I couldn’t exactly tell you when my parents divorced. I know why, but the timeline is hazy. I was young. Maybe three? Suffice to say, before the ‘90s happened, I had two dads, and not in the much later fun storybook gay sense, or Paul Reiser and Greg Evigan taking care of Staci Keanan because Chicago family court judge Florence Stanley saddled them with a teen girl and they all lived above former Bears linebacker Dick Butkus’s diner???
Look, it was a weird time. And despite divorces bottoming out after the spike in the 1970s, the only people I knew whose parents stayed together through the ‘80s divorced the INSTANT their kids graduated high school. More often than not, we lived with our moms and their often insufferable boyfriends, the stepfathers we maintained uneasy peaces with, or some who we even had nurturing relationships with. Some kids took it well, some didn’t. One of my best friend’s burst into tears about his mom not wanting him on Halloween, dressed in a miniature version of a movie perfect Freddie Krueger costume. Another classmate became a vicious biter and the divorce was to blame. I ran away a lot.
Our access to parents was divided up by weeks or seasons. Most commonly it was a weekend thing. Two weekends a month you’d be hanging with your dad, because that’s what the courts said. It threw off your sleepovers and epic hangs, but you made the most of it.
Most of the time was spent going to see movies your mom wouldn’t want to, or day trips to civil war battlefields, civil war museums, or, if it was a special weekend, The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. Sometimes you built model tanks and airplanes from WWII—you know, Real Dad Shit. But it was the trips to the laundromat that we’re interested in today.
Divorced dads did laundry with ziplock bags of quarters. And the good laundromats either had videogames themselves, or dark, smoky arcades right next door. The perfect capstone to a weekend with your father was milking him for change to play videogames while he read another goddamn book about Verdun on an uncomfortable bench.
I miss those days, almost as much as I miss real proper arcades. There’s something about poorly maintained arcade cabinets in an environment known for heat and humidity, and the gamble of which arcade cabinet they brought in this week.
7. Centipede (1981)
The trackball was king. I could always count on Dona Bailey and Ed Logg’s classic Atari cabinet making an appearance no matter which laundromat my father took me to. Did the trackball make it better? Probably not. It had a sluggish response that made it feel a lot like operating the “Pinpoint Barrier System” on the SDF-1.
But I loved shooting that centipede. Whittling away at little glyphs of mushrooms so it couldn’t hide it’s red-eyed green-segmented body from my darts. Frantically two-palming the ball and shouting.
They used to pull out a step stool for me to reach it.
6. Legendary Wings (1986)
The US arcade cabinet for Legendary Wings was the kind of thing that will end up in an undergraduate essay about Homoerotic Imagery in Mass Media. These big strapping lads with meaty thighs, powerful glutes, and clean-cut 1950s lad haircuts. They look like they belong in a Flash Gordon comic. And of course they’re flying into a giant open-mouthed monster, with 1950s sci-fi ray guns, skin tight color-coded briefs, and angel wings.
The game switched from a top-down scroller to a side-scroller when you made it to the end of the level and had to approach the boss on foot. It was the coolest thing. Like being rewarded for kicking ass at the game with a second, different game.
And the queen of Taito’s Ray series, Tamayo Kawamoto, gave it a soundtrack that absolutely slapped.
5. Out Run (1986)
It was better when you had the racer seat cabinet, but the secret to Out Run is that it’s always still Out Run. Few racers manage to encapsulate the 1980s as well as being a douchebag in a sports car, driving too fast, and recklessly flinging you and your girlfriend into the dirt at 85mph when you flip your car…only to start over again right where you left off!
It was faster than a lot of other racing games at the time, and with branching paths and scenery changes, it communicated space in a way that other games weren’t yet trying. It was a simple racing game that would hint at the design interests Yu Suzuki would pursue much later as hardware and budgets caught up with his ideas. And that energetic city pop inspired soundtrack by Hiroshi Kawaguchi is to die for.
4. Gauntlet (1985)
I was obsessed with Gauntlet. There’s only one arcade game I probably pumped more quarters into during this era, but that’s a very narrow margin.
Drawing obvious influence from Basic Dungeons & Dragons with its multiple character archetypes, mazes, and quick, but not breakneck, tempo, Ed Logg’s Gauntlet was a clear winner for me. Of course my little blossoming queer ass always picked THYRA the Valkyrie. Gauntlet rules.
3. Double Dragon (1987)
Set your never quite cold-enough Coca-Cola Classic from the adjacent vending machine on the stand and line up the quarters, because when Double Dragon showed up, you hoped it was going to be a week where your dad was doing towels.
Look, Bad Dudes rules. Final Fight, too. There’s a lot of side-scrolling brawlers that rip, but when I walked into that godawful laundromat that smelled like powdered Gain and warm feet? I wanted to see “America’s highest-grossing dedicated arcade game for two years in a row, in 1988 and 1989” and EGM’s 1988 Game of the Year). I wanted Double Dragon in the corner waiting for me, and all the six year old swagger I could muster.
Also, Linda Lash is a role model.
2. Robotron: 2084 (1982)
It wasn’t the first to introduce twin-stick shooting, but by god it might still be the best.
The year is 2084 and robots have revolted against humanity, they outnumber you in ways that are impossible to imagine, and as the last remaining member of the species with guns, it’s on you to save their asses.
Look, I welcome our robot overlords, but also blowing the shit out of them is some of the most fun you can have for $0.25. Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar of Viz Kids created a videogame that was more of a workout that predated the Nintendo Ring Fit by decades, and honestly a lot more fun (I’ll change this sentence when I can murder robots with my thighs, Nintendo).
It didn’t invent the twin-stick shooter, but this is why we have twin-stick shooters. And thank god for that, right? Twin-stick shooters rule. It was always the worst laundromats that had the saddest most bedraggled Robotron cabinets, but bless their hearts they were the best.
1. Galaga (1981)
I’m cheating. I don’t think I played Galaga in a laundromat more than once, and sure it was great, but we can’t talk about Dad’s Weekend without mentioning the most perfect game to ever grace the arcade.
I actually spent all my time playing Galaga in a restaurant.
Bogart’s in Richmond, Va. started it’s life as a hole in the wall with decent diner food named after Humprery Bogart movie characters. Dad and I would hit this place up with an alarming regularity to get the Whip McCord, a pastrami and swiss dinner plate sized sandwich served with sour cream inside a goddamn potato pancake. The booths at Bogart’s had fake jukeboxes, but the tables for two by the front were the old school Atari arcade tables.
They had Galaga, and it was all over for me.
Sure the chairs were way less comfortable and there was barely any room to function and once your food arrived you were done. But in that often endless period of time between getting your soda and waiting for some tattooed new wave VCU Painting & Printmaking major to bring you your meal?
Galaga. The perfect game.
The perfect capstone to a weekend with your dad that might not have gone so well because Dads are complicated in a way that Galaga will never be.
The purity of blasting space invaders, the risk of letting your space ship be captured and hoping to win it back so you could have two ships out at once for double the attacks.
It turns out that shooting things in waves is remarkably satisfying. And Shigeru Yokoyama’s fixed-shooter for Namco is undoubtedly the king. There is no more perfect game, or ending of a weekend than jumping in your starfighter before dinner, and letting the Galaga theme drop.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.