I’m not sure how “Father’s Day”-ish this whole thing is, but the timing seems fitting.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the closure Oxford’s Arcade. I suppose it might have been more suitable to celebrate the opening, but what can I say? I’ve got an affinity for rounded numbers.
At the time, the year-long period stretching from mid-1989 to mid-1990 felt like it might never end. All the same, the reality is that the end came along far more quickly than I think any of us would have liked. It was during this time that my dad, for reasons I’m not even fully sure of, decided to open up his own arcade and pool hall. Truth be told, I don’t know if I had any real sway in the decision — I was fully behind it, don’t get me wrong — but he is still a fan of video games to this day, so it’s just as likely that he would have done this on his own anyway.
I’m not quite sure how we settled on the name “Oxford’s Arcade.” It’s kind of quaint, to be sure, but doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. I do remember we tried coming up with all sorts of ideas — at least, I had all sorts of ideas I was happy to spit out as they came to my 11-year old mind. I was into a few Guns ‘n Roses songs at the time by way of a family friend named Ashley who helped us out with the place, so one suggestion I remember most vividly was “The Jungle,” with the idea of playing off of “Welcome to the Jungle.”
In hindsight, that name was probably not the best. Not for what we were going for, anyway, which was a more family-friendly environment of sorts.
The place was pretty humble when we started out, a small building dwarfed by the massive tobacco warehouse next door (which I originally thought was going to be what we were using. You can imagine my excitement at the thought of us having a warehouse-sized arcade). There were maybe half a dozen pool tables, if that, a foosball (table football) table, and a pair of arcade machines, maybe the jukebox.
I don’t remember what the first game was, as it paled next to the second, which was love at first sight for me:
Courtesy of The Arcade Flyer Archive.
Super Contra, the arcade sequel to one of my favorite games on the Nintendo Entertainment System, Contra. At this point in time, I did not know that Contra was originally an arcade game, nor that there was a sequel — the NES sequel, Super C, had yet to be announced at this time. The quality of graphics on the arcade machine blew me away, enough that the eventual home port that I immediately asked for upon release (and still have on my shelf) was kind of a disappointment. It wasn’t just the graphics, though; there were all sorts of other touches and designs that never made it home (until the Xbox Live Arcade release, anyway) — such as one of my favorite guns, the Bomb Gun, which just tore through rows of enemies, or that the two characters bore distinct designs — that kept me hooked on the arcade version, even though the home version was probably superior overall.
When we moved in there, though, the machine wasn’t quite fully-operational. That is, the first player slot’s joystick was broken in such a way that he would always run forward unless you pressed left. It wasn’t an easy way to play, and until we got it fixed, all but rendered an iconic two-player cooperative experience as a single-player one. I was happy when that day came, as I always preferred using Player 1’s Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer (from Predator) expy Bill Rizer over the John Rambo expy that was Lance Bean on Player 2.
Over time, we gained many more arcade games — so many I can’t even remember them all, and I think a few even slipped in and out between my visits without even getting to see them. Among the most memorable were Spy Hunter, Arch Rivals, Ninja Gaiden (I think we got that based on the name value of the home version — who’d have imagined the arcade version would be so bad?), Chase HQ, and a sit-down version of Hard Drivin’. We also had pinball, though I don’t recall any specific machines (though a truck driving one seems familiar).
It was like a dream come true, and I got to play a lot more of these titles than I would have had we not had the run of the place. Even so, the credits weren’t unlimited; I don’t remember the details, but I think there was some sharing deal with the distributor, and so I didn’t get too many free plays so as not to fudge with the numbers (I could play as much pool as I wanted, though). Still, I came very close to beating Narc, as well as Double Dragon (which I would have beaten, had I not waited for the other player to return from stepping away after beating the final boss).
Courtesy of The Arcade Flyer Archive.
On the bright side, we did have one of my favorites — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — and I did beat that in the best way that you can: with all four Turtles fighting an army of Shredders. Turtle Mania was at its height when we got the fairly-recent machine, and I like to think I had some small part in that. While I had and enjoyed the NES game, seeing this lovingly cartoon-accurate arcade adaptation at a mall arcade out of town completely blew my mind, and I had to have more.
I was so preoccupied with the game that I think half the scenarios I played out with my action figures were basically just emulating that game — which is kind of tricky, when you have only one Foot Soldier figure. On the other hand, mimicking the wrecking balls was pretty easy when you had an establishment full of pool balls to use (not that I threw them or anything quite so rough).
My visits most frequently came after school, when my mom would pick me up and I’d be taken there to do homework and kill time while she and my dad did the real work. I usually hung out in this back room for that, which was eventually converted into something of a “private” pool room with a separate entrance. Not too many kids my age came through during these periods, and even fewer — if any — that I knew, so when I wasn’t doing homework and unable to splurge on video games, I made my own fun.Part of that included bringing my plush Mario there with me. Some kids had “My Buddy” toys, but Mario was my buddy, and as far as I was concerned, he could stomp those other buddies into the ground.
But I digress; aside from the lack of any Mario action figures at the time necessitating that I use something else (Seriously, what the hell, Nintendo? Was there truly no one interested in making action figure lines of your characters at the time?), it did lead to a little bit of arts and crafts on my part: Taking discarded cigarette packs of a certain size and quality and taping them together to form brick blocks like the ones seen in Super Mario Bros. 3. The arcade was a no smoking, no drinking establishment, but people could still smoke outside, and some of the friendlier patrons would offer up their empties for my purposes.
All in all, the place was fairly quiet during the week, save for maybe the evenings, but the weekend was when the traffic really came in. I think the place had a pretty good atmosphere of fun: In addition to tournaments in things like pool and foosball (complete with trophies), we had some neat decorations around, including some repurposed standees from Sandra’s Funtime Video, like Roger and Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. These were further augmented by some illustrations of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles my mom drew, replacing things like Donatello’s bo staff with a pool cue.
Elsewhere, the walls were largely open for anyone to use markers to draw on, graffiti-style. I made my mark here as well — enough that my parents had to keep me from doing too much so that others would have room to draw. Looking back on it, I guess I was kind of an “eat all the profits” type of personality in this particular environment. In any case, while the graffiti walls were fun, they were also a pain in the end when we had to scrub them down before closing up for good (I seem to recall that merely painting the walls wasn’t good enough for the landlord. Jerk.).
From The Mount Airy News, by way of Google News.
Nothing lasts forever, though. One thing which brought about the end was competition. Besides Take Ten (a chain of mall arcades I can find surprisingly little about online), there was the emergence of Backstreet Arcade, which was a bigger operation than ours. Bigger as in “oh my god, they have full-size versions of After Burner and Super Hang-On” bigger.
But the bigger problem affecting both businesses was the newly-imposed ordinances by the city. As seen in the clipping above from The Mount Airy News by Nicole Hatch and Judy Dickinson, doors had to be shut by 1am on weekends, which was kind of a problem — as noted, those were the busy nights, especially when you had people getting off of work late and just wanting a chance to unwind. The police chief said it was “to regulate things to a point that does not infringe upon the peace and dignity of the majority of citizens of the community,” but that’s bunk, considering the place was by and large isolated at that point in the week — just businesses that were closed up, and the aforementioned tobacco warehouse next door.
Then again, the “community” was perhaps a bit of a far-reaching aspect there. Another instance was the sheer uproar when someone dared to open some sort of adult bookstore in the town. I’m not sure how that one played out, but boy, was there ever a stink raised.
In any case, while it looks like Backstreet managed to survive the ordinance (which seems to have been lifted, or at least modified), Oxford’s Arcade wasn’t. If memory serves, the ordinance was passed sometime in May, and we were just able to make it through the summer before shutting our doors.
The killer? It would only be about five to six months before the arcade scene saw a major shot in the arm with the release of Capcom’s Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. Had we been able to hold on for that long, I wonder if it would have been our salvation, or how things might be different today.
Courtesy of The Arcade Flyer Archive.
Despite the ups and downs (including the wobbly too-tall-for-a-short-11-year-old-who-hates-heights stools), I still hold fond memories of that brief spell when my family owned our own arcade. Sadly, I’ve lost several of what few mementos I had managed to keep over the years, some due to The Purge.
I managed to keep the Roger Rabbit cut-out for a while, and I did keep my mom’s Ninja Turtle pictures. I also had some foosball trophies that I came by for reasons I can’t remember; maybe the winners didn’t claim them? I also had the original newspaper clipping seen above; while the news was bad, I did always like that picture of my dad that adorned the front page of the newspaper for the story. I’m not sure if I still have it somewhere, amidst all the chaos that’s gone on with my things since moving out. Sadly, as you can see, time has not been kind to the preservation of that image, either. They say “nothing is ever lost on the internet,” but that doesn’t take into account what condition you’ll find it in, apparently.
The one thing I am pretty sure I do still have is the Nintendo PlayChoice 10 flyer above. While our place interestingly never carried any Nintendo machines, I think I did manage to hang on to my copy of that flyer… which, now that I think about it, I’m not even sure came from the arcade.
Son of a…
Unfortunately, “revisiting” Oxford’s Arcade can only really be done in the sense of what this article provides. Thanks to the magic of Google Maps, I’ve since learned that the site along U.S. Highway 601 where the arcade — and the tobacco warehouse next to it, for that matter — once stood is no longer what it used to be. Now sitting in their place is the lot for a McDonald’s restaurant.
And no, the irony isn’t lost on me. I’ll just say I’m glad it’s at least one of the classic style restaurants, rather than the new characterless “bistro” style I’m not terribly fond of. At least the Wendy’s I’d go down the hill next door to pick up lunch is still there, though I’m sure the days of the Super Bar and salad bar are just as extinct there now as any other location.
“As I get older, I have to keep reminding myself that the world changes and if you expect it not to, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of disappointment.” –Mark Evanier, News From ME
Truer words were never spoken.