thing about their Arcade was its proximity to the movie theater room that constantly played cartoons and Little Rascals and such. And boy, did their pizza taste awesome. I still mourn that place.

Todd Franklin said...

First, this week has been a lot of fun reading your video game memories! Something must be in the air as I’ve gotten into a big arcade kick lately. Two weeks ago I visited the very cool retro arcade called 1984 in Springfield, MO and that probably started the kick.

Second, I’m amazed that you went to a Land of Oz Arcade as that was one of my favorite arcades back in the day and I didn’t know that it was a chain. The one that I haunted was located in the Capital Mall in Jefferson City, MO and this one was just as you described it. I’ve been trying to find a photo of it for years with no luck.

I think you might’ve inspired a string of video game posts sometime in the near future on my blog. Love all the photos and your kid drawings!!

Chris Lesher said...

If I had grown up in Siloam Springs instead of North Little Rock, we would have *so* been friends. :-)

Thanks for the blog, Kirk. This is great stuff.

The Vintage Reader said...

@Todd: There's a retro arcade in Springfield? That would be worth the drive from Tulsa!!!

@Kirk: It was especially major for a girl, since most girls back then didn't play video games. I love it that my teenage nieces not only like to play video games, but are also REALLY good at them. And they're not even geeky girls, like I was. :-) Maybe I'll have to take them to Springfield to play retro games.

The CDP. said...

This is beautiful.

Brett Neveu said...

Oh man! You totally could be a character in...


The screenplay I'm working on right now. You can check it out in my blog:


go to the archives and start with ATARI XMAS (1) and work your way up...


Hez said...

That is possibly the coolest cake I have ever seen.

So awesome.

Karswell said...

I used to draw the game screens on paper too and pretend like I was playing them, especially during the day at school when the craving was getting to be too much and I needed a game fix... this was the only thing that would settle me down. I still have a Donkey Kong drawing I would love to scan in and email to you.

Aaron the Truck Driver said...

Did you have the pac man fever audio cassette? I cant remember the name but it had all sorts of game based them songs on it.

I am envious of your photos and drawings.

I with i had my old ones .
p.s. nice pajamas!! ha

Kirk D. said...

Todd- I had no idea there was a cool retro arcade in Springfield. That could be worth a day trip.
I found their web site...
looks great. And five bucks for all you can play! cool.

vintage reader- I didn't realize you were referencing true events from your life. Truly impressive!

cdp- no, you are beautiful.

brett- ha, cool idea. I'll check it out.

hez- thanks! I'll tell my mom you said so.

karswell- I know what you mean, school was rough on gamers. I used to love those Donkey Kong and Pac-Man trading cards where you could play a game by rubbing off dots. Sometimes I saved those for class.

Thanks Aaron! That album was by Buckner & Garcia, and I wanted it sooo bad when I was a kid, but I didn't get it until the mp3 age. Here's a link to their web site...

Robert Wayne said...

Great to see a site with others who enjoyed the old days of the arcade games. When I was in high school I hung around at the Land of Oz arcade at the Prien Lake Mall in Lake Charles, LA. I ended up going to work there in my late teens and early twenties while in college. I was mainly a pinball machine fan although some of the video games like Frogger, Pac Man, Ms. Pac Man and the previously mentioned Satan's Hollow really caught my fancy too. In fact I ended up buying the Satan's Hollow game. I was still living at home and my mom complained because she said the huge console would mess up the wood floors and also she wasn't too fond of the name of the game either...SATAN'S Hollow!! I told her it wasn't any kind of weird devil worshiping thing, the point of the game was to kill the devils...LOL. I ended up selling the thing to a friend of mine a few years later. But I have to admit, I sure do miss those fun days of the early '80s.

Kirk D. said...

Robert- Ha, I had to have that exact conversation with my parents about Satan's Hollow. Funny how they were never quite comfortable with it, but backed off because the defense was air tight. Thanks for sharing!

Super-Duper ToyBox said...

GREAT post! Brought back a lot of familiar memories :) the self portrait with PacMan gear is greatness- love the closeup of PacMan shoe laces, LOL! You were forming your own identity, relating it to pop culture, and immortalizing it at a very young age, and that's interesting-

Kirk D. said...

Thanks Super-Duper Toybox! Glad you enjoyed it, I wish I still had those shoe laces.