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:

A bit of pedantry

I can be a bit of a pedant, so this photo caption in Saturday’s Age caught my eye:

Picture of Patrick McCaughey in The Age 23/7/2016

“Former NGV director Patrick McCaughey” pictured in 1986 — so was he the former NGV director back then?

No — the article text makes it clear he was the director in 1986.

There’s a simple way of conveying this in the text, and it’s not just me — it turns out National Geographic has a style guide which recommends:

Do not use former when reference is made to something done while a person held a position; then may be used

(My emphasis)

Not to single out The Age here — I’ve noticed “former” being used when “then” is more appropriate in a lot of stories from various media outlets recently.

Interestingly I couldn’t find anything about this in the online style guides from The Guardian, The Economist, Griffith University, or the BBC.

Fairfax has its own style guide, and there’s also the Australian Commonwealth Printing Office style manual — but neither of these are online. I might try and hunt these down in a library.

Perhaps only NatGeo and I care about this?

But the meaning of words matter. They should be chosen carefully.

Regardless of my pedantry, the article about the 1986 theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman, and the accompanying account of then Chief Conservator Thomas Dixon, are a great read. I wonder if we’ll ever know what actually happened.

TreatYoSelf: Sonosed

Brace yourself… a non-transport-related blog post.

A couple of years ago I bought a Yamaha surround sound setup, which has been fabulous. I’d single out the sound track on Mad Max Fury Road in particular; very immersive.

Heck, even later seasons of the West Wing had some subtle surround going on, adding to the viewing experience.

I’ve used it for music too, and it sounds great. I copied all my iTunes music onto a USB stick* which can plug into the front of the receiver. You can play tracks or albums by navigating through on the TV, or via a phone or iPad app. But it’s a bit clunky; it’s not really designed well for that, and it can’t fathom tracks within genres, nor play lists, and it certainly can’t do anything as fancy as random/shuffle play. (Hey Yamaha, how about an upgrade?)

You can play music from iTunes to it via Apple AirPlay, but that requires using a computer.

*By the way, I have iTunes configured to rip CDs as MP3s at the highest bitrate. I figure those files are more widely playable than any other format.

Sonos Play 1

But I was still craving J+M’s Sonos system, particularly the idea of music playing in perfect sync around the house, preferably without wires everywhere.

I considered other cheaper options. Could I achieve the same with a few Google Chromecast Audio dongles? Perhaps, but it’d be messy. And other manufacturers have Sonos-like speakers (though the good ones aren’t really much cheaper).

Then a few weeks ago JB Hifi offered $50 off Sonos speakers, so I thought what the hell, I’ll go for it. I thought maybe I could splurge for a Play:1 (the smallest speaker, $299 less the $50 discount) and get a Connect (a little exhorbitant at $549) to sync music through to the Yamaha receiver and speakers.

Nagging doubt on the Sonos Connect: Sonos speakers have a fixed delay of 70ms (to allow them all time to sync), which is fine. And the Yamaha can be adjusted to delay, if it’s ahead. But if the Sonos is ahead, you’re stuffed. You can try switching the Yamaha to Direct Mode, but if it’s still behind, you’re still stuffed. No music sync. (I also vastly prefer the Sonos gear in black. The Connect is only available in white.)

Anyway, I got the Play:1 and tried it out. Very impressive. It thoroughly exceeded expectations. Great sound.

When the kids heard it, they thought the music was playing out of the Yamaha’s big speakers, not the tissue-box-sized Sonos speaker on the mantlepiece.

Which made me think: if the goal is multi-room music, why even bother getting the expensive Connect for a (possibly troubleprone) link to the Yamaha? Why not just buy another Play:1 for half the cost?

Ingenious. And of course the Play:1 can be moved around if ever required.

Done. Bought.

Meanwhile I’d been looking around at what secondhand dealer Cash Converters had in the way of Sonos gear. The Parkdale store had a Sonos Bridge, used to configure Sonos systems to use their own network instead of the WiFi. It’s the old model (the new one is called Boost, costing $149), but was only $29. Sold.

So now I can play synched music in the livingroom and kitchen, which in my small house, covers most of the common area of the house. And the speakers are small enough that I can move them around if needed.

Some people online reckon that there’s not much difference sound-quality-wise between the Play:1 and the larger Play:3. And I think I like the style of the 1 more than the 3 or 5.

For online radio, it’s not perfect, because it’s relying on good internet. Like the Pure radio I already had in the kitchen, it seems to be occasionally prone to dropouts if the home internet (Optus cable) is clogging up. (The Pure radio also does actual radio, including DAB+ digital radio, so I can flick it to Double J if BBC Radio 6 Music is playing up.)

I still think the Yamaha was a good choice for surround-sound movies. Sonos’s option (Playbar plus Sub plus speakers) is around three times the price, and it can’t do DTS sound. It’s also dependent on the TV being about to output a 5.1 signal, which some can’t.

My next step was going to be to put my home music collection on a shared drive that the Sonos can play, such as a Raspberry Pi set up as a NAS — but I checked and my cable modem/router has that feature. It’ll share anything plugged into the USB port. So I plugged the USB stick I’d been using in the Yamaha into the router instead, then told the Sonos where to find it… job done!

Of course, Sonos is one of those things like DSLR camera lenses… addictive… I’d be surprised if I don’t end up buying more gear at some stage. Hmm, one for my bedroom perhaps?

Spot the production error

I’ve started publishing Singapore trip posts, backdated to the day they happened. Click here to see them.

I found this amusing, way back in the day.

This is a scene from an old episode of The Bill: “Bad Company”, from 1989, repeated on the ABC recently.

Can you spot the production error? How many views did it take you?