Being a child of the 80s was pretty great (radical, perhaps?) and pretty weird, too. I was born during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, so for the first decade of my life I thought Reagan was royalty or something, for good or ill. Weird Al was around, and so was Mr. T. I saw video games become household objects, I suffered through episodes of 3-2-1 Contact (Psych! I loved that show), and I saw not just the birth but the death of MTV (grrr, reality TV). I saw the end of Communism (yeah, yeah, it happened in the 90s but we all knew what was up by ’89), I saw Michael Jackson’s hair catch on fire, and believed that Deloreans could travel through time.
The list of great, awful, and weird things about the 80s is endless, and equally endless TV shows and websites have dedicated themselves to the topic, so I’ll get right to it and focus on the top five things that I personally miss most about the 1980s.
5. Video Arcades
No, not the things where they have five gigantic machines that cost $5 per round and only spit out tickets so you can go redeem them for a plastic finger puppet shaped like a melty Elmo, but ARCADES! The ones with rows and rows of stand-up consoles of Pac-Man, Centipede, Dig Dug, Rampage, Donkey Kong, Q*Bert, Tron, 1942, Popeye, Defender, Golden Axe, Altered Beast, Burger Time, and my two all-time favorites: Galaga and the 1983 vector graphics X-wing simulator Star Wars game. Holy crap, were they addictive or what? So much fun, and part of the fun was that you had to get up off your butt, grab your quarters, join your friends, and go to the video arcade to play.
And they were everywhere. I remember every time I went to the mall, the gas station, a burger joint, or went to a movie, they were there waiting for me. And not like now where video games are relegated to a creepy side room of a movie theater’s lobby or an ancient Chinese take-out joint with a washed-out Double Dragon in the corner. No, video arcades were the main attraction for years and no matter how cool Nintendo was (NES would have made my Top 10 list) it still never beat a good, noisy, action-packed video arcade. The memories I have of playing these games with my sister and my dad are priceless. Sadly, real arcades are gone, but to this day I cannot pass up a Galaga machine without dropping in a quarter and going four or five rounds.
4. HBO / VHS Rentals
Remember when movies would hit the theater, then you’d wait to hear when they were on HBO, and after that they’d appear at the VHS rental joint? Maybe the waiting was a pain, especially since everything is available almost immediately nowadays, but for some reason it felt really special to walk into Blockbuster or some crappy small town Mr. Rental and say, “Holy crap, guys, Gremlins is out on video! And so is C.H.U.D.??!! Sweet!” We’d lose our minds. And I still recall feeling super lucky that my grandfather paid for HBO and I got to tape the good movies before they hit the stores, like Return of the Jedi, Rocky III, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Back to the Future, The Goonies, and Short Circuit, and I recall my sister taping some Rainbow Brite movie and watching it a billion times a week. It’s the same feeling now when you see the new season of Breaking Bad is on Netflix. “What? No way! Hellooooo weekend plans!”
3. Book It!
Yeah, I know Book It! is technically still around, but it started the same year I entered Kindergarten, so it feels uniquely anchored to my 80s childhood. I was a reader anyway, so it felt like someone said, “Hey kid, you know that thing you love doing? Want to earn free pizza for doing it?” If only we could have grown up and kept the same deal. I’d be living the dream right now. Instead I read like a demon and have to pay for my own pizza, and a car loan bill, and rent, electricity, and a Time Warner bill for service that only works 70% of the time. Ugh, life…
Book It!, I miss you.
2. Mix Tapes
Good grief, these were my life-blood. I didn’t switch over to CDs until really late, like 1998 late, and I was still making friends, family, and potential sweethearts mix tapes on cassettes until maybe 2003. But in the 80s, they were everything. The radio, like always, only played so many decent tunes, and you had to depend on cool older friends and family members to make you tapes of the “cools” bands. Mix tapes are how I first heard R.E.M., Led Zeppelin, Nirvana (yeah, 90s, shut up), Pixies, Tom Petty, The Replacements, and The Clash, among others. Plus, being able to turn around and make my own with a double tape-deck stereo … it felt like playing God. I SHALL DETERMINE YOUR LISTENING EXPERIENCE, SIMPLETON!!!
And making one was an art form. You only had so many minutes on either side, so you had to plan accordingly, and you couldn’t just throw anything on there in any random order. You had to start strong, then kick it up a notch for songs 2 and 3, and then you could start getting into deep cuts or slow tracks, alternate rockers with ballads, and end with a strong song before you flipped to the B side, and then the process begins again. You could write the tracks on the back of the case or keep each song a secret. You could plan a tape for a certain road trip or party, or tell someone how you felt through a selection of very key songs. Mix CDs never felt the same, and now … well … is there even anything to compare it to now? You can’t make an iPod/iPhone playlist for someone else, can you? Maybe … I dunno … sigh.
1. Star Wars
Come on, I’m a freakin’ nerd, what did you expect? In the 1980s, Star Wars DOMINATED. And it was pure. Sooooo frigging pure, like first fallen snow in Antarctica pure. Lucas hadn’t yet “fixed” his “mistakes” in episodes IV through VI, he hadn’t yet junk-kicked the franchise with Jar Jar Binks or Hayden Christensen, and it didn’t go all haywire with shitty cartoons that filled in the blanks between the various movies (yes, The Clone Wars cartoons suck.) I’ll admit that the video games like the Battlefront series are really cool, but it’s “just another franchise” now, and really, Lucas stopped being a relevant source for Star Wars storylines somewhere around the credits for Episode VI, and he stopped being relevant as a director somewhere around the credits of Episode IV. But for a long time there in the 80s, Star Wars was flawless. The toys were better, Han Solo was still the man rather than an empty hole that nothing in Episodes I, II, or III could fill, and we still had the hope that the original (and still young enough) cast would continue the films for another trilogy. The awesomeness of Star Wars felt like it would last forever.
Simply put, Star Wars in the 1980s was the high-water mark for my childhood. It was a great time to become obsessed before it all went to hell. (Update: I have very tempered hopes for the new Star Wars movies. We shall see…)