Behind every collection there is a collector, and behind every collector there is a holy grail that drives him — that one, seemingly unobtainable item that always seems to be just out of reach for one reason or another. For those unfamiliar with the concept, “holy grail” comes from the 1975 comedy “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, and it was also featured in the third Indiana Jones film, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
There are multiple reasons why grails become grails. The first quantifier is typically the law of supply and demand — in other words, there are fewer items available than there are people who want them. In some cases, this alone is enough to make the item highly desirable. Take the Star Wars Blue Snaggletooth action figure for example. For those who don’t know the story, Kenner made several of its early action figures based on waist-high, black and white photographs of several of the film’s cantina creatures. In the movie Snaggletooth appears (for two seconds) as a short creature in a red jumpsuit, but Kenner mistakenly made their figure as a tall creature in a blue jumpsuit. The Blue Snaggletooth figures ended up in early playsets, but by the time the figure ended up in stores on a card, it had been redesigned to match his appearance in the movie (short/red jumpsuit). Blue Snaggletooths (Snagleteeth?) are an example of something being collectible simply because there aren’t very many of them. No one likes Snaggletooth because of his two seconds of screen time in the Star Wars cantina and nobody needed him to re-enact, well, anything. The blue figures are highly sought simply because there aren’t very many of them. (I have one, of course.)
There are other variables that come in to play as well. A good story never hurts (see: the C-3P0 penis card or the even more offensive R-rated Billy Ripkin Baseball Card). One additional piece of advice my dad always offers about restoring cars, which applies to many other collecting genres, which is: “Before restoring a car, you should make sure it was a good car to begin with.”
After seeing the Coca-Cola Breakdancers way back in 1984, I decided I wanted to be a professional breakdancer when I grew up. This faded when, after seeing Enter the Ninja, I decided I wanted to instead be a professional ninja. That career path also fell by the wayside around 1985/86 when professional skateboarding re-exploded. Seemingly from out of nowhere, skateboarding was reborn. The first thing I remember seeing was the OP Vert Skateboarding Championships on ESPN. I remember thinking at the time, “I can’t believe they are showing skateboarding on ESPN!” (My, how times have changed!) Pretty soon I had a Variflex skateboard (the only brand they sold at Wal-Mart, I think). It sucked; the wheels didn’t roll well, the wood sagged, and the whole thing was so heavy I couldn’t do any tricks on it (at least what’s what I blamed it on). A few months later I bought my first “real” board. a blue on pink G&S Neil Blender, and that Christmas I got my first new board, an Alva Fred Smith III complete with Tracker trucks and Slimeball wheels. And yeah, with these boards I could skate (at least a little) better. Louis Lents was my main skating buddy and since the two of us both had motorcycles and skateboards we would cruise around, looking for sweet skate spots. Andy and Jeff and I skated quite a bit together, too. For at least a little while, it seemed like everybody skated. Skating continued to grow in popularity with films like 1986′s Thrashin’ and 1987′s Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol.
Also in 1986, Atari released one of my favorite arcade games of all time: 720, named for a seemingly impossible trick (two full rotations in the air). In 1984, Mike McGill pulled off the first 540 spin (called a “McTwist”, after McGill). For a year and a half the McTwist was THE trick to learn until, in late 1985, Tony Hawk pulled off the first 720. 720 (the game, from hereon in) was named for that trick as it was considered to be one of the hardest tricks of all time. (It took Hawk another 14 years to add another 180 degree turn and pull off a 900, which he finally did at the 1999 X-Games).
So anyway, back to 720. In the game you play a skateboard punk in Skate City. The goal is to work your way through four levels of four parks, earning as many points as possible throughout your adventure. You have a pre-determined amount of time to get from park to park; take too long, and a swarm of bees will come buzzing for you, along with an ominous warning spoken in that classic mid-80s Atari speech-synthesis voice: “SKATE OR DIE!”
So, getting back to what makes things like arcade games a holy grail. For one, 720 was and is one of my favorite arcade games of all time. It hit me at a time when I loved skateboarding and I loved arcade games and 720 was an awesome combination of the two. Unlike many other companies that joined the growing trend of using more generic and interchangeable cabinets and parts, 720 cabinets are completely unique, complete with a giant “ghetto-blaster” marquee sitting atop the cab. Along with the cabinets unique design was its unique joystick, a strange combination of joystick and paddle that no other game has ever used. There weren’t, I don’t think, that many 720 cabinets around. Although I haven’t been able to find exact production numbers, the 720 Registry page lists serial numbers starting at #1005 (they probably started numbering at #1000) and the highest one is #3262, which would mean 2,257 cabinets. (Even if they started numbering at #0001, that would still be less than 3,500 cabinets.)
I bought my first arcade cabinet way back in 1994, and as I began acquiring more machines I began making a mental list of “games I would like to eventually own.” That list changed rapidly in my early days of collecting. The more I learned about the hobby, the more I adjusted my list. For example, simple JAMMA games in non-unique cabinets moved down the list while classic, unique, and harder-to-find games quickly rose to the top. Other things affected my list as well; for example, early on, Pole Position was on the list. Over the years I’ve met a lot of gifted arcade technicians and almost all of them own or have owned a non-working Pole Position. That game is notoriously difficult to get running and keep running. Same thing with TRON. I love the way TRON cabinets look and I like the game, but I’ve played TRON on three different cabinets recently and after two or three games, I’ve had my fill. I can’t justify the prices a TRON cabinet demands for something I don’t truly love. TRON started high on the list, but worked its way down slightly.
But 720 weathered the the storm, starting near the top of the list and working its way to the number one position. In 1995 I began attending arcade auctions, always keeping one eye open for a 720 machine, but one never appeared. For over ten years I’ve been searching for one. I marked other machines off the list one by one. Karate Champ, check. Road Blasters, check. Q*Bert, check. Some of the other games took longer to acquire, mostly due to my own self-imposed price ceiling. I only recently picked up Centipede and Ms. Pac-Man cabinets, but now I can mark them off the list too.
Still, 720 eluded me. That is, until this past weekend.
While talking to Troy (a fellow collector) the other night, Troy informed me that Dean (another collector) said that Mike (another collector) had just picked up a 720 cabinet. Now over the years I have seen two 720 cabinets sell on eBay. I know what they sell for. I bid $500 for one that was in Denver, a twelve-hour (one way) drive from here. The other one I almost had went for over a thousand bucks (and was in New Mexico). When I heard that one was for sale locally, I moved quickly. I found out about the cabinet Thursday. I knew it would not make it through the weekend unsold.
Saturday night, after spending 3x more than I have spent on any other arcade cabinet other, Jeff and I unloaded the 400lb behemoth out of the back of the Avalanche and into my garage. The cabinet is near perfect, missing only the side art. Dean helped me replace one of the buttons and gave me a few spares for the others that I’ll swap in sometime this week.
The game is as fun as I’d remembered. I’ve played it on the computer and it was included in the Midway Arcade Treasure collection, but without that unique cabinet and controller, it just wasn’t the same.
My holy grail, acquired. Mission accomplished. A winner is me.
Time to readjust the list.