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:

The Old Bill

I used to love The Bill, way back when it was a cop show with a sense of realism, rather than a full-on soapie.

The episodes I enjoyed the most, season 4 (from 1988) are currently airing on the ABC, in the middle of the day (around 3pm, and again the next morning around 5am). I’ve got my PVR recording them and I’m checking to see if any memorable episodes pop-up that I want to watch again.

Being a long-running series with a lot of minor once-of characters, many now well-known British actors appeared on the show in guest rolls. The other day there was an episode (“Conflict”) with Alex Kingston as a doctor — no, not Elizabeth Corday or River Song.
Alex Kingston and Nick Reding in The Bill (1988)

Of course it’s also a bit of a time-capsule from the 1980s. A week or two ago one great episode (“Hold Fire”) featured Bob Cryer trying write a report on an actual typewriter…
Bob Cryer (Eric Richard) in The Bill (1988)

…while Jim Carver and Viv Martella were undercover in a pub, playing Gorf and driving game Out Run while they wait for a suspect.
Carver and Martella in The Bill (1988)

Carver: “Oh my God!”

Martella: “What?”

Carver: “I just hit a windsurfer!”

Crowdfunded documentaries

I’m aware that my blog has evolved… these days most of the posts are about transport, reflecting my current interests.

I wonder if this is a bit dull for those who have been on the old Toxic Custard mailing list, which is the descendant of the humour-based email list I started while at uni.

Yet transport posts get by far the largest number of comments. Hmmmm.

Here’s a post to mix it up a bit.

Crowdfunded documentaries

Last year I helped crowdfund two documentaries:

Bedrooms To Billions — the story of the beginnings of the computer game industry, from the perspective of UK developers. In the 80s, the first games were written by schoolboy (mostly boy) coders with cheap computers in their bedrooms, manually copying tapes and sending them out by post. I was in that age group, and tried to write my own games too…

I knew much of the story, but the extensive interviews with those involved at the time made this really interesting, especially the first half or so.

I probably got a bit carried away: I contributed enough money that you’ll find my name in tiny writing in the credits somewhere.

Well worth a look if you’re into retro gaming.Thumbs up!

The Outer Circle — Melbourne’s forgotten railway — many would know that the Alamein line and linear parks and bike paths are all that’s left of a line which once ran from Fairfield via Camberwell to Oakleigh.

This documentary manages to have a lot of detail in it, without ever being dull, and has some terrific accounts from actual users of the line, as well as archival footage and photos. I for one had no idea that John Monash built the line. Well worth catching.Thumbs up!

I’m pretty happy my contributions helped these two get made.

I’ve since donated to the sequel to Bedrooms To Billions, and I’ll be on the lookout to see what others get proposed which are worth a look.

Back in the mid-70s when Monty Python was developing The Life Of Brian, they got a sizeable contribution of funds from George Harrison, because he “wanted to see the movie”. That’s not an option most film makers have, of course.

Crowdfunding is something that has probably only become practical since the spread of the internet. The long tail of interests means a special interest group like this can reach the numbers of people necessary to make it viable.

It’s nice to see technology being used in this kind of way — something that would have seemed unimaginable just a decade or two ago.

PAX Australia – overall a success, but the public transport arrangements let it down

An article in The Age today notes that while there were a few issues, last weekend’s inaugural PAX Australia video game festival went well.

PAX Australia: XBox One demonstration

PAX Australia: Wizard Of Wor on the Commodore 64

We went along on the Sunday, and had a good time. We avoided the sessions with long queues, and instead saw an XBox launch event, played some games in the retro area, had some lunch, and looked around the expo hall.

Not being hardcore gamers, that satisfied us. And that’s I think where the planning for this event slipped-up.

Someone had obviously decided that most people would be staying all day, and the transport planning clearly reflected that.

The trains to the Showgrounds only ran every 20 minutes until 10:40am… then at an appalling 40 minute frequency until midday.

Trains to PAX Australia at the Showgrounds: infrequent, and delayed

Worse, we and others found there were train delays. The 10:04 was about 10 minutes late, meaning we spent 25 minutes waiting in the cold at Southern Cross. It then crawled to North Melbourne before finally getting up a decent speed the rest of the way to the Showgrounds. The 12:04 train was 20 minutes late.

At Showgrounds station there were long queues for the few Myki validators available. (We didn’t bother to queue — it barely matters on weekends when the fare cap is $3.50 anyway, and even on a concession fare, two 2-hour fares will get you to that cap.)

After 12:04 (well, 12:24 if that service was 20 minutes late) there were no trains at all until the late-afternoon. Instead people were advised to catch a tram back, with extra trams running.

The reality was that lots of people didn’t stay all day… while many may have come first thing in the morning and stayed until everything finished up, many others arrived and departed at various times across the day.

And what few extra trams ran were sporadic, resulting in the utterly predictable problem of the regular route 57 short (Z-class) trams being packed:

The tram coming back from PAX Australia

Apart from making many people who’d arrived by train find a different exit and stop to get home again, it was a slow crowded ride back into the city. Thoroughly unimpressive.

The PAX programme booklet noted the support of the Victorian Government, and I happened upon an episode of Byte Into It on Triple R last Wednesday which noted that PAX came to Australia because of enthusiasm from the locals — and to Melbourne specifically by that government support. Which is great.

But this kind of cooperation should include adequate transport arrangements. Public transport can and should do special events like this very well, but on this occasion, the system let people down. The danger is that next time more people will drive, clogging up streets around the venue. And given that special events are sometimes the only times people use PT, they may also be put off using it for other travel in the future.

How much extra would it have cost to run 20 minute trains all day? Surely not much more than the extra trams they ran all day, given the labour costs (drivers, and signalling people for trains) are the main cost.

If PAX returns to Melbourne, and I hope it does, if it’s at the Showgrounds again, they clearly need to do better.

Can you combine street art, classic video games and a Melbourne street map? Yes!

Can you combine street art, classic video games and a Melbourne street map?


Pac-man: street art map

CDH Art: “Using the familiar street art motif of retro gaming, I created a walking guide-map to Melbourne’s street art.”