The story itself is hardly unusual. The arcade-going population of 2005 is a fraction of what it used to be in the days of Centipede or Street Fighter II, and the BEARcade's was no exception. Its location on the Berkeley campus, dim and inconvenient as it was, remained desirable to school interests, and for years people struggled through the student government - known as the Associated Students of the University of California, or ASUC for short - to replace it. Even while in high school, I occasionally picked up rumors that it would have been turned into a pearl milk tea house, or a LAN cafe, or a day-care center for the children of UC Berkeley's oh-so-illustrious graduate students.
This semester's plan for the BEARcade was to use the space for an upscale gelateria. Despite grassroots efforts - including repeated coverage and letters in the campus newspaper, the Daily Californian, and a two-day petition drive that yielded over six hundred signatures - ASUC saw fit to dispose of the venerable game room, which had existed on campus as the ASUC Underground since at least the early '90s, when it gave rise to some of the USA's top tier Street Fighter II talent, in favor of establishing yet another ice cream store.
To say this was a slap in the face to the regulars, employees and casual passers-by alike was an understatement; to sacrifice their holy grounds in the name of profit seems to run counter to the goals of any academic institutions, and one would think that Berkeley's reputation for encouraging individuality and alternative expression should have granted the BEARcade some special consideration. Certainly it felt as though the dozens of students who came into the arcade on any given day weren't given any significant thought; anyone on campus who seeks gelato - from the same gelateria that is replacing the arcade, no less - need only walk a few blocks from the arcade proper, while a trip to nearest arcade of comparable quality would require over an hour's drive into Sunnyvale.
But I don't think that adequately explains why I can't help but feel, as I sit here and choke back tears, as though I have lost something particularly important to me - something that feels more like home than simply a game room. Perhaps it becomes more apparent if I explain that it was the great people who I met through the BEARcade over the last five-odd years who have watched me grow up from a punk-ass high school kid to someone a little bit smarter and a little bit wiser that I will miss. Those who led me to my first actual job where I got my first actual paychecks. Those who looked out for me, even if that meant spotting me cash for dinner or driving me home when it was out of their way, just so I could be included with everyone else. Those who offered me a place to stay and escape the pressures of an alienating school and a periodically unstable family life, even long after the arcade's 8p.m. closing time. Those who taught me that all I can do when I lose is put another token up and keep playing until I win. It's Thanksgiving, and all of a sudden it seems like I don't have quite as much to be thankful for this year.
And now I am helping Bihn push the arcade cabinets, one by one, into a Penske truck waiting to take them to their new owners. Some of them are going to San Francisco State, he tells me, and some of them to San Jose. Huh. It's funny, you know, they look so much more, well, naked when they're unplugged and their flashing lights and loud noises are turned off.
The rhythm games are first; we begin by disassembling Dance Dance Revolution's gargantuan, pure steel machine into its component parts and wheeling them out, bit by bit. Next comes Drummania V and Guitar Freaks V; they're both newer cabinets, and while they don't stand quite as tall as DDR, they're still heavy enough with their idiot-proof black steel frames, and the speakers for Guitar Freaks V are two separate units, so we have to load each one separately. It seems so inefficient, now that we have home consoles - and even portable consoles - that can drastically outperform arcade machines, that we spend so much space and time making arcade cabinets as large as they are.