As a journalist who somehow landed the amazing gig of writing about the casino industry (for the record, it beats the heck out of covering school board meetings, police crime blotters or sewage treatment legislation), I have been a witness to several stages of evolution in this wacky business.
These days, I often do the “wise old sage of the industry” bit for “mainstream” writers who don’t really know much about how casinos evolved, and who often rely on popular myth printed as fact. (Like the guy in the Boston Herald last month. Don’t get me started.)
For instance, I’m one of the few gaming writers who have been in the business long enough to remember the first time themes arrived in popular gambling.
And, just to head off all your old-guy wisecracks, I’m not talking about the Liberty Bell machine in 1899, or Roman soldiers casting lots, or writings on cave walls communicating a fire theme. I’m talking about themed slot machines, which at first focused on popular TV game shows, old movies and cartoons.
Before that first wave of slot themes in the late ’90s, slot machines were cookie-cutter dull. In fact, a real cookie cutter was probably more interesting to watch. When I started doing this casino-writer gig in the 1980s, a slot machine was nothing more than a gambling device, and nearly every machine on the floor had three spinning reels, with deadpan players pumping quarters in, spinning, pumping, spinning, and then pumping and spinning some more.
In terms of entertainment, watching slot machines was maybe a notch above watching your clothes dry at the laundromat. (Maybe. I do love looking through that round window to see my sweatsocks tumble by.)
I remember when the first Aristocrat multi-line video slots arrived in Atlantic City, circa 1995: Video screens with colorful cartoon animation. Multiple paylines. Something called a “picking bonus round.” Old-school Atlantic City reel-spinning players crowded around banks of these games like they were gawking at a fresh crime scene.
The themes of most of those early games were simple: Cleopatra. Alex Trebec. Pirates. Elvis. Elvis as a pirate. (Yes, the last one’s made up, but how cool would that have been? “Arrrr, thangya very much.”) Then, the slot-makers got into old TV shows like The Addams Family and Gilligan’s Island, and things got more interesting. Even the trade shows got intersting, as the aging former stars who were depicted in the slots showed up to help promote them. (I remember describing Bob Denver, TV’s Gilligan, as “Alan Greenspan in a funny hat.”)
Then themes kind of died off, and there were a lot of games with nothing more than a free-spin bonus—which, of course, is two notches above watching the laundromat dryer.
But now, it seems we’re in the middle of a new resurgence of slot themes. Rock bands like KISS and ZZ Top, blockbuster movies like The Hangover and Avatar, Spider-Men, Supermen and Batmen are all over the casino slot floor.
But the biggest craze in slot themes these days has got to be the zombie. At the recent Global Gaming Expo, I came across what can only be described as a horde of zombie-themed games. “The Walking Dead.” “Plants vs. Zombies.” “Zombie Outbreak.” The slot-makers, of course, had to make sure we knew there were zombie games on display at their booths by sending costumed “zombies” out to wander the trade show floor.
Every time I turned around, it seemed one of the undead was in my face, groaning (zombies always groan, like they’re not quite awake yet after sleeping for several years), drooling (for some reason, zombies drool like they just got a shot of Novocain), and plodding slowly around with arms swaying back and forth.
By the way, can anybody tell me why zombies limp? Does everything come back to life except for one leg? And if they’re limping and plodding along, why can’t people outrun them before getting their brains eaten? Just saying…
The zombie games, by the way, are all extremely cool. I loved every one of them, from Aristocrat’s “The Walking Dead” to Multimedia’s “Zombie Outbreak” to GTECH’s “Plants vs. Zombies,” a holdover from last year’s trade show.
Still, by the end of the three-day show, I was tired of being confronted by actors dressed like zombies. I remember turning a corner and being totally startled when I was suddenly face-to-face with a hideous, half-decomposed, pale and scary figure.
Then I realized I had stumbled across a
mirror. Hey, I look at least as good as Gilligan.