One trope surrounding the 1980’s is an idealized arcade setting. Films or movies set during this time period depict that every group of young video warriors could line up to do battle at their local arcade. Once there, they had a wide variety of game titles, endless credits, and colorful real-life characters to interact with. Sometimes this arcade was in a mall, while other times it was some neon filled stand alone location. Despite this perfect Steven Spielberg fever dream not everyone had access to this kind of facility. For many, the occasional arcade outing might have taken place (probably not measuring up to the ones portrayed in media) but more often games were played in retail locations that were not solely dedicated to the gaming arts.
For readers whom didn’t grow up in the late 1970’s through 1980’s, the widespread installation of arcade games cannot be overstated. From grocery stores, roller skating rings, and pizza places every store seemed to jump onto that sweet Pac-Man profiteering. Despite the ability to catch a quick game of Gorf at a local discount department store, arcades were the more ideal depository for early gaming culture. This emersion found in a large dedicated arcade might have been the dream of young and old players alike, but for many of us this was not an option.
I was still fairly young during the Golden Age of arcade gaming (1978-1984), only hitting double digits of age by 1983. We did have a local arcade in our town of Sterling, VA (called Graffiti’s) which I visited exactly once with my older brother and uncle. My overriding memory of the visit is that I was too short to play Battlezone. Despite my pleas to return, my parents felt that the only place more dangerous than Graffiti’s was 1970’s NYC’s Times Square. Since my parental units saw only heroin addiction or kidnapping as the possible outcomes of a visit, this was a forbidden destination. All was not lost however, I did get to experience some amazing beachside arcades during family summer vacations. When not on vacation, the total saturation of machines located outside of arcades still allowed me gaming adventures during this era.
Oh Thank Heaven for 7-Eleven
7-Eleven is one of the largest chains of stores in the world with over 75,000 locations worldwide. The name brand is so linked to the concept of convenance stores that for many, all quick and grab type mini-stores are known as “7-Elevens”. For American kids in the 1980’s it was a haven for huge sodas, Garbage Pail Kids stickers, questionable hotdogs, candy, and brain freezing Slurpee drinks. Additionally, it offered an accessible mini-arcade experience which my parents didn’t seem to mind me visiting compared to our “scary” local arcade with the added bonus of a video game gift-shop of sorts.
So many of my favorite arcade games were first sampled at the local 7-Eleven, including rounds of the classics titles Elevator Action, Choplifter, Joust, Out Run, Smash TV, and Super Pac-Man. My local store normally had 2 or 3 machines at any given time with titles changing fairly frequently. This also included some more obscure game titles such as The Three Stooges and Circus Charlie. I remember seeing posted signs regarding rules of decorum for playing games, but I never remember a single problem or confrontation regarding kids queuing for their turn at the controls.
As arcade games started to wane in popularity in the post 1990’s, 7-Eleven locations stopped giving floorspace for the machines. The last game I ever remember playing at 7-Eleven was in the early 1990’s, a Neo-Geo MVS game of Puzzle Bobble. Even though a sighting of an arcade game machine inside a convenance store today is a rare occurrence, the idea that every 7-Eleven type store has arcade games stands as an idealized reality for many when they picture such a place.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
For those kids with a few extra dollars to blow on their day trip to the house that Big Gulps built, there were a variety of arcade gaming related accessories one could “invest” in. All kinds of video game related merch starting popping up with the cultural impact of Taito’s Space Invaders leading the way. The tidal wave really hit an apex with the introductions of games such as Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Q*bert who had characters perfect for reproduction on hats, key chains, bumper stickers, and T-Shirts.
Some of these items were not officially licensed by their copyright owners. Often inexpensive items labeled as impulse sale or counter sale items were cheaply made knock off do-dads. These can be easily spotted thanks to a lack of copyright or poor manufacturing quality. Despite their less than authentic or legal nature, people still bought these pins, air fresheners, and lighters in droves to populate the junk drawers of the future.
Collectable Arcade Cards/Stickers
Non-sports themed trading cards and stickers had been staple of the candy isle for years previous to the maze munching antics of Pac-Man. Considering some of the pop culture tie-ins used for these cards it is no surprise that the cultural popularity of video games would also be made into small wax packages of stickers.
The most popular of these were the series of Pac-Man card-stickers from Fleer. Stickers were almost as much of a pop culture phenomenon as arcade games in the early 80’s with kids. This meeting of Pac celebrity and sticker goodness was a cash cow for Fleer and store owners. The 54 card set came came wrapped in a wax package of 3 sticker cards with 3 rub-off card games and a stick of cheek destroying gum. There are 4 slight visual variations of these cards for the US market (mostly involving Pac-Man’s eyes), but they all contain the same rather lame jokes around Pac-Man and various odd quotes.
The rub-off game cards included with each pack are fairly interesting by themselves. Resembling something similar to a lottery scratch off ticket, these cards had a representation of the Pac-Man game maze just like the arcade version. A player would scratch off a spot at a time with a coin, attempting to safely navigate through the maze like in the game. If you run into any of these rub-off cards today and desire a trip down memory lane the bad news is the rub off spots have now all aged to a point they no longer scratch off.
Pac-Man was not alone in these sticker card packs, other popular game titles would receive their wax package due such as; Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-Man, Super Pac-Man, and Dragon’s Lair. A series of sticker cards titled Video City included visuals from Sega’s Frogger, Turbo, Zaxxon, and Nintendo’s Donkey Kong Junior. By 1984 these stickers cards had run their course to be replaced with other more time period non-sports related wax packaged card sets.
The sticker card packs with rub-off games would be given a renaissance of sorts in 1989 by the Topps company with a series of card stickers themed around Nintendo’s NES home gaming system properties. It is also worth noting that Disney’s motion picture Tron also received a set of trading cards.
Arcade Gum and Candy
The popularity of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Q*Bert provided a launchpad for all sorts of licensed inexpensive products plastered with the faces of these early arcade gaming mascots. This included things like coloring books, pajamas, office supplies, and even candy. Pac-Man in particular was licensed for a series of early 1980’s candy products, themed to resemble the maze action found in the game. Players could shake the plastic maze in order to free the small chalky Pac themed candy characters out of the maze and into their mouths.
One of the stranger arcade candy tie-ins was called the Video Arcade Gum collection by Topps. These small 3-D cardboard arcade cabinet representations held a small amount of Chiclet like gum in the bottom of the box. Only a handful of titles were offered (Zaxxon, Frogger, Centipede, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, and Q*Bert), and the cardboard cabinets were rather fragile making intact examples difficult to find today.
Slurpee Arcade Cups
During the summers of 1982 and 1983, if you happened to desire the frozen refreshment of a famous 7-Eleven Slurpee and loved arcade games you were in for a double treat. For a brief period during both years, Slurpee plastic cups showcasing popular arcade game titles of the era were made available. These cups represent one of the first true video game marketing items officially directly sanctioned by 7-Eleven.
16 different game title cups for each of the two years were manufactured. Many well-known classics were included such as Asteroids, Pac-Man, and Q*Bert; as well as some more obscure titles such as Front Line and Robby Roto. The plastic used doesn’t age particularly well which can cause cracks or chips. Cups in nice condition are popular with collectors crossing between several hobbies making more obscure titles command high dollar amounts.
7-Eleven was no stranger to making collectable Slurpee cups before the video game Golden Age. During the 1970’s all sorts of themed Slurpee cups existed from music celebrities, Marvel Superheroes, sports celebrities, and even wildlife. And this continues today with cups that offer tie ins with movies, pop culture celebrities, and yes, popular video games.
Days of Future Past
With the ending of full sized arcade games in 7-Eleven locations, the culture of gaming could still be felt over the years after the last game was wheeled out of the store. Promotional tie-ins from video game movies such as Super Mario Bros., Playstation system releases, and even mobile themed games have been a staple of the store for decades. In 2023, 7-Eleven celebrated their ties with video games partnering with Namco to present a series of products and merchandise based around Pac-Man. This even included Pac-Man themed food products, shirts, and hats.
7-Eleven Fighting for the Users
Over the years 7-Eleven has seemly embraced their connection with video games and gamer culture. And, for a generation of those raised on the glow of a CRT video game screen, offered for a time, a haven for video game adventure. Even today on the rare occasion I find myself in a 7-Eleven I can’t help a sense of warm nostalgia tied into my arcade gaming past to take over part of my brain. Even though you can’t play a round of Pac-Man anymore at your local 7-Eleven, the impact this chain made on a generation of gamers will forever be frozen in our brains like so many Slurpee’s drunk way too quickly.