Mathew Russell descends the worn wooden steps into his Strathcona County basement and into the age of the arcade.
Around him are 42 modern and classic pinball and video games, garishly coloured wood and glass monoliths of a bygone era. With a flick of a switch, they come to life with a babble of bleeps and bloops, and a constellation of blinking bulbs. Soon the basement is a whirlwind of colour and sound, as pinballs clack, Pac-Mac wakka-wakkas dots and Dirk the Daring charges into the Dragon’s Lair.
“Lead on, adventurer!” intones the narrator of the latter.
“Your quest awaits!”
An electronics technologist, Russell collects and restores classic arcade games.
It all started in grade school back at the bowling alley in Olds, he says of his hobby. Drawn by the sounds and flashing lights of the pinball game Pin-Bot, he became hooked on the arcade experience.
“It was awesome. All the kids were there. We’d go every lunch-hour. There were tonnes of people playing games and having fun.”
Russell says the arcade was a place of camaraderie, where players would geek out over the latest games, line up their quarters on the machines to call next turn, and brag about their high scores.
So when he saw a chance to recapture that experience in 2002, he jumped on it, buying and restoring a vintage 1988 Ninja Gaiden cabinet he found on Kijiji.
Over the years, that one machine has grown to a collection of some 98 pinball and video arcade games that now fills his basement, garage and workshop.
“It’s very expensive,” he says of his hobby, and he’s still looking for more games.
“I think I’ve probably spent about $80,000 on it!”
The arcade experience
Russell is one of the dedicated enthusiasts working to preserve what was once a common sight in Alberta: the arcade game.
Another is St. Albert’s Reid Johnson. The head of Core Network Solutions, he started Big J Arcade about five months ago to build custom arcade cabinets.
Johnson says he got the idea for his new venture when he brought a custom-built arcade cabinet and a vintage 1981 Galaga machine to a trade show.
“We were the most popular booth I would say in the trade show,” he says, and his wife joked that he probably sold more arcades than networks.
Now, his company makes about 10 arcade cabinets a month and trades in classic games. He recently sold a Pac-Man unit to Russell.
St. Albert teacher Bill Turnham says he got his first arcade machine about 15 years ago.
“I always said to myself as a kid, when I grow up, I want to have an arcade and a bit of a games room in the basement,” he explains.
He used to have two, but had to downsize to just Punch-Out!! when he moved last year.
“It was one of the first games I ever played as a young kid with my dad,” he says of it, and it carries a lot of fond memories.
Turnham, who grew up around the arcades once found at Village Tree Mall and St. Albert Centre, says there was a physicality to arcade games you don’t get today when playing at home on the couch.
“You’re standing, perhaps shoulder-to-shoulder with another person,” he explains, physically manipulating the joystick and buttons to find success.
You’d put money on the line by plugging in your quarter, and you’d have a crowd of onlookers cheering or jeering you on, Turnham says.
“It was a lot of fun,” he says, and a great way to get out of shopping with your mom.
Mike Stulir, vice-president of the American Classic Arcade Museum in Laconia, New Hampshire, says he grew up with the rise of the modern arcade game in North America.
While pinball has been around for decades, video arcade games didn’t go commercial until the 1971 release of Nolan Bushnell’s Computer Space, he says. The game was a flop, but Bushnell’s next one, Pong, was anything but.
“It was so radically different from anything that had been seen before,” Stulir says of video games.
“People were hungry for them. They wanted to play them.”
Pong kicked off a brief golden age of arcades, writes historian Laura June. There were some 13,000 dedicated arcades in the U.S. by 1982, with machines like Asteroids and Space Invaders bringing in hundreds of dollars worth of quarters a week.
“The games were just everywhere,” says Stulir, who recalls being able to stop at two different stores with arcades in them on his walk home from school.
But that was the problem, he continues: the market became so saturated with arcade games that no one could make money off of them. That, plus the great video game industry crash of 1983 and the rise of home entertainment systems like the Nintendo Entertainment System, brought an end to the arcade’s heyday.
Under the hood
Today, outside of some bowling alleys and movie theatres, the only place you’ll find classic arcade games is in the collections of people like Russell.
The games cost anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars depending on their popularity and condition, Russell says. He gets most of them online or through word-of-mouth.
Despite their size, the insides of an arcade cabinet are often pretty empty. The CRT display takes up most of the top, with the rest occupied by the power source, wiring and game board. The ones Johnson makes are even roomier, as he uses thin LCD monitors.
Pinball cabinets are much more complex. Russell lifts the play-surface of his 1993 Twilight Zone game to reveal a telephone exchange’s worth of wires, lights and solenoids.
Russell says it takes him about six hours to restore a video game and 25 for a pinball cabinet.
Restoration work requires a fair amount of skill and money, especially if you want vintage parts, he says. Most of the machines he restores come with dead displays, which are becoming tough to repair as no one makes CRTs anymore. Dead solenoids or dirty circuit boards are also common. One unit, Paperboy, had a whole bunch of dog food in it due to a squirrel – he had to cut a hole in the cabinet to get it all out.
One of Russell’s biggest challenges is space – a typical arcade game is 30 inches wide, five feet tall and 300 pounds.
“Most people don’t have room for 98 games,” he says.
Russell says he plans to build a giant two-storey garage just to put everything under one roof.
Multi-game units like the ones Johnson makes are one solution.
Johnson says his crew carves cabinets from laminated plywood with a computer-controlled router and equips them with LEDs, subwoofers and touch-screens. Some have computers that get games online, while others use cartridges from China pre-loaded with thousands. Each takes about 15 hours to assemble.
Johnson says these units can cost up to $6,500, but to his amazement, his customers don’t seem to care.
“It’s that nostalgia. It’s bringing them back into the 1980s and 1990s and remembering the games they used to play.”
A second life?
Russell, Johnson and Stulir agreed that the traditional arcade was essentially dead. Today’s players can now get arcade-quality games on their home consoles, and arcade operators have switched to complex or ticket-redemption games that no longer have mass appeal.
But the nostalgic appeal of the old games still has a strong pull for some.
Russell says he regularly has friends and family over to play his games, and often gets requests to build modern cabinets.
“I had a couple of games delivered to work (once) and everyone was playing them all day.”
Stulir says he gets a lot of 40- to 45-year-olds at the museum who want to show the games to their kids.
“And the kids love this stuff,” he notes. Youths might start off skeptical when they first see old classics like Pong, “but once they get in front of them, they really like them.”
Turnham says his classic cabinet gives him a way to bond with his daughters, to whom he shouts out tips as they box their opponents.
“It’s exciting, it’s engaging. It’s a different way of being able to share an experience. It brought joy to me when I was young, and it’s bringing joy to them now too.”