Like Oscar, the hi-tech arcade game is a product of fin-de-siecle sensation- seeking. In the white-knuckle ride from What the Butler Saw to Daytona USA, the machinery has switched from cranked-up clockwork to virtual reality, but its purpose - to dispense somatic thrills for the small change in your pocket - remains uncorrupted. Kinematographs; one-armed bandits; electro-mechanical devices with an emphasis on fast-moving ball-bearings; the home video games that spawned a generation of palsied, sleepless schoolboys: all these have run on the smartest technologies of their day.
Today's brightest, shiniest, fastest sensations are offered by a new generation of arcade games that combine grandiose cinematic images with genuine kinetic effects. The chunky plastic gun wired to the console of Time Crisis has a functioning pump-action mechanism that is much appreciated by the lunchtime office escapees who shoot up spook-suited butt on its 50in video screen. Rapid River puts the player in a real rubber dinghy, in which she or he is tossed willy-nilly through a seething maelstrom of virtual spume. Top Skater, on the other hand, requires you to grind along on a bona fide skateboard and - as they say - flip a pornstar off a half-pipe as expertly as any sidewalk-surfing mallrat. Most arrestingly, the horse that you sit astride during Final Furlong bucks beneath you like the bastard foal of Buckaroo as you fix your gaze on a screenful of jockey's P-O-V. The technology is dazzling, and viciously representational - aeons away from the Mondrian-like abstraction of Eighties games like Breakout.
According to JC Herz's new book, Joystick Nation, video games generate more profit in the States than Nevada gambling and Hollywood movies combined. The only cultural product that earns more for its makers is pornography (which rakes in returns greater than all of these combined). But it is Japan that nurtures the smartest technologies and most adept players. (Exported versions of Japanese games, Herz reveals, are doctored to be slower and easier for foreign fingers).
This year, the Japanese Namco group opened two state-of-the-art uberarcades in London, massive dispensaries for thumb candy of Bazooka Joe quality. At Namco Wonderpark, just off Piccadilly Circus, the clientele is dominated by gangs of affluent Japanese teenies, all twitching away at Domy Theatre 50 (a thick-eared, bare-knuckle fighting game, rather than a group of Polish thespians), preparing for their driving tests on the rubber-punishing track of Sega Scud Race, or blamm-blamming the heads off the suppurating mutants of House of the Dead.
Billy, 18 and a scourge of zombies, explains the attraction in those pseudo-scientific terms that men's sports magazines use to make exercise sound more pleasurable than overeating. "It's an adrenaline thing, right?" he buzzes, plastic Magnum in hand. "Gets the endorphins going, doesn't it?" Does it? I ask, thinking fondly of a technocothoca of ex-Soviet video games I once saw in the Tallinn Lunapark (Pac-Man in a Sputnik-shaped cabinet; Cyrillic Space Invaders; Muscovite Frogger). "Of course it does," he breezes. I pay my money. Everyone kills me.
Over the river, next to the new London Aquarium in County Hall, Namco Station is more family oriented and brightly lit, a cross between a smartish club and a multiplex cinema.On my way in, I bump into a slightly fazed group of pensioners. "There's no bingo, you know," I inform them. "It's all guns and demon racers. They'll play merry hell with a plastic hip." (I'm good like that with old people.) "We've just been to look at the fish and we're after a cup of coffee," explains Jean, 67, as her husband walks nervously up to the abattoir-chic cocktail bar.
They are not all OAPs, but Namco Station's punters seem decidedly more grown up. Tony and Neil, two thirtysomething suit-boys going hell for leather on Sega Scud Race, are deciding to have one last round before returning to the office. "You sit there and watch," instructs Neil, who is dripping sweat right down to his sovereign ring. Soon, they are revving away at around 250 kmph. If they swerve to avoid an obstacle, the driver's seat mock-up lunges sharply to one side. "It beats being in the office," reflects Tony.
By far the weirdest experience to be had at Namco Station comes from The Original Shocker, which is, well, an electric chair. You grab hold of two terminals as a light display scrolls chunks of text: "Experience the chill of the electric chair... test your strength... can you survive?... totally safe." There's an arcade on the seafront at Brighton full of Edwardian amusements, one of which gives you a genuine electric shock in the name of curing neuralgia and hair loss. Not many people avail themselves of the facility - I was tricked into putting my hands on the live bits by a small boy who assured me it was harmless and then swiped my winnings as I wracked about like a spitted eel. Namco's electric chair simulates lethal voltage with intense vibrations. The effect is rather like gripping two marital aids while sitting on the washing machine on its fastest spin. At pounds 1 a shock, its cheaper than similar services in Soho.
But it is Ridge Rider that proves the zenith of video game neo-realism: you sit in a genuine cherry-red sports car, the sort that would send the blood rushing to Jeremy Clarkson's extremities, a jet of cold air blasts in your face, there's a massive rank of video projection screens showing the road ahead and some swimsuited Idoru is gamely waving the starting flag and exhorting you to turn your ignition key. Being a non- driver, my acceleration round the course is short-lived. The word "Retire" looms up at the end in a large, disapproving font. Despite my disastrous debut, I think I may be hooked. I ate six packets of Hula Hoops this week in the hope of winning a Sony Playstation. And I might even learn to drive.
Namco Station, 0171 967 1066; Namco Wonderpark, 0171 734 7737.
16-BIT HISTORY OF COMPUTER GAMING
CIRCA 1830 Mr Babbage conceives the mechanical calculating machine, little realising that in the Seventies, the computer on Family Fortunes would be named in his honour.
1944 At Bletchley Park, scientists working on the Enigma project engage in the world's largest game of Computer Battleships.
1962 MIT Computer programmer Steve Russell writes the world's first true computer game, Spacewar.
1971 Computer Space, the first coin-operated arcade game, is unveiled.
1972 With the profits of Computer Space, Atari is founded and other companies produce game cartridges for use in its domestic machines. Like that tennis one. Blip (pause) Blip.
1978 Space Invaders is launched, and becomes a worldwide craze.
1980 Atari's Battlezone game becomes part of the US military training program.
1981 An arcade golden era sees the heyday of Pac-Man, Frogger, Centipede and twitching legions of their acolytes.
1983 The home video game market crashes as cheap software forces some of the big players out of business.
1986 The market is revived as Nintendo produce their more powerful NES home video game platform, its 8-bit computer memory allowing for complex, colourful games like Super Mario Bros. By 1988 The machine is the US's bestselling toy.
1989 Glassings and fist-fights rocket as Give Us A Break machines are installed in British pubs. The GameBoy, with a massive 16- bit memory, puts games like Tetris into the world's back pockets.
1990 As Windows becomes a PC standard, thousands of work-hours are lost to Solitaire and Minesweeper.
1991 Sega breathes prickly life into Sonic the Hedgehog.
1993 Games like Mortal Kombat and Streetfighter make gory karate the stuff of children's leisure time.
1996 The Sony Playstation gives housemaid's knee to virtual Football Managers and Lara Croft fans all over the world.
1997 Video game theme parks, like SegaWorld and Namco Station, transform the seedy arcade into a grander and cleaner experience.Reuse content