The problems with preserving arcade machines, and the new crop of hobbyists who can fix them.
The clicking and ringing of pinball. The amplified microchip sound effects of Centipede. The glowing, multicolored lights. It's like being inside of a pinball machine with more than 1500 people, bouncing from game to game, each one not just a piece of software coming through a screen, but a unique, physical object, with custom built controls, displays, and cabinet art.
For two days of the California Extreme event in the Hyatt Regency hotel in Santa Clara, arcade history comes alive. It's not a museum exhibit with important pieces behind glass or a guided history lesson, but a real arcade with over 600 pinball and video game machines spanning decades, mostly from attendees' personal collections. It's better than a real arcade because the selection includes some rare, never released games, and you only have to pay $40 once at the door to play everything inside for free. No quarters needed.
Most of the people at California Extreme are going down memory lane. You can spot them walking the snaking paths formed by the cabinets, searching for something from their childhood. I am too. Growing up in the 90s, I caught the tail end of arcade culture, so I'm personally looking for wonderfully animated fighting games like X-Men vs. Street Fighter, polygonal light-gun games, and busy pinball machines based on movies from the era: The Addams Family and Terminator 2.
They're all here, they're all still great, and I soon find myself entertaining fantasies of a basement filled with all my favorites. A lot of the machines are only a few hundred dollars, and collectors here have dozens of them, even hundreds.
I try to resist the allure of nostalgia, especially when it comes to video games. It's a new medium that moves as fast as technology, often prodding it to go faster, and with developers still learning so much more about games as they go, the latest is often also the greatest.
Arcades are different. They offered an experience you couldn't get at home unless you had a lot of money and space to house these big machines, but as consoles and personal computers got better, arcades all but disappeared.
Among us old folks trying to recapture something lost from our youth are a few kids as well, dragged there by their parents. Teenagers born after the year 2000 and younger who mostly know about video games from their iPhones. They get it. Not a single one of them looks bored or unphased by the sights and sounds of California Extreme.
"In 30 years we're all going to be dead and all our precious stuff is going to go to a landfill unless somebody else decides they're interested in it"
Ken Chaney has been one of California Extreme's organizers from the very first event in 1997, held in an abandoned bookstore with no air conditioning. All the heat from the machines cooked attendees pretty good, but they still came back the next year in greater numbers, and have been ever since. Chaney told me that introducing kids to these machines is probably the most important part of the event.
"This is going to sound a little ridiculous, but in 30 years we're all going to be dead and all our precious stuff is going to go to a landfill unless somebody else decides they're interested in it," Chaney said. "That has been a major goal, to connect with a younger a generation, and we got a lot of that happening. Some of my favorite times is when I see a dad and his kid playing together and they're having a good time."
As Chaney points out, the unique challenge for arcade history is that the experience you get from interacting with the original equipment—the cabinets, controls, sound, and smell—none of this comes across fully in an emulator, which can run the game's code on your computer. With pinball, that's not even an option.
This problem is compounded by the fact that Atari, Williams, and the other companies that made all this equipment haven't offered any kind of support for years. If something breaks, there's no one to turn to but other collectors and specialists like Stephan Beall, who has a booth at California Extreme where he sells arcade cabinet marquees and other parts.
His love of arcades goes back to his childhood, and as a teenager landed him on an episode of Starcade, an early '80s arcade-themed TV game show (you can watch the episode Beall's in here).
"The amusement business is in my blood," Beall, who's been in it for 32 years, told me. "I've tried to get out of it before and I can't. I always come back. It's what I know. It's what I do."
When a distributor or any company with arcade games in stock goes out of business, Beall will buy pallets of parts. He doesn't even care what they are. He'll take them back to his warehouse, sort them out, and when someone in this small circle of collectors needs a new joystick for a Pac-Man machine, Beall will have it ready.
Beall will also commission machine shops to fabricate parts he can't find, though this is a taller order. He'll only need a run of 50-100 pieces at most, which will cost at least a couple of thousand dollars, so he has to be very careful about which parts he wants to reproduce.
Despite all its efforts to preserve arcade machines, there are problems that this hobbyist community can't solve. A chief concern is the dwindling number of cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs.
CRTs have been phased out since the introduction of LCD screens, which are cheaper, less polluting to manufacture, and consume far less energy. Beall told me that the last company that was still making them in China ceased production in 2010. There are still a lot of them out there, but now that nobody's making them, there's a finite supply. That old TV you see at the garage sale or on the curb? If it fits an old arcade cabinet, to the right person it could be worth $200.
"There's still a shitload of CRTs out there but you either need to know how to repair them or know someone who sells parts," Steve Plee, a collector who came to California Extreme all the way from Philadelphia, told me. "Eventually we'll run out of tubes. You can get new caps. You can get new board sets made, but nobody's making tubes."
"There's no solution for it," Beall said. "Unless you can find a guy who has a few million dollars to spare to start up a CRT manufacturing plant. Money solves everything."
Chaney said California Extreme catalyses restoration projects. A necromancied version of Marble Man, the unreleased sequel to Marble Madness, was at the show this year thanks to the efforts of a few collectors. One person found the marquee, another had the control panel, and someone found the right cabinet. Someone even managed to find the unreleased ROM, the game's software, which is a touchy subject at the show. A lot of the rare pieces at California Extreme come from people who used to work at the companies who originally made the games, and a lot of them don't want to share the ROMs freely for legal reasons.
Despite the controversy, as Chaney said, "digging up five gravesites and stitching them together in a lab into a living game, that's an incredible feat that has come out of California Extreme."
Of course, you also need to know what to do with the parts, which is another important aspect of the event: People can get together and share knowledge that was lost from the original manufacturers.
On the other side of the hotel, away from the sound and flashing lights of the arcade machines, collectors and developers who worked at companies like Atari at the time reminisce and get into the nitty gritty of restoration. Circuit board diagrams, CPU clock settings, EPROM's—I don't understand any of it, but the room is filled with other collectors who are asking questions and taking notes.
One of the most impressive presenters at California Extreme this year is living proof that the hobbyist community is succeeding in passing the arcade torch to the next generation. Brendon Parker, known in the community as "Jr. Pac," and who just graduated from the 8th grade, told the crowd how he managed to recreate one of the few working Crazy Otto machines, which eventually became Ms. Pac-Man.
It's an impressive feat if you know the history. In 1981, Steve Golson and a few of his friends dropped out of MIT to form General Computing Corporation (GGC) and make speed-up kits, or enhancement kits, which modified existing arcade games with new gameplay. The original Pac-Man had a predictable pattern kids eventually recognized to the point where they could play it for hours on end, literally with their eyes closed. This defeats the whole quarter-eating business model of arcade machines, so companies like GGC started to modify games to be more random, challenging, and as a consequence, more interesting.
This wasn't really legal. When Atari discovered that GGC was making Super Missle Attack, a modified version of the company's Missile Command it sued them for $50 million.
"Atari soon realized the error of their ways, dropped the lawsuit, and hired us," Golson said.
In 1981, Midway, which distributed Namco's Pac-Man in the United States, discovered that GGC was making an enhancement kit for Pac-Man called Crazy Otto. It was the same game, but better, and the yellow avatar, unlike Pac-Man, had legs. Like Atari, Midway hired GGC rather than sue, and the enhancement kit eventually become Ms. Pac-Man. They kept the gameplay, took out the legs, put a ribbon and some lipstick on the yellow avatar, and created one of the most iconic and loved arcade machines of all time.
"I don't know what's going to happen in the future. I think we're going to have to come up with a way for LCDs to mimic CRTs."
As Golson explained, nobody would know or even care that Crazy Otto existed, but by a stroke of luck, the game was accidently featured in a huge Time magazine article about arcades published in January of 1982.
"There were 96,000 Pac-Man cabinets in the US," Golson said. "Three of them were converted to Crazy Otto, and were out on test."
One of the three prototypes was in the Chicago arcade where the Time photographer got his pictures for the story.
"I can imagine the photographer looking at a row of ugly Pac-Man machines with those ugly blue mazes that are hard to photograph, and then on the end, there's this really cool looking Crazy Otto and boom it's in Time magazine," Golson said. "For 30 years it's been like, what's the deal with this Pac-Man with legs?"
Parker, who's interested not only in arcade restoration but in prototypes and what was happening behind the scenes at the time, was asking the same question. When his class got an assignment to send a letter to someone they admire and other kids wrote to Barack Obama and Beyonce, Parker wrote to Golson and told him he's been trying recreate a Crazy Otto machine.
Parker started the project in 2012. He was 11 and had zero knowledge of code, but slowly, and with reference material provided by Golson, he slowly brought Crazy Otto back to life by modifying a Ms. Pac-Man machine. He recreated Crazy Otto's legs, pixel by pixel, recoded the game to recreate the original's speed and animation, and even designed his own, very convincing marquee art.
"I played Brendon's machine," Golson said. "It's pretty close."
When Parker finishes his presentation and turns on the Crazy Otto machine, a line of men who are at least twice his age immediately forms to play it. One of the event organizers has to unplug it from the wall to get them to clear out and make room for the next presenter.
"Everyone my age plays games like Call of Duty and Halo, M-rated games," Parker told me. "Games now are more focused on the wow factor, and graphics. Older games focus more on gameplay, the fun of it, rather than just looking good."
Parker doesn't seem as worried about preserving arcade history as much as the older guys. He doesn't have to wonder about who's going to pick up the mantle. He knows it's him.
"CRT's are a problem," he said. "They're already hard to find. We got lucky and found one. I don't know what's going to happen in the future. I think we're going to have to come up with a way for LCDs to mimic CRTs. We have curved LCDs, why can't we just curve them like CRTs?"
Back at main hall with all the arcade machines, I watch a group of kids take turns against each other in Virtua Fighter. A father holds up his daughter so she can look at eerie vector graphics of Tempest. Stern, the last big pinball manufacturer, has two new pinball machines at the show, and there's always a line to play them, old pros with high scores in the millions and younger people who can't even begin to compete but want to play anyway.
If just a few them pick up restoration as a hobby like Parker, arcade history will be just fine. An event like California Extreme makes that hobby hard to resist.