Do you remember the old arcades?
In 1982, arcade video games were everywhere. Everyone was playing them, young and old alike, accountants, housewives and children. At the time, you could play a state-of-the-art computer game anywhere except at home: at Aladdin’s Castle in your mall, your local Chuck-E-Cheese or Showbiz Pizza Place, the corner 7-11 or even in the reception area of your dentist’s office. It was a $7 billion dollar a year industry, earned one quarter at a time, and it had emerged practically overnight. It disappeared just as quickly. By 1985, America was in the throes of a deep recession, the home gaming market had been glutted with inferior product, and many people stopped playing video games. Their novelty had run its course. The fad of the arcade ended and game rooms across the country shuttered. Game over!
But why did the arcades go away? And what happened to all of those games? Twenty five years later you can still occasionally find a classic arcade game “in the wild.” But when you do, more often than not, it’s a ghostly reminder (Inky, Blinky, Pinky or Clyde?) of its former glory; when you drop your quarter in the coin chute—assuming it doesn’t get stuck—you find the joystick no longer works or the monitor is out of adjustment, with decades of burn-in, caked in so much dust you can no longer make out any of the formerly colorful sprites. The artwork, too, has been ripped off or tagged with graffiti, abused by cigarette stains, decades’ worth of wear and tear. Someone experiencing a classic game in such condition for the first time may naturally be lead to wonder what was the big deal with these games anyway?
Well, sit back, kids, and listen to our tale! The golden era of the arcade, 1979 to 1984, represented a period of unmatched creativity. Yes, the graphics and sounds of the old games are shockingly rudimentary but many still argue that their game play will never be rivaled. Not coincidentally, the aforementioned years also saw a new generation—children of baby boomers, later dubbed “Generation X”—come of age. It’s hard to find someone from this age group who doesn’t have fond memories of their formative years spent in the arcades: the cacophonous sounds and the smells of burning phosphor and bad pizza. It was, for many, the locus of our entertainment: a hang-out after school, the place to go on weekends, a way to while away the long, hot summers, to socialize, celebrate birthdays and, yes, even occasionally have their first awkward encounters with members of the opposite sex.
In 1978, video games usurped pinball in popularity. The hardware that drove the early evolution in gaming, laid the foundation for an industry that now exceeds $18.8 billion annually in home sales. CPUs and TTL logic were finally affordable enough to be mass-produced. Space Invaders, released that year, caused a yen shortage in Japan. The following year, color and vector monitors arrived, bringing added realism and speed—and, with them, a revolutionary new form of entertainment.
Initial development costs were low and profits astronomically high. The watershed success of Asteroids in 1979 and Pac-Man in 1980 led to the formation of many new companies hoping to capitalize on this novel form of entertainment. The rules for what make a good game had not yet been written. The marketplace seemed to reward creative risk-taking. Since game software could be developed in a matter of months instead of years, and often by a single programmer working in front of a terminal, no idea was consider too outlandish to at least try. Games about flying ostriches and escaped monkeys, a bubble in a kitchen sink, a vanguard of alien fleets, mother kangaroos, menacing centipedes, hapless frogs trying to cross against traffic, and cities in need of nuclear defense could all exist in the same place at the same time. That place was your local arcade. There was practically no learning curve for most of these games. A few instructions might exist on the control panel or the bezel but they were largely ignored. The games, in general, all operated the same way: insert coin, press the start button, and enjoy two or three minutes of unadulterated bliss, transported, at least for the duration of the game, into an alternate existence.
The old school arcade games have experienced an unexpected second life, re-emerging decades after the fall of the arcade, in new consumer-friendly forms playable in MAME on personal computers, virtual consoles like the Wii and even the iPhone, all of which have introduced them to a new generation of gamers. But perhaps even more surprising, the original games—three-hundred to five-hundred pounds of clunky and antiquated hardware housed inside large pressed particle board boxes with old cathode ray tubes, corroded board sets and brittle wires, have not disappeared—at least not yet, not completely.
There are hundreds of individuals across the United States who have, in a wave of nostalgia, dedicated themselves to preserving the halcyon memories of their misspent youths. They have bonded in the form of a loose brotherhood (yes, it is almost entirely men of a certain age who collect these games) that has taken root on the internet to share lore, exchange repair and restoration tips and revel in bragging rights about their latest old school acquisitions.
While many dream of one day making a permanent arcade space of their own, a handful have already succeeded in doing so, assuming second mortgages in order to expand their houses or finish their garages or basements, upgrading the electrical mains, installing black-light carpeting, hanging posters and signs that replicate with astonishing verisimilitude the feeling that existed when one visited the arcade. Some have succeeded in creating a Shangri-La that, sometimes, actually rivals the opulence of most of the old arcades. Many of the collectors have names for their arcades and these arcades are every bit as colorful as the people who have created them.
There are several truisms about arcade game collecting: you can’t collect just one arcade game and the games you collect are going to break down. The internet has leveled the playing field, making information necessary about the games available to anyone who is interested in acquiring even moderate technical know-how.
Some have made a business of catering to the various needs of collectors. There are people, some of whom are collectors themselves, who specialize in selling old parts—boards, power supplies, marquees and other items necessary to complete a game restoration or get a dead game working. People will post in newsgroups or on their web pages, detailing picture by picture, any restoration jobs they have undertaken. Others in the business specialize in short-runs of screen-printed graphics meant to be indistinguishable from the original artwork. Still others, with a background in electrical engineering or programming, have found a way to “reverse engineer” the original circuitry, programming or schematics in order to release additional untapped potential in the obsolete hardware: adding new games or new versions of games or multi-games which can help greatly with maximizing the limited real estate most collectors have to work with.
In many ways, arcade game collecting is no different than collecting Pez dispensers, silver spoons or thimbles. In one big way, though, it is different and that is the relative size of the objects being collected. In this respect, the title “The Space Invaders” is a bit of a playful pun for it gets to the heart of the conundrum facing most serious video game collectors, no matter what their specific reason is for collecting: space itself is always finite and usually at a premium. The old arcade machines succeed in using a tremendous amount of it. They can literally fill and eventually take over any room they’ve entered. At the same time, they can consume and eat away at other “spaces” as well: the psyches of individual collectors, their spousal and familial relationships, and, of course, their pocketbooks.
In spite of such risks, most collectors don’t pursue the hobby to such obsessive or alienating extremes. Most, in fact, are quite down to earth. They come from all walks of life and enjoy many different pastimes outside of the hobby. They are well-adjusted people, financially successful (in order to afford the hobby) and smart, with professional responsibilities that often inform their interest in the hobby. One way perhaps that they are different is that they’ve managed to remain young at heart by hanging on to a little bit of their childhood, preserving and propagating memories of a simpler time when it seemed as if most of life’s problems could be solved with a pocketful of quarters and a trip to the arcade.
Arcade game collectors are typically quite social, which perhaps runs counter to the expected stereotype. They enjoy opportunities to show off their games and their game rooms, to host parties for families and friends, to open their garages to a new generation of young gamers trick-or-treating in their neighborhoods, and to gather at various events and conventions throughout the year (e.g. SC3, California Extreme, PhillyXpo) in order to hobnob with others with similar interests, display their wares, and do everything they can to keep the memory of the arcades alive.
Ultimately, many collectors hope to pass the games on to their children.
The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time will take you inside America’s hidden game rooms and into the hearts and minds of those who have made it their mission to enthusiastically preserve these important cultural touchstones.