Feature: Pub gaming, Final Fight and the limitations of post-work Scrabble

By Neil Merrett

Final Fight, released to arcades in 1989, Capcom

Thursday – November 12, 2015… one pint down at the Libertine pub

It was not unfair to say the machine had seen better days.  Yet therein was its charm.

It was history of a kind. A very specific history of wasted pocket money and summer holiday sojourns to arcades.

Actually, if I’m honest, it was just Final Fight. A game that is now 26 years old and available on phones, handheld consoles and free to play websites.

But this was an actual Final Fight arcade machine, tucked away in a solitary spot at the back of a South London pub  with two joysticks, separate sets of three coloured buttons and no one else interested in playing.

There was pleasure in the novelty of finding such a machine in an unexpected place.  Not as some ironic theme or relic from the past, but something to enjoy over a beer or Malibu and Coke.  

This was social gaming from a pre-internet age.  Where competition was largely defined as having more money than another person and surviving as long as you could without needing to beg for more.

Three continues for a pound – a prototype micro-transaction as a direct means of survival.

At barely the cost of a packet of crisps, the whole game was there for you to pick up and play.

A homoerotic lead character in ex-wrestler and mayor, Mike Haggar, bright crisp cartoon-ish visuals belying the game’s sole themes of stabbing, punching and kicking a colourful cast of male and female characters, and saving a damsel from implied sexual violence.  Different times indeed.

But two to three beers in and the game and the pub arcade machine’s appeal was undiminished from how beat-em-ups used to feel in those pubs and holiday camps years ago. Especially in those 30-something moments of post-work, malaise where conversation is limited, but companionship is much appreciated, the opportunity to inebriate and entertain yourself for 20 minutes of mindless, invigorating and cartoonishly violent smashing really should have kept arcade machines alive.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems.  With £2 of whatever counts as adult pocket money invested, it quickly became apparent that the second control panel was not fully operational, with only the special attack button working.  

Stuck in place was the all-purpose punch button, leaving the game’s hulking mayor largely powerless without risking his own health to get involved in combat – a problematic development for a fighting game.

It was not even possible to jump.  You could just to walk around and perform a powerful all purpose move capable of dispersing groups of surrounding enemies – albeit at the expense of your own character’s health.

And so, like some lumbering non-governmental organisation vowing to only engage in violence in situations of dire need or self defence, Haggar was having to hide away in corners  waiting for my partner’s situation to sufficiently worsen before getting involved in the very point of the game.  

As ongoing attacks dwindled my energy and credits, I was soon on a final life. With no more energy to expend on fighting, I was as helpless as the fictional civilians of Metro City that the main characters were sworn to protect by largely undemocratic means.

Death came sooner than I hoped and the machine wouldn’t take contactless payment.  My gaming partner flailed on alone briefly, by which point reality again seemed palatable to return to.

As an experience, it was mindless and strangely wonderful – rather than frustrating.  Days later we would find ourselves back again, this time with the stuck down button fixed and ready for action.  Yet after entering a modest £1.50 into the machine it was apparently out of order this time.

So we drank, and tried to talk, before realising there was always scrabble – long, tiresome monosyllabic bouts of Scrabble.  Little was said for 20 minutes other than occasional forlorn gazes over at the Final Fight machine.

They were gazes that seemed to speak more words than we had managed to get on the board all night.

We’ll no doubt be back for the drink, but we’ll certainly stay for the Final Fight, if we get our quid back.

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