My article on collecting classic arcade games appeared in AntiqueWeek last year some time. Here it is, reprinted for your enjoyment (I hope you enjoy it, that is...):
When you walk into most any video game arcade today, such as those
found in Putt-Putt Fun Center and Chuck E. Cheese’s, you’ll see kids,
teenagers, twenty-somethings, and parents milling about nicely carpeted,
brightly lit areas, compulsively feeding tokens into hulking dance machines,
three-dimensional first-person shooters, multi-player racecar simulators, and
other such lavishly produced coin-op games.
Also prevalent are ticket redemption games, which typically offer a
brief, mildly entertaining challenge (such as the skillful timing of a single
button press) and, if the player is successful, a string of tickets to redeem
at a prize counter. Ticket redemption games usually lack substance, (though there
are some exceptions, such as skee ball), and their prizes are cheaply produced
and/or way too expensive (anything of value typically costs hundreds or
thousands of tickets). Most old-school arcade purists resent the ubiquitous
nature of ticket redemption games, but kids seem to love their slot
Arcades today are much different than those of the 1970s and early
’80s, an era that many experts refer to as the “Golden Age” of video games, a
time when such simplistic (but addictive, challenging, and fun) games as Centipede, Defender, Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-Man,
and Galaga captured the public’s
hearts, minds, and quarters. These games, with their compelling, twitch-based
gameplay, were easy to learn, but tough to master: fast reflexes and
laser-focused concentration were absolutely crucial for making your quarter
last longer than a few seconds.
Depending on the venue, many arcades also had pinball machines,
pool tables, and/or other diversions, and loud rock music would frequently
reverberate throughout from hidden speakers. Most arcades were darkly lit, and
oftentimes people could smoke, giving the hangouts a speakeasy-for-teens type
of vibe. Modern arcades may be cleaner and more family friendly, but Golden Age
arcades had more character and atmosphere, not to mention better (if
technologically inferior) games.
The first commercially released arcade video game was Nolan
Bushnell’s Computer Space (1971), a
game obviously patterned after Steve Russell’s Space War!, which was one of the earliest digital computer games.
The first commercially successful arcade video game was the tennis-like Pong (1972), which was the brainchild of
Bushnell, who probably got the idea for the game from Ralph Baer’s Magnavox
Odyssey home game console. The Odyssey offered several variations on the type
of video tennis formula pioneered by Baer, but popularized by Pong.
A variety of historically important arcade video games followed in
the wake of Pong, including Atari’s Space Race (1973), Kee Games’ Tank (1974), Bally/Midway’s Gun Fight (1975), Atari’s Breakout (1976), and Exidy’s Circus (1977). However, it wasn’t until
the 1978 release of Space Invaders
that the industry truly took off.
Produced by Japanese developer Taito, Space Invaders, which was the first shooter of its type (it created
the “slide-and-shoot” subgenre), was licensed by Bally/Midway for distribution
in the United States. The game was such a sensation in Japan that it caused a
nationwide shortage of the 100-yen coin used to play the game.
In America, more than 60,000 Space
Invaders cabinets were sold during its first year in production. It was the
chief catalyst of the video game craze of the era, in which thousands of
arcades popped up all over the country. In addition to arcades, coin-op games
began showing up in a variety of unconventional establishments, from
Laundromats to supermarkets to convenience stores to the lobbies of pro sports
Numerous chart-busting arcade games followed, including such famous
titles as Atari’s Asteroids (1979),
Stern’s Berzerk (1980), Nintendo’s Donkey Kong (1981), Sega’s Turbo (1982), and Cinematronics’ Dragon’s Lair (1983). And, of course,
there was a little game called Pac-Man
(1980), which unleashed an avalanche of imitators (including Lady Bug and Mouse Trap), sequels (including Ms.
Pac-Man, Super Pac-Man, and Jr. Pac-Man), and merchandising,
including lunchboxes, cereal, canned pasta, plush toys, sneakers, candy, and
Darren Sulfridge of Plano, Texas, who grew up playing video games
during the Golden Age, has a soft spot for the era. “I really miss the old
style arcades,” Sulfridge said. “The new ones are fun, but all they ever seem
to have are the big simulators and shooting games. Add to that the fact that
the arcades are no longer the social spot they used to be, and it's not
anywhere near the same experience.”
Not content to simply wax nostalgic about the arcades of his youth,
Sulfridge has tried with some measure of success to simulate the experience in
his home by outfitting his game room with coin-op classics. In addition to a
modern pinball machine (South Park),
Sulfridge has the following vintage arcade games in his collection: Millipede/Centipede, Warlords, Asteroids, Blasteroids, Galaga, Gauntlet, Sinistar, Ataxx, Tron, Ms. Pac-Man, Moon Patrol, Donkey Kong, Phoenix, Tempest, Mortal Kombat 4, Smash TV,
Neo Geo 1-Slot, Joust, and Star Wars.
Clearly, Sulfridge prefers the classics. “Modern games can be fun,
but they really don't have the same variety as the older games and exist solely
to suck as much money out of you as they can,” Sulfridge said. “You can
essentially credit-feed through any one of them to beat the game. The older
games required skill, and the best players could go almost indefinitely.”
Sulfridge’s favorite arcade game of all time is Star Wars, which Atari released in 1983.
“Every kid wanted to fly an X-Wing, and this was the closest you could get in
the 80's,” he said. “It has to be the cockpit version, though, as it's much
more immersive [than the upright model]. The gameplay stands out to me as
something that you can play for a few minutes or a few hours and, either way,
you feel like you have accomplished something. The voice effects in Star Wars
are amazing as well.”
Like many collectors, Sulfridge enjoys sharing his collection with
family and friends. “It's a lot of fun to be able to recreate the classic
arcade feel whenever we have a party,” Sulfridge said. “The look on people's
faces is priceless! I've learned that everybody has ‘their game.’ That is to
say, the one game that they specifically remember and want to play again. As
soon as they see the arcade room, they start asking about their game and if I
have it. Past that, folks just tend to play what's there and seem to enjoy
Obviously, having a game room in your house outfitted with actual
arcade games is a lot of fun. However, it’s not always an easy hobby to
maintain. “There is never enough space [to display all the games you own],”
Sulfridge said, “and most houses aren’t built with enough circuits in a single
room to power 15-plus games at the same time.”
Transportation and maintenance are also concerns. “Finding enough
friends to help move games and having a way to transport them can be problematic,”
Sulfridge said. “I never owned a truck until I started actively buying games
and, since then, I’ve always had one. A lot of people worry about the actual
repairs of the games, but as I learned more about what made them tick, I became
fascinated with the idea of repairing them. If you can work a soldering iron
and have some basic trouble shooting skills, they are really pretty easy to
In his book, Invading Spaces:
A Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Arcade Games, author Rob O’Hara, who at
the time owned more than 25 coin-op games, expounds at length about the
challenges involved with creating and maintaining a home arcade, half-jokingly
calling it a “dumb” pastime and “the most ridiculous hobby on the face of the
In the introduction to his amusing and informative tome, O’Hara
writes: “Arcade games are big, giant, heavy, expensive chunks of wood and
electronics that need regular repairs, lots of space to be displayed, and can
be emulated for free on your home computer with little to no effort.”
Despite his part tongue-in-cheek, part reality-based misgivings,
O’Hara obviously loves owning his favorite video games. And, like Sulfridge, he
has fond memories of arcades of the early ’80s.
“Arcades were a social gathering place,” Ohara writes, “a secret
clubhouse away from adults where kids met and hung out with their friends.
There was no feeling quite like being so awesome at a game that a crowd would
form around you and watch you play.” Thanks to a converted workshop in his
backyard, O’Hara, who regularly has friends over to enjoy his arcade, can experience
that feeling once again.
A few commercial arcades still exist that cater to retro gamers,
such as New Hampshire’s Funspot (www.funspotnh.com), which bills itself as “the
largest arcade in the world.” However, most arcades these days are filled with
modern games that bear little resemblance to their forebears.
Assuming you have enough space in your home, creating an old-school
arcade is difficult, but certainly doable. Auctions, eBay, Craigslist, and
other outlets routinely offer coin-op classics for sale. Most working machines
from the late ’70s and early ’80s run between $250 to $800, depending on
condition, availability, and desirability.
If you do plan on creating a home arcade, or you simply want to buy
a machine or two to put in your office or game room, just remember this key
piece of advice: Have fun!
For more info on
classic arcade games, check out the following books: The Encyclopedia of Arcade Video Games by Bill Kurtz; The Ultimate History of Video Games by
Steven L. Kent; High Score! The
Illustrated History of Electronic Games by Rusel DeMaria and Johnny L.
Wilson; and Supercade: A Visual History
of the Videogame Age 1971-1984 by Van Burnham.