In this RPGNet forum, a youngster asks, "I was reading about arcades and how you'd have to queue to play popular games as well as follow rules like no throwing in fighting game or the others wouldn't let you play. This seems rather strange. The money cost must have gotten expensive pretty quickly as well. I'm not old enough to have been to them when they were around so I'm curious about what they were like."
Well, let me tell you Billy, when I was a boy, there was an arcade at the Sheppard Centre, and we would sneak off there at lunch and after school and during spare periods and when we should have been in class. There were older teenagers, 18 or 19, who more or less lived there. One of them sold hash on the side, but mostly they just seemed to be bums. Really, really cool bums. One of them was amazingly good at Gauntlet. He'd play it all day long, spending an hour carefully honing a character to an incredibly buff state, and then he'd sell you his game for a couple bucks (the proto-goldfarmer of suburban Toronto!). We'd all crowd around and shout encouragement. The guy behind the counter, George, in his 20s, treated us like lovable scum, like you see bartenders treating the barflys in a sitcom from the era. We all knew whose initials were on the leaderboards. We were allowed to smoke in the arcade and we smoked like chimneys. All the games had volcano-crater burns from our butts. The worst offense in our universe was to pull the plug during someone's game. That always meant fights.
Downtown, on the Yonge Street sleaze strip, we had giant arcades, with pinball rooms at the back. These places moved a lot of hash, and no one seemed to know anyone else except for the hustlers, and theoretically they wouldn't let you in during school hours, but they also always had the latest games. Walking into one of those places was like attending Comdex -- a tour through the gimmicky universe of faster-than-light technological innovation, only we didn't have hucksters, we had to pay 25 cents for our demos (or lurk over someone's shoulder while they played).
There weren't many girls around the arcades -- later, a standard ironic/nostalgic boyfriend-girlfriend joke in my social circle was "Let's go to the arcade and you can hold my skateboard" -- but they were often very, very good. And tough. You had to swear like a sailor at the arcade.
In arcades, you queued up for popular or new games, usually. You set down a quarter or a button or something on the machine (quarters were the popular choice), and you watched, and when the next round came up (in fighting games, this was when someone lost, but in other games, it was when they ran out of quarters), you jumped in. This usually meant you were playing against someone else, so you got to know everyone who was a regular quick.
What were arcades like?
The 'no throwing' rule was kind of a house-rule for a lot of places. See, the older fighting games had really wonky response and collision detection, and in some of 'em (Mortal Kombat, for one), a throw did pretty decent damage and couldn't be interrupted in a lot of cases. If you wanted to, you could just drain down the other guy's health like that, and since everyone was paying to play, it was a dick move to do so. I know in our arcade, there was a little sticky on the Street Fighter machine, reading, "M.Bison is an automatic forfeit of next turn", which meant that, if someone chose Bison (who, in the older Street Fighters, was dangerous as hell in an experienced player's hands), they got to play one round with him, and, win or lose, they had to hand the controls over to the next player in line.