After 18 years of operation at Bugis Junction, the Virtualand will be closing their flagship outlet in January 2017. It is hardly surprising, as the popularity of arcades has been gradually declining since the early 2000s, challenged by the rise of LAN gaming centres as well as advanced home video game consoles such as PlayStation and Xbox. By the 2010s, the local arcade industry, already tied down by high rentals and maintenance costs, took another hit by the rapid emergence of mobile games on smartphones and tablets.
The nineties was perhaps the golden era of local arcade game centres. Various names such as Wywy WonderSpace, Astropolis, Jackie Fun World, Uncle Ringo, Genie Funland, Country Fun World, Super Fun World, Paco Fun World, Circus Circus, E-Zone, Fun Plus, The Wonderful World of Whimsy and Magic Land could probably ring a bell to those who had frequently hung out at the arcade centres during the nineties and early 2000s.
At their peak, arcade game centres could almost be found all over Singapore, from the suburban Ang Mo Kio’s Big Mac Centre, Bedok’s Princess and Empress Cinema buildings and Parkway Parade to the downtown’s shopping malls of Funan, Parklane and Lucky Plaza. Marina South, with its popular arcade, bowling alley and steamboat restaurants, was also another favourite haunt for the youngsters.
Ban on Arcade Games
Do you know that video game arcades were once banned in Singapore? In the early eighties, many parents expressed concern that the games had bad influences to young children and teenagers, who could easily be addicted to the gaming. In some extreme cases, students were found playing truant in schools or caught stealing money to play at the video game arcades.
In mid-1983, there were about 64 video game amusement centres in Singapore. By the end of August, the Ministry of Culture decided to impose a nationwide ban on video game arcades, despite repeated appeals from the arcade operators to Suppiah Dhanabalan (born 1937), then-Minister of Culture, and Devan Nair (1923-2005), former President of Singapore.
In the end, all the arcade operators were ordered to wind up their businesses. They had to sell off their game machines, totaled more than 1,200 sets, at huge losses to either the private clubhouses or overseas.
Private clubhouses, such as the Singapore Armed Forces Reservists’ Association (SAFRA) and Automobile Association of Singapore (AAS) Recreation Club, were allowed to continue offering video games to their members, provided they enforced checks regularly.
The ban did little to dissuade the game enthusiasts, who flocked to the computer shops at Funan Centre, Peninsula Shopping Centre and Far East Plaza and rented their terminals, originally used for word-processing and programming, to play games such as “Computer Ambush” or “World War III” at a rate of $1 to $2 per hour.
While the teenagers and young adults were unhappy with the ban of video amusement arcades, the home video game manufacturers were delighted to see their sales shot up. The local home video game market had enjoyed a booming year in 1981, importing some $21 million worth of video and handheld electronic games into Singapore. But an economic slowdown and competitions from amusement centres and home computers saw its decline in the following years until the ban of video game arcades was imposed.
While home video games such as Pacman, Space Invaders and Donkey Kong were popular, the consoles, however, did not come cheap. An Atari 2600 would cost $285 in 1983, while the ColecoVision was priced at $380. Both were considered luxurious items that were almost out of reach for an average Singaporean family in the early eighties.
Old School Arcade Games
The video game arcades made a comeback in the nineties. Hundreds of amusement centre outlets mushroomed all over Singapore in a matter of years. The old fashioned pinball machines and basketball arcades were quickly obsoleted, replaced by the more popular racing, fighting, shooting and sport video games.
Daytona USA (first launched in 1994), with its high resolution realistic gameplay, manual gears’ switching, and four racing views, was perhaps the most popular racing arcade game in Singapore in the nineties. The larger arcade outlets even offered the multi-playing competition for up to eight different players. Other popular racing arcade games that were launched in the nineties and early 2000s were the Manx TT Super Bike (1996) and Initial D Arcade Stage (2002).
The nineties also saw the rise of popular fighting arcade games. Street Fighter II (1991), Mortal Kombat (1992), Virtua Fighter (1993), King of Fighters (1994) and Marvel Super Heroes (1995) were all the rage, although some had expressed concern in the games’ excessive display of violence.
It did not help that arcade centres in the nineties were often the favourite hanging out venues for teenage gangs. Fights often broke out over humiliating losses in the video games, arguments or staring incidents, giving some of the arcade centre outlets a bad reputation.
Virtua Striker (1994) was another popular arcade game that came with impressive computer graphics and smooth controls, allowing two players to select different national football teams and challenge each other. There were also special codes for the player to unlock FC Sega, a hidden tribute team that consisted of the game’s developing staff. The game series lasted four versions over 12 years. In the series, Virtua Striker 2 (1997) was perhaps the most popular among its fans.
Other popular old school arcade games included Metal Slug, Wrestlefest, Virtua Cop, Macross Plus, Streets of Rage and the alien- or zombie-shooting games.
The game machines typically accepted 20c (later raised to 50c) coins for each gameplay. By the late nineties, almost all the major arcade centre operators had issued their own tokens, with their names embossed onto the customised coins. Newer game consoles in the early 2000s accepted cards topped up with game credits; some also came with redemption tickets or gaming coupons to allow players to exchange for prizes and gifts.
Arcade video games saw some mini revival in the 2000s, when revolutionary dancing games such as Para Para Paradise Mix or Dance Dance Revolution became the hottest and trendiest attraction at any arcade centres.
From the vanished Wywy WonderSpace and Paco Fun World to the recent Arcadia (closed in 2014), Virtualand and Time Zone, the local video game arcade centres have gone through their ups and downs. Only time will tell if they can ever make a comeback again.
Editor’s Note: I used to hang out at arcade centres during my schooling days, spending much of my allowances on Virtua Striker 2 and King of Fighters 97. Those were the days. How many of those old school arcade games do you remember? And which were your favourite ones?
Published: 28 December 2016