Back to the arcades?

Every so often I’ll splash out on a new toy for myself. Last year it was a new camera. The year before was a hifi. The year before (just over two years ago in fact) that was an iPad Mini.

Those paying attention will know that I had considered adding a multi-room music setup to the hifi. I ended up buying a couple of Sonos speakers, which have been great.

Here’s another idea that some may consider a bit “out there”.

Nostalgia is a powerful force. I was in a bookshop the other week looking at the Ladybird spoof book on mid-life crisis. (There are some pretty funny titles in this series.)

One manifestation is for people to buy one or more big nostalgic objects. Something tangible from their past. Unlike the people in the book, I’m not about to buy an old car* or a guitar.

(*My actual car is a 2000 Astra. Old enough to be old, but not old enough to be a classic. It probably needs replacing in the next few years, but for now meets my minimal driving needs.)

I remember going to a party in about 1992 somewhere near Riversdale station, and the focal point of the room was a fully-fledged working pinball machine.

I was never much of a pinball person, but this oozed cool. No, back in the day, I played arcade game machines.

Hmmm. What if I got an arcade game machine?

WarGames: David plays a Galaga arcade machine
Pic from the movie: WarGames

Types of cabinet

Apparently there were once 1.5 million machines in North America alone. I don’t know how many there might have been in Australia, but I’d guess it would have certainly been in the tens of thousands.

What happened to them all? We don’t know. Some of them got gutted and re-used, but some are still around, and come up for sale quite regularly on eBay and Gumtree and elsewhere.

Arcade game found in a forest, near Pemberton, Western Australia

The styles vary… doing a little research, I found there is a myriad of choices.

  • Stand-up — the “traditional” machine we (or at least I) used to stand up to play in the arcades, milk bars, etc. Almost as tall as an adult.
  • Cocktail — like a low table that you sit at on a stool, these got the name because you could rest your drinks on them. I was never that keen on these, as the controls are at the wrong angle to play some games well, and you end up bending your neck to look down onto the screen.
  • Low boy — these seem to be common these days, but I don’t remember them back then. Like a stand-up machine, but the machine is smaller (particularly with regard to height) and the screen is angled a bit lower. Many seem to be linked to Australian distributor Leisure and Allied Industries (known in Aussie arcade gaming circles as LAI for short).

Old vs new

The various styles have gone through several permutations over the years, and you see them all on sale from time to time.

  • early 80s-early 90s – probably the traditional layout, MDF and/or wood. Some of the liveries are very distinctive. Varying conditions; some have been gloriously restored, some not. Some have been modified.
  • late 90s – sometime close to the end of the 20th century, the style seemed to change to a kind of blobby plastic shape, known as “candy”. Very unappealing to my eyes, they combine the worst of the stand-up models in being quite bulky, but players have to sit down in front of them, like a cocktail cabinet. Possibly the lower height might have been due to growing awareness of disability and access issues.
  • reproduction models – usually try to mimic the early 80s models, but some are stylised to the point of, again, being quite unappealing to me in terms of nostalgia value.
  • a subgroup of the reproduction models is the table-top versions, which are little more than a miniaturised version that sits on a bar or table. Again, not my cup of tea.

The older, vintage machines often have coin slots, though most people who have these games at home set the machines to free play.

They’re also in varying states of repair of course. Some people are expert at restoring them, and a whole cottage industry has grown up around it. Parts are surprisingly easy to obtain — even things you’d think are pretty obscure nowadays like CRT monitor chassis and coin mechanisms are available from suppliers in Australia. That said, I’m not sure I’d have the knowledge or the time to take anything major on.

WarGames: David plays a Galaga arcade machine
Pic from the movie: WarGames. Standing desks are not a new concept!

The games

And then there’s the game software itself.

  • Genuine PCBs (Printed Circuit Boards), one game per PCB. This is the only way to play the genuine article. The older ones had custom connections to the controls and the screen; many of the newer ones from the 90s onwards have a JAMMA connection — a standard interface thought up by the Japan Amusement Machine and Marketing Association to make it easier for arcade owners to convert a machine from game to game. But basically they are wired-up for one game at a time. PCBs are found on the secondhand market from time to time.
  • Inside some cabinets are PCs running MAME — which emulates arcade hardware, allowing many games to be emulated.
  • There are also 60-in-1 JAMMA boards that you can plug in (and variations with different numbers of games). It turns out these are just small computers that run MAME too. Some are known to be underpowered for specific games (Gyruss has been highlighted as problematic on some boards), which could be frustrating.

The limitation on multi-game setups is that arcade games were written to either a vertical (portrait) or horizontal (landscape) screen. Cabinets were designed to be reconfigured if required, but it means a limit on which games you can play easily. This means you won’t find Donkey Kong, Ms Pacman and Galaga (vertical) on the same machine as Moon Patrol, Joust and Popeye (horizontal).

Original cabinets of course had CRTs for screens, some of which are now unreliable and need repair. Some old machines have had LCD replacements — most of the new/reproduction cabinets have LCDs, for a clearer but less-authentic experience.

eBay and Gumtree regularly have ads for various boards, cases, parts and fully-fledged machines. The going price for a genuine vintage machine seems to be from about $500 upwards, depending heavily on the condition.

You see some advertised at much higher prices, up to $2000 for a vintage machine, but they don’t seem to be selling. Apart from vintage machines selling frequently in the $600-800 range, you can get a very passable classic design reproduction for about $1000; I would think few would want to pay $2000 for a decidedly average original. That said, there are more elaborate and rare machines, such as sit-in models for driving games or Star Wars, which are probably quite reasonably advertised for several thousand dollars.

From all my rambling, as you can tell, I’ve done rather too much research on this.

Could it even be a good investment? Tony Temple (who writes an awesome blog around arcade machine restoration, culture and history) notes that prices are steadily increasing, particularly outside the USA where cabinets in good condition are getting rarer.

But I suspect you’d have to be incredibly lucky to count on making money this way — and confine yourself to immaculately restored genuine machines dedicated to their original game.

I really don’t know if buying something like this is a good idea. In fact it might be totally ridiculous. But I’m not going to pretend I’m not tempted. I’ve got a corner of one room with crap in it that might look quite good with an arcade machine instead. But I’d have to clean up that corner first.

* * *

Further reading:

Charity and money

Years ago I decided I wanted to donate at least 0.7% of my income towards charity.

Over the weekend I was doing my tax, and calculated it: for 2015-16 it’s 1.32%. Cool.

About half the annual total is Oxfam. Other regulars include Greenpeace, The Salvos (though I mean to check their latest position on homosexuality, as for a while there it was looking pretty medieval), Amnesty. The regulars, of course, have been set up as direct debits – though note I refuse to deal with chuggers.

The rest is ad hoc stuff like sponsoring friends for charity events, Royal Children’s Hospital (Good Friday), Public Transport Not Traffic etc.

Meanwhile in the high finance stakes, I’m being urged by some family members to refinance my home loan and get an investment property.

Refinancing is easy thanks to a friendly local mortgage broker. But investment property? It all seems very adult… and time consuming, though probably worthwhile. Do I really want to contribute to the stupidly high appreciation of home prices?

What can council elections teach us about aspect ratio?

One of the things you start noticing a lot more when you have two tertiary-level film and television students in the house is aspect ratio.

Local council elections are in October, and posters have started going up for candidates.

In some wards you see full-sized billboards, but in ours — so far — the most prominent posters are small, displayed in shop windows.

Glen Eira council election posters 2016

Not that it’s important, but I can’t help noticing that Oscar Lobo’s picture is the wrong aspect ratio.

I’ve met the guy; he’s often in Centre Road talking to constituents. His head isn’t that spherical, and his torso isn’t that bulky. (Some of his posters have his picture in the correct aspect ratio.)

Some others have been seen out and about.

So, who to vote for?

In many cases, council candidates are relatively uncontroversial. And in our area (Tucker Ward), most candidates are not strongly (publicly) aligned with the major political parties. There are three vacancies, and 14 candidates.

As far as who to vote for, all I can say is:

I’m overall pretty happy with my local council. Most services seem to be run efficiently, facilities are good, and rates are lower than in a lot of other areas. They’ve also tried to do some education on keeping footpaths clear of vehicles and trees, though this could be stepped up with more, and enforcement.

As the Dandenong line skyrail project now seems inevitable, it would be nice to see the council proactively working on how the freed up land beneath the tracks will be used.

I would single out Jamie Hyams (loosely Liberal-aligned). I met him years ago, when he was originally standing for council. He asked what City of Glen Eira could do to help the cause of public transport. One thing I suggested was to join the Metropolitan Transport Forum — at the time, Glen Eira was one of the few councils that were not a member. He said he’d look into it if elected. He was elected, and subsequently they joined. More recently he was mayor when the council unanimously passed a motion accurately pointing out that East West Link will bring little benefit to our area. I’ll vote for him again.

I’m not sure about my other preferences; I’ll consider them closer to voting time as candidates make their views on issues known.

A few days ago, the local newspaper reported stormy council meeting in Glen Eira, Kingston and Frankston. Locals should have a read and judge for themselves how their councillors fared: Glen Eira, Kingston and Frankston council meetings end in chaos

Voting in October

I haven’t checked other areas, but in Glen Eira electoral rolls have already closed, as have nominations. Ballot packs are sent through the mail in early October, and are due back in the mail by the 21st — I assume most council areas are the same.

Is Australia in danger of being swamped by 24-hour time?

24-hour time is common in Europe, and in the airline industry, and the military.

Internally, many industries use 24-hour time, but publicly 12-hour time is dominant in Australia.

I have seen 24-hour time used at cafes. Perhaps they were run by Europeans; perhaps it was an attempt to seem more European.

V/Line uses 24-hour time in most cases, including on their public timetables — they switched back in 2000. Other public transport operators in Victoria use 12-hour time in public.

Except… at the brand new Metro stations… where somehow, they’ve used both on the handy new screens.

As you can see, train departure times are in 12-hour time. But the current time is in 24-hour time. Ingenious!

Bentleigh station - new Passenger Information Display on platform

(Note that in the background, there’s a standalone LED clock showing… 12-hour time.)

Both formats have their advantages. 12-hour is more commonly known, though 24-hour is less ambiguous. But wouldn’t it be better to choose one or the other?

I’d love to know how this happened. Is it some devious plan to get people gradually used to 24-hour time?

Or did someone just not think about how gloriously inconsistent this is?

Update: I’m told it was an error, and the displays will be updated shortly to consistently show 12-hour time.

Update 7pm:

You can judge a station by its cover

Yesterday’s horrific accident at Surrey Hills is a reminder of the many benefits of level crossing removal (though that one is not on the list).

With our local crossing at Bentleigh gone, it’s rather wonderful that the angst of further accidents is gone, and crowds no longer get stuck at the railway gates every second day…

Another benefit is that train users get a brand new shiny station.

But with the wet weather this week we’re able to judge how well that new station deals with the rain.

Bentleigh station concourse entrance

The entrance is pretty good – shelter along the street is reasonably well aligned with the nearby shops. In fact it’s very pleasing to have the station as an integrated part of the streetscape, rather than breaking it up as it used to.

While before there was a long uncovered walkway into the station, now you walk straight into the concourse, and there’s continuous cover down the steps (or in the lift) down to the platform.

And then it falls down.

Bentleigh station in the rain, view from concourse

Bentleigh station in the rain

At McKinnon and Ormond the sections of platform closest to the entrance are under the road, providing a fair degree of cover. There’s more shelter down the platform, though it’s not continuous; there are substantial gaps.

However at Bentleigh, the only cover close to the stairs/lift is fairly small.

There’s a lot more cover at the northern end of the platform, but the only way to get there is to brave a long section of uncovered platform, or the even longer uncovered ramp from the concourse — which in dry conditions is very useful for spreading people along the platform, by the way, far more useful than at the other stations where the ramp doubles back.

So you have the old effect of many people huddling near the entrance from the rain, and thus concentrating on just one or two carriages of a six carriage train — not much better than the old station.

Bentleigh station in the rain

Bentleigh station, June 2015

(All this applies to platforms 1 and 2, which are the most commonly used. Platform 3 seems to have slightly less cover, but nowhere near as many people use it.)

Bentleigh station, view from concourse

Coverage

Even where the platforms are covered, modern designs mean there’s a gap between the edge of the roof and the train when it arrives. If it’s pouring with rain at the time, you’re still going to get wet.

Bentleigh station in the rain

Why not cover the platforms completely?

If you’re rebuilding the station anyway, it would only be an incremental cost to have rain cover right along the platform.

The benefits are obvious — by providing shelter and shade all the way along, it encourages crowds to spread along the platform, decreasing boarding times, and more evenly distributing people along the train.

It may also help with PM peak alighting times, as in heavy rain, people don’t pause in the train doorway to find their umbrella. It would also reduce the instances of people running on slippery surfaces to avoid the rain.

It’s helped at Richmond, where full platform shelters were retrofitted (at a cost of $7.28 million), and is provided at our busiest stations Southern Cross and Flinders Street.

Granted, no suburban station is that busy, but if the benefits are numerous and the cost is minimal, then why not?

  • PTUA called for all-over platform cover on the Dandenong line “sky rail” stations — as well as for all to be upgraded to Premium status