The Golden Age of the video arcade has come and gone, but one brave owner is bucking the digital trend.
The first thing one notices about native New Jerseyan Richie Knucklez (née Vavrence) is his intensity. He half-speaks, half-shouts when he gets excited; he jumps from anecdote to anecdote, eager to resolve each of the stories he started telling. He has a raw, crackling energy, the type reserved for revival halls and homecoming tailgate parties.
In other words, Knucklez is the exact type of person who would be running a successful video arcade business in 2016. One has to dream big and think big to pursue such an unlikely venture. Only all-consuming enthusiasm could will such a thing towards sustainment, let alone profitability.
Knucklez's passion for arcade games started when he was young; he still remembers when the first arcade machines arrived at the Strike & Spare bowling alley in Greenbrook, NJ. It was 1979, and Knucklez was 11 years old at the time. He watched with curiosity as the workers unpacked Space Invaders, Atari Football, and Monaco GP.
"The guy who owned the bowling alley let me come over and help uncrate them," Knucklez recalls. "My whole world changed. Within a month, I got the world record on Monaco GP, and I was able to play Space Invaders 'unlimited.' One quarter, and I never had to stop."
Today, Knucklez owns a video arcade business that is multi-faceted. On one hand, he rebuilds old arcade games and arcade cabinets, using restorative skills his grandfather taught him. Knucklez travels the country, searching through warehouses for busted, dusty machines. He buys them with cash and takes them home, where he replaces fuses and rewires hardware. He cleans the machines and sands their cabinets down to their plywood before repainting them with accurate stencils. He might even replace springs and screws to ensure that the joysticks have proper give; he rebuilds arcade machines not just for looks, but for the durability and wear that they were designed to endure.
By the time Knucklez is finished, the arcade machines look like they came off the assembly line in 1978. He can then resell them for a higher price to video arcades, collectors, or nostalgic individuals, who want their favorite childhood machine in their homes.
Knucklez also runs Richie Knucklez Arcade Games, a storefront video arcade in Flemington, New Jersey. Right now, it's only open on weekends, for birthdays, and for other big social functions, but Knucklez asserts, with no small degree of pride, that the arcade is financially successful.
This is easier said than done. One cannot simply stick a cluster of machines in a room, turn on the juice, and expect money to roll in. That lazy mentality and lack of creativity is what killed the arcade business to begin with.
In the late 80's and 90's, the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Sega Genesis, the Super Nintendo, and a slew of lesser consoles flooded the home market. Knucklez recalls that the earlier Atari 2600 actually boosted interest in the arcades. But the following generation of consoles had graphics that were better than or comparable to arcade graphics. Arcades became oversaturated; Space Invaders begat a clone of Space Invaders which begat an even more inferior clone of that clone. And players realized they would much rather own a game and play it in the comfort of their homes than "pay to play" at a strange location.
How does one compete with that, especially in today's era of purported 4K resolution? The trick, according to Knucklez, is to reinvent the classic arcade as something of exclusive quality. And that starts with the machines—there are no broken down, peeling cabinets at Richie Knucklez Arcade Games. There are no half-dead screens, or wonky joysticks that don't turn properly. Thanks to Knucklez's rehabilitative work, these machines play like they're new.
"Nobody wants to drive hours to an arcade where the controls suck," says Knucklez. "Instead of going for quantity, I go for quality. When you get here, you get the full experience."
Knucklez gives his arcade an intimacy that many of his patrons equate with home. He compares his business approach to Cheers; he wants to know everyone's name, and he wants to have a basic familiarity with his regulars' favorite games. He takes his hosting duties to extremes; if he finds out that a patron loved a specific game from his youth, he'll try to track it down and have it in the arcade the following week.
Knucklez also makes money by embracing the one strength that arcades will always have over home consoles: the opportunity to play in public, "show off" for a live crowd, and be applauded for one's ability.
"[When consoles became popular], that's when video games weren't cool anymore to me," Knucklez says. "Girls in my hometown didn't date guys who stayed at home and played video games. It was more of an anti-social activity by that point. I try to give arcade games a good face and show that they are social."
It's this love of attention, of being on stage, that is key to Knucklez's mindset. It drove him to be great at arcade games (he still holds the world records in both Monaco GP and Space Invaders). And now, it drives him to organize and host some of the most visible, successful video game competitions in the United States—most notably, the annual Kong Offs, where the greatest Donkey Kong players in the world compete against one another. It was Knucklez's idea and conception, and five years ago, the very first Kong Off was held at Richie Knucklez Arcade Games in Flemington.
Since then, there have been four more Kong Offs; Kong Off 5 took place at ReplayFX in Pittsburgh this past July. It was the most streamed Kong Off in the history of the event, and it's likely that next year's Kong Off 6 will bring the competition full circle—right back to Richie Knucklez Arcade Games, where it all started. And now, he has financial support; the Philadelphia 76ers will be sponsoring all of his future events.
Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, and Knucklez believes there is something timeless and irreplaceable about the classics; they will never die, and there will always be a market for them.
"The games were better [back then]," Knucklez says. "The developers had to rely on creativity and the 'fun' aspect; they couldn't lean on accelerated graphics. They couldn't lean on the wow factor of what it looked like. They had to make the game fun with the shit that they were handed."
"Classic arcade games are fun from the first time you pick them up," Knucklez continues. "You don't have to read a manual to figure out how to play them. You can drop a quarter in, and after you spend about a dollar, you know what you're doing. Sometimes, less is more."
"I heard this straight from the mouth of Warren Davis (creator of Q*Bert)," Knucklez recalls. "He said he wanted to make a game that was just one control: the joystick. And in the other hand, you hold a beer or a cigarette."
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