Before Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo — there were arcades.
With the aura of a king, Ahmed Hussain sits on his throne like royalty. Customers walk into his castle, demanding an escape from the ordinary. Without hesitation, he grants them minutes, sometimes hours, of exactly that.
In real life, they are mere teenagers, aged 16 and under, helping their families meet ends by working at neighbourhood mechanic shops. But in their acquired life, they can be anything they choose: mythical heroes who can swing blades, plant bombs, cast spells, throw snowballs, and lend punches and kicks in an eternal battle against evil.
Located near Preedy Police Station, Shahid Video Centre – Hussain’s kingdom from 10 in the morning till 10 at night – is a shabby, easy-to-miss edifice. A bun kebab cart is positioned in front of it, shamelessly blocking the flow of traffic, while the presence of numerous repair shops means the area has a near-constant stench of oil and grease.
I discovered the rundown arcade during my search for a space which would replicate the ‘grandeur’coin-operated entertainment once boasted: the arcades of my youth, growing up in Karachi in the 1990s. As I expected, with a tinge of disappointment, the place seemed like a graveyard of memories: wall chalking explaining the rules, the rates charged for each session, and Quranic verses to gain blessings and reap profits are all buried under nostalgic layers of another era — now inseparable from the peeling paint and dust on the walls.
My first memory of seeing an arcade machine was in a photograph of my father in 1989. Then a junior-commissioned officer with the Pakistan Navy in the UK, he smiled as he controlled the joystick with one hand, while the fingers of the other were placed firmly on the machine’s colourful buttons.
The exact period of arcade gaming’s Golden Era is debatable, but pop culture enthusiasts place it between 1979 and 1983, before the introduction of third-generation, home-based consoles such as Nintendo, Sega and Atari. However, the phenomenon picked up in Pakistan at a time when it was dying across the world.
“These bulky machines first came to Karachi in 1983-1984,” says Hafeez, an elderly video game shop owner in Saddar. “Setting them up cost a fortune, so they adorned only posh neighbourhoods in the initial years. The ‘one-machine, one-game’ console was an issue, as more space was required to install multiple games.”
Despite these hindrances, arcade culture boomed till the very end of the 1990s. As time passed, the machines grew old and were replaced with newer ones. The stock of used machines piled up and were eventually sold at cheaper rates to other shopkeepers, who went on to set up arcade centres in middle and lower middle class localities.
If you were a child of the ’80s or ’90s – or if you were a boy, specifically, as girls were largely excluded from this world – you would have visited an arcade at least once in your lifetime. The more rebellious among us would save up lunch money and sneak away with friends for a session during school hours, their attention diverted between the screen and the clock.
Naseer, who has been running the cash register of several arcades before coming to work for the owner of a newly opened establishment on Burns Road, reveals nostalgia is one of the reasons older customers continue to visit arcades today. “If you come after 8 pm, you’ll see older players. I don’t understand: if they’ve done it all before, why do they keep coming back — everyday?”
He answers his own question, with a sigh: “Perhaps they feel accomplished by coming here and winning, since they might not have the same opportunities in real life.”
Arcades may not be the most viable business today, but there was a time when they reaped fortunes for owners. In its heyday, the arcade gaming industry was an approximately eight million dollar industry in the US alone.
When arcades were first set up in the posh localities of Karachi, a single coin (token) was sold for just one rupee. As demand rose, the rates were increased to two rupees per coin. The problem, however, was that an average gaming session would last five minutes, and if you were new, you’d lose all lives at the very start and would have to keep buying more coins. Hence, the low price!
But these rates depict the scenario of strictly video game arcades, and not that of recreational places for families like amusement parks and malls, where the prices were always higher.
Fast forward a few decades, a coin is no less than five rupees, while you can get three for 10 rupees, and 30 for 100 rupees. If you visit arcades in malls and shopping centres, they’ll allow you a game for an amount ranging from 30 to 50 rupees.
“My meter is commercial. I pay 4,000-5,000 rupees every month in electricity bills. But I’m able to put food on the table twice a day thanks to this place. I’m happy with that,” says Hussain.
Meanwhile, Naseer believes Hussain’s machines are older, hence they cost him more. “We got these new machines built for 20,000 rupees,” he reveals. “These LCDs use less electricity. Old machines are costly and less feasible.”
But Hussain is not meeting all his expenses through the arcade. He also sells cloth to nearby mechanics to earn the extra penny. Simultaneously, he has converted the inside of his arcade into a big pigeon loft. “Sometimes, I’m able to sell a pair or two a month. If anyone is interested in buying them, do let me know.”
A recent visit to an arcade on Burns Road brought about some other surprises. As I was out to satisfy my self-indulgent need of proving that I was a better gamer, I took on a kid who was supposed to be the best player there — and lost more times than I would like to remember.
Like many others of my age and generation, I had moved on to console or mobile gaming and lost the feel of a joystick. If it wasn’t for the humiliation suffered at the hands of this kid on his turf, this revelation – or my rustiness – would not have been exposed.
The boy offered to take me to Zainab Gali, a famous street on Burns Road, where an arcade hosted a better hoard of players, most of them champions of their localities. “The players gamble there, and the winner takes all the pooled money,” he explained.
Over the years, these dingy establishments, filled with dense smoke which burnt the back of one’s throat, began to be seen as unsuitable for young children. We had to take permission from our parents or be accompanied by a senior member of the family.
My own father accompanied me and my brother to an arcade near PIDC in 1997, which – according to rumours – was supposed to be less about playing games, and more about smoking and indulging in recreational drugs. There were also rumours that the place was a hunting ground for child molesters and pedophiles.
Although I personally never witnessed these unsavoury aspects of the culture, my father disallowed me to go back after a few visits. I later learnt that the arcade was shut down by the police when they found evidence of questionable activities taking place there.
To find out more, I contacted a relative in Sultanabad to know if an arcade was still operational in his locality. He confirmed its presence and said he was a regular visitor. However, when I contacted him on the day I was supposed to visit, his words sent me back to the time when I heard that my favourite after-school haunt had closed down: another police raid, another arcade lost to miscreants.
If you’re a fan of console gaming and own a PlayStation or an Xbox One, you may be able to name at least five games which were a must-play if you were visiting an arcade in the ’90s: The King of Fighters (1997), Snow Brothers (1990), Cadillacs and Dinosaurs (1993), Tekken 3 (1997), Street Fighter (1983) and Mario Bros (1983).
However, even today, in an era of advanced gaming – when virtual and augmented reality games are hitting the market and video game graphics have become life-like – I stand corrected by the fervour of today’s kids who refer to the aforementioned classics as ‘still fan favourites’.
Naseer explains that these games may have become easier to access, but they are equally difficult to play. “All these kids mostly do is stand here, rotate the joystick, and press all the buttons frantically. They feel accomplished even if they can pull off a ‘super-move’ more than once.”
While the introduction of PlayStation and PlayStation 2 (1994 and 2000), subjected the world to a new face of gaming, in Karachi, even today, arcades are the only places where kids of Azizabad, Burns Road, Lines Area and countless other lower middle-class areas spend most of their spare time — fighting injustice and defeating villains.
If you ever want to know what these places mean to the kids who frequent them, visit one of the gaming zones: notice the pride with which the champion of the area walks into the arcade; the awed faces of younger players who look up to him. There’s a feeling of playing in front of a crowd that is irreplaceable.
“Arcades are going to stay,” Naseer says in an assured tone. “They will always live in these galis and muhallas. And it’s not because I earn from this place, it’s because I know these kids. They’re addicted.” It’s almost as if the arcade owner has dissected the psychology of his customers and knows what he had to sell for the kids to return over and over again — an idea, or perhaps just nostalgia.