Inside the Arcade: “Journey” (1983)
We couldn’t stop believing what we were seeing
I wish I could make Journey the arcade game make sense. I suppose it would be easy to say, “Hey it was the ‘80s. There was a lot of cocaine and people really really liked money. So much that they would do things they knew they shouldn’t just to try and get their hands on more of it.” But that would only cover the half of it.
There was a scene in the movie Spaceballs when Yogurt was showing Lone Star and Mog around his palatial home. The satirical Yoda-like figure (voiced by the incomparable Mel Brooks) opened up a wall in one of the caves as if to say, “Let me show you what we’ve been up to.” Inside the wall was a merchandise store for the movie we were currently watching. It was immediately hilarious. The minions who worked Yogurt’s shop had slapped the name Spaceballs on everything from lunchboxes to plush dolls. The bit came to a head when Yogurt held out a metal stick, pulled a trigger and fire poured out the top of it. “Spaceballs The Flame Thrower!” he shouted. “The kids love this one.”
In the early ‘80s, somewhere in the offices of Bally Midway Gaming, someone stood up and shouted, “Journey, The Arcade Game! The kids will love this one.” They were wrong, but that didn’t stop them from doing it.
To be fair to the people who concocted this insane plan, Journey was a very recognizable “brand” throughout the late ‘70s into the ‘80s. We all knew who they were. They were really popular and successful. But the idea that the band was “cool” was never the reason why. Yet, someone thought they were cool enough to make an arcade game about them. And perhaps that was their first mistake.
Then of course there was the game itself. The premise of Journey was that all five of the band’s members had misplaced their instruments. What?! Nooooooooooo! How did they lose them? No idea. Did it matter? I guess not. Did I know what was going on half the time? Not really.
The player’s job was to complete 5 different mini games to help each band member retrieve their lost instrument and get them back to the spaceship. (Why a spaceship and not a tour bus? You got me.) I don’t remember the specifics of each mini-game, but I do recall controlling the pixelated characters with crappy photos of the actual band members heads placed on top and thinking, “This is rock and roll?”.
But wait. You wanted rock and roll? Then all you had to do was play well enough to reunite all five members with their instruments and the spaceship would blast off to a stadium where Journey would take the stage in front of a crowd of fans.
The band was so appreciative of your efforts up to that point they decided to make you the Head of Security. No you didn’t get to hang out backstage and frolic with the ladies amongst scenes of decadence. Nope. You got the crappiest job at the concert aside from the people who had to clean the bathrooms. Rock and Roll!
So there I was trying to keep the crazy fans from entering the three doors below the stage and ruining the show. It took everything I had to work the joystick to keep those people out and “protect the band”. Because part of me was saying, “You know what. F#%k these guys. Everyone rush the stage!”.
Regardless of what happened at the concert eventually the band would run away and I’d restart the whole process of helping them find their instruments once again. Really? They lost them again? It seemed this game kept asking me, “How much do you love Journey?”. After a while I wasn’t so sure.
What’s strange is that I played this game pretty often. It was usually unoccupied. So when the arcade got crowded I’d look at Journey and think, why not? I found myself constantly holding onto a feeling that things might be different this time around. But I just couldn’t make the dream happen, no matter how many times I tried.
And here’s the funny thing. I happen to have a lasting appreciation for Journey. I still have their greatest hits on vinyl. And the band’s songs are a prime choice in any karaoke setting. But it behoves us to be honest with our friends, and this arcade game was a misguided disaster. Not the worst thing I’ve ever experienced in my life, but enough for me to sympathize with the punks who dismissed this band as a bunch of corporate shills.
Over the years we’ve seen rock acts lend their name to pinball machines with great success. I’ve manned the flippers of the Kiss, AC/DC and Guns n’ Roses machines and had a great time. Playing pinball to a pleasing soundtrack just works. And I have no doubt that Journey the pinball machine would have been a huge success. But they went a different route and left us kids with one of the more ridiculous, horrible yet completely memorable arcade games of all time. Every time I played it, I never stopped believing what I was seeing.
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