It was an iconic summer day. I had just watched Surf’s Up and was ready to tell the masses about the best penguin movie ever released—sorry Happy Feet, you were just aight.
As I stepped out of the theatre and into the sticky hallway, I saw it for the first time. Tucked to the right in an awkward little nook, almost as if hiding, was a real life arcade.
Throughout whole childhood I had never seen an arcade in person, so this was a momentous occasion for me. The second I entered the room I was immediately surrounded by the flashing neon lights of game cabinets, overpriced snacks, and pointless movie trivia—it was paradise for a pop-culture obsessed youth.
While I was busting out moves in Dance Dance Revolution like a living Fortnite emote, I noticed that each game had a unique apparatus specifically tailored to its own quirky concepts. I was born way after the height of the arcade age, so I was used to holding a standard console controller whenever I played a videogame. There was something about the physical, kinetic feel of these custom arcade inputs that hooked me.
From generic zombie shooters to Need for Speed knock offs, it all felt so good. This was a place where I could have boundless fun with games that were weird, and there weren’t any loud kids or racist teens burdening me like in the lawless lands of online play. This was my place. Those arcade visits got more frequent for me, and soon became a ritual I performed each time I went to the theatre, before and after the show.
What I didn’t realize was that I was getting into the arcade scene at such a turning point for the industry. Soon after I started going, there was a switch-up with the machines—they started getting rid of older ones and implementing a new line of “skill with prize” games. These games offering prime content as prizes like gaming consoles, which swiftly overshadowed the few shitty crane games that in comparison only had Plankton and Squidward plushies from SpongeBob. Some of the new machines were repping everything from a fresh, shiny Xbox 360 to the motion control goodness that was the Nintendo Wii—but I had my sights set on the Nintendo 3DS inside a machine whose name would come to haunt me forever.
The Blocks Aren’t the Only Thing That Are Stacked
Stacker was the Sasuke to my ten year old self’s Naruto. I loved the game unconditionally, even though it didn’t deserve it. It’s a game where you use a single button to take control of three blocks moving back and forth—when you hit the button, the blocks freeze and another set appears in the row above them moving at an increasingly faster rate. Your goal is to stack these blocks all the way to the top and collect your prize. It sounds like a simple feat, but it felt impossible.
The prizes were sorted into two categories—a line about halfway up the machine of “minor prizes,” wristbands and stickers, and then all the way at the top, the “major prizes,” featuring the consoles that everyone was there for.
I played way too much, collecting toonies—two dollar coins, for all the non-Canadians—wherever I could and saving them for another attempt at that divine 3DS gold. It was so easy to get to the minor prize, but who cares about a wristband? Each time I had a chance at the major prize win I flubbed it hard and heard a truly demoralizing “You Lose!” sound effect.
It was crummy, and every play made me feel like Charlie in the “You Get Nothing!” scene from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. There was a time where I got one block away from the top, but that victory slipped out of my fingers at the last moment and the despair crept back in. I decided to dedicate my after school time to refining my abilities and catching my elusive prize. But every time I got to the last block, it seemed to move one block over right before my victory, snatching it out of my hands.
It got to a point where I was so good at the game that I always getting to the last block, but that loss animation kept coming up. Was I just not good enough? Was it a glitch? I needed answers, so I started looking for them on forums and YouTube videos, but there was barely anything on Stacker—just people bragging about their alleged wins. The next time I went to a film I ran over to the closest authority figure to get a clearer picture on that enigmatic machine—the jaded teen employee posted up at the ticket booth.
“Hey,” I said, “I keep playing that stacking game and it’s not letting me win. What’s up with it?”
“Oh,” she replied, “that thing’s super rigged. You can’t win that.”
And just like that, in the span of a two sentence exchange my arcade dreams came crashing down. My stomach sank—she was right and it was so obvious, but I’d refused to see the truth. The manager even ended up explaining it to me, telling me my chances were around one in a thousand—he was actually able to set the amount of games that had to be played before anybody had the ability to win. There was nothing I could’ve done. I was devastated and disappointed, and I left vowing to never come back.
When I told people about this arcade betrayal I was roasted for my naivety. My own friends met me with a flurry of laughs and mockery. But it wasn’t funny! It felt like my gaming sanctuary was raided by a crew of con artist programmers and greedy movie theatre managers. A fun place I had cherished turned out to have been corrupt the entire time.
Arcade Isn’t Just a Villain in Spider-Man, You Know
It’s ten years later and I’m not afraid to admit I’m still stinging. This is a tale I’ve taped up inside of me for a long time for fear of getting joked on. Stacker was five times worse than any rigged carnival game because it had me feeling like the clown every time I played. And it’s the game that single-handedly caused me to cancel my casual obsession with movie theatre arcade games and stick to my home consoles. But I still stand by my ten year old stance—how could I have known better?
Back then, I didn’t understand the worth of money and I wasn’t equipped with the skills to identify a rip-off, unfortunately that made me and a bunch of other kids the perfect target demographic for companies that make machines like Stacker. I was gullible and they were waving prizes in my face, so I played their game and spent just over $100 during my arcade escapades. For the record, that’s almost half the price of the 3DS I’d been gunning for.
It’s gross to think about, and it makes my skin crawl whenever I hear about another game tossing in a loot box system exposing kids to gambling mechanics just because they want a cool skin for their favourite character or an exclusive prize. It’s the same thing that happened to me, but at least I wasn’t enticed to roll the dice in the comfort of my own home, at the press of a button. In other words, games have evolved in their exploitation of kids’ gullibility.
Now whenever I go to see the latest blockbuster I buy my ticket, watch the movie, and I leave. My meaningless arcade skills are locked away in a mental cabinet I’m not opening up again. I’ve hung up my clown nose, puffy pants, and oversized shoes. Stacker can no longer turn me into a game obsessed Boo Boo the Fool.