The single most frustrating part of collecting arcade games has been the amount of maintenance it takes to keep them running. As a kid I had no idea how much time and effort was spent in keeping these machines running — then again back then when these machines were new, I suspect they weren’t quite so fragile.
Sometimes it’s the cold of winter that does them in; sometimes, the heat of summer. Moving them always makes me nervous. I can’t tell you how many machines I’ve bought in working condition in other states, only to have them arrive in Oklahoma, non-working. Sometimes it’s simply the aging process that does them in. That seems to have been Shinobi’s fate.
I paid somewhere around $200 for this machine, maybe 10 years ago. This is the third Shinobi machine I have owned. Shinobi boards have what is known as a suicide battery on them. You can read more about them here if you want, but all you really need to know is that when the battery dies, the game dies. With the first Shinobi machine I owned, the battery had leaked battery acid all over the PCB, killing the sound. The second (and nicest) of the three machines I own still works find, but I was so nervous about it dying that while at an auction, I picked up this machine. I’ve always referred to this one as my “spare” Shinobi.
Collectors are weird, I get it.
Because we moved and I don’t have the space, recently I put all of my games up for sale, including both Shinobi machines. I’m trying to get $250 for the nicer one and $200 for this one. Last night I went over to check on the machine and, wouldn’t you know it … it’s dead. Death by suicide battery, I think.
The drop dead date to be out of my storage unit is February 14th. With no time left for troubleshooting or working on machines, Shinobi had a hand in its own fate. I removed the remaining working parts (the monitor, the power supply, the control panel, and the coin door) and then … this happened.
This is me, smashing $200 and throwing it away.
So anyway, a funny thing happened last night. Before I could move this machine into the garage overnight for storage, I had to clean out a spot. One of the things in that spot was an old laptop case. I was just about to throw it away when I decided to check all the pockets. Inside the pockets I found three birthday/anniversary cards from 2003. That was the year Susan and I went to Vegas for our anniversary. One of the cards had $160 in cash inside it. A second card had $20 inside. A third one had a Target gift card with another $20 on it.
$200, the same amount as the cabinet I destroyed.
I took this as a sign from the universe that everything’s going to be okay.
After spinning my wheels for the past several weeks, yesterday I sold five arcade games … and the funny part was, three of them didn’t even work.
One of the most important parts of sales and marketing is knowing your audience, and that’s something I’m definitely encountering in my efforts to sell these machines.
There are lots of reasons why people buy arcade games. Most regular people might think that the only reason to buy an arcade machine would be to play it, but there are actually several other reasons. Sometimes, arcade enthusiasts will buy a machine just for the parts. I just sold my old Robocop machine for $150. Even though it’s not a very desirable game to own, the buyer got a working monitor ($100), the Robocop board ($50), plus a Midway cabinet ($50) and all the other parts (joysticks, buttons, a power supply, coin door, etc.) For someone who needs and can use the parts, it was a good deal — and I made my money back on that one, so everybody’s happy.
Other reason someone might buy a game would be for the cabinet itself. Take for example my Rampart machine:
As you can tell by the marquee, this was originally a Gauntlet II cabinet. For comparison, here’s a picture of another Gauntlet II machine (that I used to own):
Back to knowing your market; if I advertise this machine to a “non-collector”, I would advertise it as a working Rampart machine, and leave it at that. If I were to advertise it to a group of collectors, I would refer to it as a working and complete Gauntlet II cabinet that currently has Rampart installed in it. A collector is much more likely to convert this machine back to play Gauntlet II than they would be to leave it as a Rampart machine. A non-collector most likely wouldn’t care about the cabinet.
And that explains how I was able to sell three games yesterday that didn’t even work. One of them was an empty Donkey Kong, Jr. cabinet. Even with no innards, the cabinet was worth something to someone who will likely turn it back into a dedicated Nintendo machine. I also sold an old gutted Atari Gravitar/Black Widow cabinet and my non-working Rampage World Tour. I don’t know what the buyer plans on doing with the former, but the latter will most likely be converted into a Multicade of some sort, with its existing parts either being sold or re-used on another project.
I’m just starting to figure out this business while trying to get out of it at the same time.
Okay, I’ll admit it; yesterday’s post was a little depressing. I wrote it after moving 18 arcade games and coming to the realization that I simply don’t have the space or time to continue this hobby. It’s one thing to say it; it’s another thing to hear it from your aching back.
What I neglected to share with you all were all the good times I had with my arcade. Here are a few of those.
When we bought the house in 2002, what became known as “the arcade” was simply a shed. The previous home owner did woodworking as (we guess) a hobby. When we took ownership of the house, the shed was full of scrap wood, sawdust, and spiders. As I said yesterday, it was Susan who rallied my friends and family and surprised me with a complete remodel of the shed for my 30th birthday. I can honestly say I know what it’s like to be one one of those home makeover shows.
Originally I only had two arcade cabinets out there: Shinobi and Bucky O’Hare. They had been stored out in the garage, previously. Mason really enjoyed the air hockey table back then. Selling it is just one of the decisions I regret.
I spent the next few years attending auctions and buying and selling (but mostly buying) games. I never got the selling part down all that well. Three years later in 2006, the arcade looked like this:
Lots of cool things happened in 2008. The first of which was, I was interviewed by an AP reporter about my game collection. They even sent an AP photographer out to take pictures of my games! The article ran in newspapers across the country (I have a framed copy of the one that ran in the Chicago Times). Here is the picture that ran with the story:
The second thing was, friends of mine from all over the country came to Oklahoma to attend the Oklahoma Electronic Gaming Expo, and came to my house afterwards to enjoy my arcade. Friends of mine from Arkansas, Texas, and even New Mexico made the trek out.
The third thing that happened in 2008 was I published my second book. Invading Spaces: A Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Arcade Games was a compilation of everything I had learned about the hobby up until that point. (Say, maybe I should write a sequel, covering everything I know about getting out of it!) Although Invading Spaces has not sold as well as Commodork, I still stand behind the book. I think it’s full of useful information and entertaining stories.
Probably my favorite memory of the arcade took place New Year’s Eve, 2009. That’s the night my buddy Jeff and his family came over to ring in the new year.
For this to mean anything to you, you have to know this — I can’t remember going to a single (okay, Oklahoma-based) arcade without seeing Jeff there at my side. Our moms used to take us to Crossroads Mall to let us play at Le Mans together. We rode our bikes to the old arcade down on Vandement. We walked to the bowling alley together. We went to the skating rink together. Lord knows how many hours we spent at Cactus Jack’s together. The first time I ever saw (and played) Gauntlet, Jeff was there; same goes for so many other games.
Jeff and I met in 1985, and started playing arcade games together probably the following day. Here we were, in 2009, playing arcade games together in my backyard.
That’s me on the left and Jeff on the right, in case you didn’t know. And with everything that picture represents, I think this one is more important to me.
That’s Jeff’s son Talon in the foreground and my son Mason in the background. If that’s not full circle, I don’t know what is.
I like to gauge my adventures based on the number of friends I walk away with, and if that’s the case, then this hobby was a success. I’ve asked dozens of people for advice and help and I’ve passed on everything I’ve learned to anyone who has asked — so, to everyone who has lent me a hand over the years, thanks, and to everyone I’ve helped over the years, you’re welcome. ;)
I’m not totally getting out of the hobby, but I will be making a personal change from “that guy who owns 30 games” to “some guy who owns 3″. There’s a part of me that feels like I’m dumping part of my identity — I mean let’s face it, telling people “I’m the guy that used to own a lot of arcade games” isn’t nearly as impressive as inviting people over, opening the door to the arcade, and watching their jaws drop.
As I explained yesterday, the loss of my building means the loss of this hobby, at least for now. There are big parts of me that are a bit thankful for this. At some point, this hobby took on a life of its own. Over the past few years I have definitely spent more time working on my machines than I have playing or enjoying them. As a kid these giant hunks of wood seemed indestructible. Today, having worked on so many of them, they seem more fragile than they should That’s what I get for buying low end games. Had I stuck to buying one or two at a time and fixing them up before buying more I probably wouldn’t have burned out the way I did.
It’s tough to love and loathe something at the same time, but I managed it.
My immediate plans are to sell the games that are working and in good condition, and either fix or part out the rest. I waited just a tad too long to try and pull this off. (A month before Christmas would have been perfect, but … eh, hindsight.) Each buyer will probably have to endure my stories of how and where I obtained each cabinet one last time, and the selling of the cabinet will get appended on to the end of those stories.
This really shouldn’t feel like an eviction, but for some reason it does.
Last Monday I spent from dawn ’til dusk clearing out the last items remaining of our old home: the arcade. For those of you who haven’t seen it before, in better days it looked like this:
The “arcade” is really a shed that was already on the property when we purchased it. The actual number of machines inside fluctuated over time, but for most of 2011 it was home to 25 machines. I had another 3 in the garage that never made it out to the arcade — which, in retrospect, was for the best.
Back when we bought the house in 2002, the shed was literally just a shed. The walls and floor were wooden and unpainted, and the building itself was full of scrap lumber and sawdust. It was Susan who had the vision of what the building could be. She’s the one who (with the help of family and friends) painted the walls, put down the black and white carpet squares, and turned the shed into an arcade. Back then I only owned a handful of games — two, I think, along with a dartboard, a slot machine, a bumper pool table that converted into a poker table, and an air hockey table. Eventually the air hockey table, dartboard and bumper pool table were removed to make space for more games. There was a cool bar in there too that I got rid of. Eventually everything that wasn’t a game came out. I was operating under the “more is better” mantra, one I now regret.
For years I struggled with arranging my games in the room, but the problem was I simply had too many games for the space — a problem that some of you might say you wish you had, but trust me, you wouldn’t.
Although I’ve been buying arcade cabinets off and on since 1994, owning the building definitely enabled this hobby. Owning the building allowed me to own the machines — which means, sadly, that the loss of the building had led to the loss of the machines.
With help from Mom and Dad and a couple of friends, one by one the machines came out of the arcade Monday. I had already relocated six machines last week (three from the arcade and the three from the garage), leaving 18 machines for to move. The room was roughly divided into smaller (lighter) games on one side with larger (heaver) ones on the other. My plan was to move as many as I could starting with the lighter ones, saving the bulkier ones for when reinforcements arrived later in the evening.
While pulling games out I made a heartbreaking discovery — the building was not as waterproof as I had once thought. Rain had leaked in through the roof and ruined at least three of my games. Most arcade cabinets are cut from particle board, wood notorious for absorbing water and bloating into a mushy mess. Some of the wood literally crumbled like wet sand in my hands as I tried moving it. In a cosmic sense I suppose that my decision as to what to do with some of them that much simpler.
This is what the end of a dream looks like.
After taking a load of stuff back to the new house, I got 30 minutes of rest before it was time to head back and do it all over again. In the evening my friends Tim and Jeff came to help. The additional muscle was greatly appreciated, as by this time in the day my muscles were starting to quiver like spaghetti noodles. Unlike the games I had moved in the morning, most of the ones left were large, over-sized cabinets with big, heavy monitors. The lighter ones are for the most part a one man affair, but some of the heavier ones too all three of us to finagle through the door way, down the two concrete steps, across the yard, down the sidewalk, up the ramp and on to the trailer.
Seven or eight of the machines are in my garage. The rest are in storage. I’ll be selling what I can and literally dumping the rest. Games that I spent years tracking down and playing, I may be smashing into pieces and placing into trash dumpsters.
I’ve had a lot of miserable experiences when it comes to moving arcade games. I’ve dropped machines, I’ve hit drive-thru signs with them … I even almost lost one off the back of my trailer once. Nothing, however, compares to moving a 720 arcade cabinet by yourself.
720 arcade cabinets are essentially a lesson in what not to do when designing an arcade cabinet. It’s tall, and top heavy. It has a 25″ horizontally-mounted monitor in it, precariously balanced on top of a thin pedestal. The pedestal goes into a base that, I think, may contain concrete. None of the sides are flat, so unless you’ve got a trailer lying it down is almost impossible — and transporting it standing up is like balancing a bowling ball on top of a soda can, throwing a few tie-down straps around it and hoping for the best.
The average video game weighs somewhere around 250 pounds, give or take. This one weighs at least 400.
Friday night was the cut off for us to have the old garage emptied out. I’ve been putting off moving the 720 cabinet for some time now. If it weren’t one of my favorite games of all time, I’d have parted with it long ago. I bought my first arcade cabinet back in 1994, and started looking for a 720 machine shortly after that. I didn’t find a good one until 2009, fifteen years later. They’re not impossible to find, but unmolested ones don’t turn up very often.
After somehow managing to get the thing rolled up on to the trailer last night, I made the scary 10-mile drive in the dark over to the new house. I moved mine standing up, using another machine and two straps in an attempt to hold the beast in place. With each pothole, the trailer would sway and I would tap the brakes, using the red light from the brake lights to illuminate the cabinet and make sure it hadn’t fallen off or over.
Unloading the cabinet is easier, with gravity as your mistress. I advise grabbing on to your dolly with both hands and chasing the machine down the ramp until one or both of you slows down. There’s no good way to do it. Make sure no small children or animals are anywhere around this runaway skateboarding train of madness. It won’t be pretty.
I have a spot for two or three arcade machines upstairs in the new house. This won’t be one of them. I’m planning on keeping this one, but as long as I own it the thing will never go up (or down) a flight of stairs. No, this one will be relegated to a life in the garage on a concrete floor, I’m afraid.
Over the weekend Mason and I zipped down to Dallas to visit my friend Justin. One thing Justin wanted to do was take Mason to Gameworks, located in the Grapevine Mills Mall.
Gameworks is definitely a new school arcade. None of the machine there take quarters or tokens; instead, everything works off of a “game card” that you swipe at each machine. I’ve never been a fan of game card systems as they cause you to overspend and it make it hard to keep track of how much money you have left (which is probably the point).
Justin and Mason jumped right in on some House of the Dead 4 action, blowing away zombies. Mason played a little Beach Head 2002 and he and I took turns on the Star Wars Pod Racing machine. (I only took 4th place. The force was not with me.)
In the middle of the room stood two motion-controlled games (Initial D) which Mason took a go at. All I can say is, it’s a good thing that game has a seat belt.
From there, the three of us headed over to the pinball tables. There weren’t too many to choose from (five or six), but they did have Family Guy, South Park, and the Sopranos, so that was fun.
As far as older games go, there basically weren’t any. I saw one lone Frogger machine in one of the company’s custom conversion retro cabinets. I didn’t get a picture of it, but here’s a picture of the same style of cabinets that I took at the Gameworks in Las Vegas.
One good thing I should say about Gameworks is that I didn’t see a single broken machine. I didn’t experience a single button or joystick that didn’t work. It looks like they really stay on top of maintenance there.
The second annual Oklahoma Electronic Game Expo (OEGE) took place Saturday, April 11th, 2009 at Oklahoma City Community College. OEGE was actually a weekend-long event for me, as out-of-town friends of mine began trickling in Friday afternoon.
Not to be confused with the similarly named Oklahoma Video Game Expo (OVGE), OEGE is organized and thrown by a local college club/group. While the focus of OVGE is (mostly retro) video games, the theme of OEGE is a little more difficult to discern. It’s definitely different than your run-of-the-mill gaming convention; it’s more like a trade show. The focus really wasn’t on buying and selling old games. (There were only three people there selling video games, and two of them were friends of mine who ended up hanging out at my house Saturday night.) Of the fifteen or so vendors who made it to the show, half of them weren’t selling anything at all.
The coolest stuff for me personally at the show was the retro stuff. Local circuit bending musician TV Death Squad performed live for an hour during the show. When I saw a couple of punks carrying in a bunch of DJ equipment I was fearing for the worst, but TV Death Squad turned out to be really entertaining. Halfway through their set, the DJ handed Mason and Morgan hacked joysticks that played different sounds and samples and let them jam along to the music he was playing.
OEGE 2009 also marked the debut of Earl “Phosphor Dot Fossils” Green’s second PDF DVD. Both PDF volumes (Volume I and Volume II) feature three hours of chronological video game footage, commercials, facts and trivia. If you like footage of old games or enjoy things like Pop-Up Video, you will love these DVDs. If you didn’t pick them up at the show, check out Earl’s site and pick them up there for $20 shipped to anywhere in the US. I think there’s a special two-volume set just around the corner as well.
Fellow author Brett Weiss, author of Classic Home Video Games, 1972-1984: A Complete Reference Guide was also in attendance. Brett’s always a cool guy to catch up with, and along with his books he was also one of the three tables selling old games (along with Phosphor Dot Fossils and fellow game collector 98Pacecar).
And then there was my table. Last year at OVGE I tried doing too many things at once: demonstrating arcade parts, running a Commodore demo, selling a gaggle of video game stuff and (of course) signing and selling books. At OEGE I decided to simplify things and just sell books. Armed with only the bare essentials (including a box of books and two impressive signs printed by Paco over at Action Signs and Design in Norman — seriously, give Paco a call at (405) 364-3879 for all your vinyl sign and banner printing needs and tell him I sent you!) I set up my space and, along with my buddy Jeff, spent the majority of the day making sad puppy dog eyes at college students as they walked by and sneered at “the guy selling books.”
I was scheduled to give my presentation “Collecting Arcade Games” at 2:30pm, but at exactly 2:30pm there were only three other people besides me in the room, and two of them were my friend Jeff and my son Mason. I waited another ten minutes before starting and at that point there were almost 20 people in the room so I figured that was as good as it was going to get. (Unfortunately my speech was scheduled right during the highlight of the big game tournament, which is where 2/3 of the attendees were by that point in time.) A few other people trickled in late but no one left early, so that was a good sign. As always I started off okay, got really nervous five minutes into the presentation, and calmed down another five minutes later. I’m sure if I saw a video of my presentation (and it was filmed by the college) I’m sure I would hate it, but it felt … well, it didn’t feel like the worst presentation I ever gave, so I guess that’s good. There were no technical difficulties and I was exactly on time so, eh, it was what it was. There were a few people in the crowd smiling and nodding so it felt like I connected with at least a few people.
I connected with a few others during the show. I’m terrible with names but there was the musician kid with the long hair, the kid who I talked to about writing fiction (everybody under 25 is a kid to me these days), and the staff member who I talked to about DOS and old luggable computers and Linux and BBSes. Several years ago at OVGE I found that if I put out modern systems I got a lot of kids standing around playing my stuff all day, and when I put old stuff out I get interesting people to talk to. I also learned that if you put out candy you will have the most popular booth at the show. I skipped the candy this year and played it low key.
As always, my buddy Jeff was indispensable at the show. Jeff helped me run the table, wrangle up Mason, keep an eye on things when I would wander off to take pictures, and basically be “the responsible one”. I could not have done it without him. Again.
Speaking of pictures, I just installed ZenPhoto tonight so I might as well put my OEGE pictures there. Check it out and tell me how it compares to the other (Picasa) albums. I can tell you this — the ZenPhoto album looks like a lot less maintenance when it comes to adding new pictures and I suspect (if it runs okay) I will move everything over to it very shortly.
Thanks to Susan for helping with the house and the party planning. Thanks to everybody who bought a book, came to my presentation, or just stopped by the table to chat. Thanks to Paco for the rush job on the signs, and Drew Stone for doing such a good job on the show. Thanks to Brian, Ginger, Emmy, Darren, Steve, Earl, Charles, Dad, Linda, Doug, and everybody else who came out to the show or hung out at the house this weekend. And finally, extra special thanks to Jeff for putting up with my kookiness and spending his entire Saturday helping me out.
Susan flies out to DC tomorrow; she’ll be gone Monday through Thursday afternoon; Thursday morning, I hit the road for Cleveland. Sometime between now and then, I have to install our new home camera/security system. I’m really looking forward to next weekend, and I’m kind of looking forward to next weekend being over.
For those of you who don’t know, I have a part-time second job. I’m the maintenance guy for a local arcade … that just happens to be located in my backyard.
I know lots of people who think it would be fun to own an arcade game, but most of those people don’t know what kind of work goes in to keeping one up and running. Sure, these beasts were pretty reliable back when they were new, but all of my games are somewhere between fifteen and twenty-five years old, and many of them are getting cantankerous in their old age. It seems like these days I spend a lot more of my time working on my games than playing them.
A few of my out-of-state friends are coming to visit next weekend for OEGE, and I know they’ll want to check out the arcade. One of the things on my mighty to-do list this weekend was to sweep through the arcade and make what repairs I could make given the amount of time available.
It’s no fun playing X-Men when all Wolverine can do is jump. As this four-player game always gets interested players, I spent about an hour testing this machine and swapping out the five bad buttons I found. Wolverine can now punch, jump, and use his mutant power!
A few months ago Make Trax died. This afternoon I pulled it out of the arcade and put it in the garage. Then I pulled Ms. Pac-Man out of the garage and moved it into the arcade. The two briefly met on the front porch of the arcade. It was awkward.
No words were exchanged, and soon Ms. Pac-Man found her way into the arcade. The paint’s a little faded and the machine definitely needs new t-molding, but considering I paid $80 for it and it works perfectly, I have no complaints.
Finally, several of you who have read Invading Spaces have asked to see the final resting place of my Defender cabinet, the one I got that had one perfect side and three rotten ones. The rotten ones went in the trash and the good one was mounted on the door of my arcade. (Yes, the door is now very heavy.)
Hopefully before next Saturday I’ll find time to move either Centipede or 720 out to the arcade. Then she’ll be ready.
Greg Kennedy asks: “I have a question about your MAME cabinet: how much do you play it vs. the other real-deal machines you own? I wonder sometimes if the diversity offered by MAME is a match for dedicated hardware or not [...] I asked because I just got my MAME cab working and was wondering how others’ experience pans out over time.”
Greg, I’m so glad you asked!
The debate between MAME Cabinets and Arcade Cabinets (aka: “dedicated arcade machines” or “real machines”) has raged, I’m guessing, since the day the first MAME cabinet was built and will continue to rage for as long both MAME Cabinets and Arcade Cabinets co-exist. Some people love MAME Cabs and don’t see the point in dedicated machines, while others cling to dedicated machines and detest MAME and emulation. Like most technical discussions, rather than taking a definitive “right” or “wrong” stance, I tend to evaluate the positive and negative points of each and then apply the appropriate solution to an individual’s needs — in other words, I rarely subscribe to “one size fits all” solutions. Questions like “How many megapixels should my next camera have?” and “how big of a hard drive do I need?” can not honestly be answered without finding out additional information, and finding a solution that meets that specific person’s needs. Likewise, MAME vs. Real is a complicated matter and a personal choice that is different for every single person.
There are many reasons why I enjoy, own and collect arcade games. I grew up in the 80s playing real arcade games in real arcades. Just seeing an arcade cabinet up close, even one that’s turned off, brings back memories of those times. For me, the actual videogame itself is such a small part of the enjoyment. I mean, I love my Ms. Pac-Man cabinet; I love the artwork, I love the shape, I love colors and the sounds … but to be honest, I don’t like playing it all that much. I’m no good at it, really. I’m sure there are small children who could beat me at the game, if it were somehow able to keep their attention long enough.
The machines I play the most are my favorites. If you’ve read Invading Spaces you already know most of the stories. I own RoadBlasters because I used to play it at the bowling alley. I own Shinobi because I used to play it up at the neighborhood convenient store. I own Gauntlet because Jeff, Andy and I used to play spent all day playing it. I own Karate Champ because my friend and I used to play it against one another, head-to-head. In fact, I own the actual machine my friend and I used to play on. Ain’t that somethin’.
But more than any one specific machine I like the video and audio chaos created by twenty or thirty machines flashing and bleeping at the same time, all vying for your quarters. That’s something you don’t get from a MAME machine. It’s something you get by owning twenty or thirty machines and turning them on all at the same time. Is that a weird reason to buy twenty or thirty arcade machines? Probably. Maybe even definitely. And maybe I like owning them because I know my kids will never experience arcades the way I experienced them, and I’d like for them to — although, as time goes on, I’m already finding that those were my memories, not theirs. (That’s a topic for another day.)
I have gone on the record as stating that collecting arcade games has got to be one of the dumbest hobbies of all time. Machines are big and heavy; there are logistics involved in moving and storing them. They break down, more than you would think. As a kid I thought these flashing monoliths were indestructible and maybe back then they were; the older I get, the more fragile they appear. They are expensive to buy, to run, and to maintain. They can be financial pitfalls.
MAME, on the other hand, is relatively cheap. Broken arcade games can be picked up for almost nothing. For the price of cheap PC, monitor, some wire and some elbow grease, you can turn that cabinet into a MAME Cabinet. It looks like an arcade cabinet and plays arcade games, but its “guts” are a PC, and the games are emulated. There are technical differences between MAME machines and vintage arcade machines, the most common of which are differences in monitors. Classic arcade monitors work more like television sets than computer monitors (and are completely different than LCD monitors). While “arcade experts” can tell the difference in a second, the average person off the street probably wouldn’t notice and, more than likely, won’t care. I can’t say if it would bother you or not.
The problem (well, one of) with MAME machines is that they play everything. With a joystick and a couple of buttons you can emulate literally thousands of games. Add a trackball and a spinner and a steering wheel and eventually you’ll be able to play essentially everything — of course by that point in time it won’t look much like a real arcade game, and truth told that may be one of the things that vintage collectors have against MAME cabinets. They don’t “look” right, or at least most of them don’t. (Mine is virtually indistinguishable from a real cabinet; in fact, it’s in an unmolested cabinet and I often leave it running a game when people come over just to see if they’ll notice that it’s running MAME).
Pong is, especially when compared to most videogames released over the past twenty-five years, a fairly boring game. The game’s instructions printed on the machine were ridiculously simple (“Avoid missing ball for high score.”). It is something my three-year-old can play and my seven-year-old would quickly tire of, and yet people lined up to play it. I spent hours playing Pong with friends, because that was all we had. I, and maybe you too, have spent hours playing a game that in retrospect wasn’t very good because we only had a few games. Sky Diver for the Atari 2600 seemed pretty fun back in the day when I only had a few games.
There’s a weird psychological thing that happens to me (and maybe everybody, I don’t know) whenever I get a bunch of stuff all at once. I’ll check out the best of the best and the rest never gets touched, or at least not for a long time. Back in physical-land, this wasn’t such a problem. I’d buy three albums and only listen to two of them. I’d buy five a dozen books and only read a couple of them. We weren’t dealing with the astronomical numbers we have in today’s digital world. Suddenly things like Napster and p2p file sharing and all kinds of wonderful (I mean terrible) things came along. All of a sudden I wasn’t getting three albums; I was getting three hundred. I wasn’t getting five books; I was getting five-thousand. While the number of things I was getting increased exponentially, the amount of things I consumed did not. After downloading 300 albums, I didn’t listen to two-hundred of them — I listened to a dozen or so before the next albums started coming in. This isn’t a new phenomenon. I can remember trading Commodore games with kids at school, bringing home ten disks of games, and only playing a handful of them more than once. And, to be sure, it’s not limited to digital files. If you’ve ever picked up a stack of cheap videogames at a garage sale and found yourself only playing the best of the crop, you know what I’m talking about.
I remember the first time I downloaded and tried an Atari 2600 emulator for my PC. The zip file, which was around 3mb in size, included both an emulator and every single known Atari 2600 game. I don’t remember the actual number, but there were five or six-hundred different games included. Did I play them all? No. Did I play half of them? No. I played about fifteen or twenty of them, and many of those were for less than a minute. As a kid I can remember spending entire rainy days playing Pinball and Asteroids on the 2600; this time around, I only played them for five, ten minutes, tops. The vast majority of the ROMs never got played.
I would be lying if I said part of the reason was because they weren’t the real thing. I love boxes, manuals and artwork. I like to touch the games, feel them in my hands. Is that to day I am anti-emulation? Absolutely not. I think they both have their place. Emulation will never completely replace the feeling of playing a real game on real hardware, but the ease of which ROMs are obtained and played (as compared to buying and maintaining old hardware and software) is, quite frankly, simpler and less expensive. I appreciate both methods of game playing.
Which, somehow, brings us back full circle to MAME cabinets — and specifically, my MAME cabinet.
The biggest mistake I made when building my cabinet was copying every single ROM MAME would play on to my cabinet. I think that’s something around 5,000 ROMs — 5,000 arcade games, sitting in one upright cabinet, waiting to be played. Many of them will be waiting forever. Even as someone who grew up hanging around arcades, there are hundreds — no, thousands — of games I have never heard of in MAME. Some of them are obscure. Some of them are Japanese. Some of them are just plain bad. None of them will ever be played by me, or anyone ever playing my cabinet.
Which begs the question, why are they even on there? For two reasons, mainly. One is for when people say, “Have you ever played game X? You should try it, it’s really fun!” Instead of trying to track down the game, I simply walk to my MAME cabinet and lo and behold the game is waiting there for me. Isn’t that an odd thought? Twenty years ago, someone wrote a game. Ten years ago, someone wrote a program to play that game. Five years ago, I downloaded that game and built a cabinet to play it. Last night, I played it for the first time. What a long, lengthy journey for that little piece of code! The other reason I leave all those games on my MAME machine is because whenever people come over to visit my arcade (not as often as you would think), immediately after seeing my collection of games they say, “Oh my gosh do you have GAME X?” or “I remember playing GAME Y back in the day!” When it’s a game I don’t own, it’s fun to walk over to the MAME machine, punch a few buttons and bring up a slice of their own childhood. Those people do not care about the differences between emulation and dedicated games. They do not care that the resolution is higher on a computer monitor than an arcade monitor. They do not wish to hear that they only think they are playing a classic game when, in reality, they are playing a nearly indistinguishable computer-emulated version said game on a computer piled inside an arcade cabinet. They only care that at that moment, they are playing Joust. They have been swept away to the past, like I am every day, to a simpler time. They smile, and that makes me smile.
When I first began collecting arcade games almost fifteen years ago, I made a mental list of games I wanted to own someday. The list is fluid; it changed a lot in the early days and changes less often today. My initial list was made without any technical knowledge of arcade games or prices. For example, at one point in time I wanted to own a Pole Position cabinet. Everyone Pole Position owner I have ever met falls into one of two categories; those who continually fix theirs, and those who own broken machines. I also wanted to own a Dragon’s Lair cabinet at one time, without knowing that the laserdiscs and laserdisc players that play them are expensive to replace and dying due to old age. The more I learned, the more that list rearranged itself. Over time the real “must own” list formed itself: 720, Gauntlet, Centipede, Commando, Karate Champ, Mortal Kombat, Rampart, Shinobi, Speed Buggy, Super Offroad, Zaxxon, and so on. If that list sounds familiar, it’s because I own them all.
That’s not to say I own every game I ever wanted to own. Some of them, like Elevator Action and Mat Mania, were sold. Others like Star Wars and Scramble, broke and I could never get working. And then there are the ones I haven’t found yet, at least not at a price I’m willing to pay — stuff like Double Dragon, a game I think is worth a hundred bucks and the current market thinks is worth more (I’ll wait ‘em out). Those games, I play in MAME, on my cabinet, and I don’t mind it a bit. No, it is not better than the real thing. Yes, it is better than nothing.
Several years ago, some evil genius created the 48-in-1 JAMMA PCB. Like the name implies, the board plays 48 different games, and fits in one cabinet. The board includes games like Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Frogger, and, well, 45 others. And boy, did my wish list of games ever change the day I bought one of those. For around a hundred bucks, I could now play almost fifty classic games in the space of one cabinet!
But something funny happened after buying that 48-in-1. A few months later I bought a Centipede cabinet. Centipede is one of the 48 games included on the board. Since then I’ve picked up Ms. Pac-Man and Zaxxon, two other games included on the 48-in-1 too. What does it all mean? I’m not sure. I can tell you this … all three of those games have classic artwork or vintage styling, something you just don’t get from a generic 48-in-1 cabinet.
So how often do I play my MAME cabinet? Not that much, I guess. At this point there are around ten games I play on it from time to time: Jungle Hunt, Double Dragon, Excitebike, Zoo Keeper … a few others. Chances are before I’m all done with this hobby, I’ll own those too. For the average person, I would say a MAME Cabinet is a pretty sane way to get into the hobby without letting it take over your life. Then again, worrying about what sane people do has never been a big concern of mine.
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.