I've previously written about a couple of the local arcades of my youth, and this week I'm going to talk about The Circus, the cleanest and longest-lived of the three. It was based in Marinette, Wisconsin, right across the river from my hometown of Menominee, Michigan, where it occupied a coveted spot near one of the entrances to the Pine Tree Mall.
It was a boxy, ordinary sort of storefront layout, darkened in the usual manner to show off the games, and of course the usual suspects were present at various times: Galaga, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Tempest, and other well-remembered hits. But I remember playing several more obscure classic-era games for the first and possibly only time there: Exidy's Venture and Pepper II, Sega's Carnival, and Universal's Cosmic Avenger and Mr. Do!, all later seen on the Colecovision as Coleco sought semi-known names while Atari had the big ones locked up. I remember playing Taito's Elevator Action and Atari's Lunar Lander, Football and Fire Truck, which allowed my brother and I to slog through the streets, him at the main steering wheel, me swinging the rear section wildly into the scenery with repeated CRASH!!!es while homes burned and children died. The Circus also showcased several of the laserdisc experiments of the post-Dragon's Lair era -- Sega's shooter Astron Belt, and Williams' very odd laserdisc racing game Star Rider, which memorably featured a pre-rendered CGI racetrack, pixel-based cycles and a cameo from Sinistar.
I don't remember The Circus very well after I went off to college in 1985 and stopped visiting it on a semi-weekly basis. I do recall seeing the Nintendo NES-based Vs. System cabinets there, and once dropped a quarter to play Konami's Castlevania, which was already looking a bit graphically limited next to the state-of-the-art coin-op competition. They had a Neo-Geo multigame cabinet when it was still the hot new thing, and I played early titles like Magician Lord a lot more than I probably should have. I also remember playing the coin-op version of Ghouls & Ghosts, looking a lot better than the otherwise decent 8-bit Nintendo port, and annoyingly used as the source of the screenshot on the back of the NES box, and mid-80s Konami action games like the Western Iron Horse, which never saw a conversion back in the day but finally came home via Microsoft's Game Room last year.
The Circus went under some time after I graduated and moved away from the area; I don't know how long it actually survived, but I remember seeing it decline with the rest of the arcade industry, turning into a SkeeBall-heavy ticket redemption joint in the 1990s. It ultimately closed its doors, like most of the arcades that started big in the 1980s but eventually fell prey to changing tastes as more sophisticated home consoles offered deeper experiences than many of the quick-fix quarter-munchers could.
I visited The Pine Tree Mall again several years ago -- it seemed near-defunct itself at that time, with lots of empty storefronts in the face of competition from newer shopping complexes that have since opened up nearby. It was the last of a breed -- a late-1970s indoor mall with quite a few local, non-franchised businesses mixed in with the Gap and Baskin-Robbins outlets -- and I used to shop regularly at its Radio Shack during my TRS-80 and CoCo days.
Ah, nostalgia -- those inexplicably warm feelings for things past that shall never be again, reminding us that nothing lasts forever, not even our own memories.