For those of a certain age, the experience of visiting a video arcade is an unforgettable snapshot of an era long since passed. The appeal of the flashing lights and the sounds — a mix of electronic blips and blorps set against the constant chatter of excited players and a soundtrack of ‘70s rock and ‘80s pop hits — shaped the overall atmosphere of something wondrous. From the local dives to the legendary confines of Bally’s Aladdin’s Castle and Disney’s fictional Flynn’s and Litwak’s, players are being drawn to what once was — and what still could be.
NEXT-GEN? TRY PAST-GEN
Coming out of this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles, the video game industry sits on the cusp of another next-generation console boom with the prospect of incredible new machines that will provide home gamers with updated graphics and tremendous processing power. Still, some of the most-buzzed-about innovations at E3 weren’t the latest offerings from Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony — they were arcade cabinets that will bring the authentic experience of playing four-decade-old games home. Just as the retro wave continues in toys, the gaming industry is moving forward by embracing its rich history, and the fans are here for it.
A few years ago, some may have pegged retro gaming and retro arcades as a passing fad, but the movement is growing and is now a full-blown lifestyle. Arcade bars have an established presence in major cities, such as Emporium and Replay in Chicago; Coin-Op Game Room in San Francisco and San Diego; Barcade in New York City; House of Targ in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; Tilt in Toronto; Up-Down in Minneapolis; and Button Mash in Los Angeles. Bandai Namco Entertainment even opened its own bar — Pac-Man Entertainment — in Schaumburg, Illinois, originally dubbing it “Level 257” after the kill screen that follows the final level of Pac-Man, which Namco released in 1980.
Despite the increased availability of places to enjoy the communal experience of playing video games with others in a social setting, the bigger boom is at home, where cross-generational appeal is fueling nostalgia and turning it into a new norm.
“For many, arcade machines are at the top of the list of ultimate symbols of cool — right next to that red convertible,” says Peter Gould, general manager at New Wave Toys, the company behind Replicade Amusements, which is a line of highly detailed, 1/6-scale collectible game cabinets designed to be played with and displayed alongside 12-inch action figures. “The kids who grew up playing these games now have kids of their own and are wanting to share a bit of their childhood with them.”
The cross-generational appeal is reaching gamers who will play old arcade titles on their Nintendo Switch or Xbox One systems thanks to compilations, such as the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, Namco Museum, or Konami Arcade Classics Collection, and then find themselves longing to experience them as they did in the past, or wanting to experience them in their retro form for the first time.
“In today’s crazy world, there is a significant movement toward simpler times. Gaming is no different,” says Scott Bachrach, CEO of Tastemakers, the company behind the popular line of Arcade1Up in-home arcade cabinets. Since debuting at Toy Fair New York last year, the company has expanded, releasing nearly a dozen of its 3/4-scale in-home cabinets, as well as new offerings, such as Counter-Cades, Wall-Cades, and decor for consumers looking to complete their in-home arcades.
“Great games are timeless like a movie, TV show, or a great song. If it’s good, it never goes out of style. It just gets recycled, and if lucky, is reintroduced to an entirely new generation who gets to experience that greatness,” Bachrach says. “Classic arcade games, like Arcade1Up, do just that.”
At E3, Arcade1Up dropped the curtain on its most-anticipated collection of cabinets yet — a trio of machines that has been fan-requested practically since day one: Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT), the company’s first four-person arcade cabinet, featuring Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Turtles in Time; Capcom’s Marvel Super Heroes, including Marvel Super Heroes, X-Men Children of the Atom, and The Punisher; and Atari Star Wars, which comes with the iconic X-Wing pilot controller that gamers first experienced in the early ’80s, along with the original arcade versions of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.
“I think our fans drove innovation from the start,” Bachrach says. “I would have never picked Street Fighter [as a launch title], but I was immediately corrected by a small sampling of fans who stated, ‘Street Fighter is the most classic arcade fighting game there is, and it is the one that started it all.’ With that, we listened, and guess what? They were right.”
When Arcade1Up hit retail last fall, fan requests and feedback were immediate, and the team at Tastemakers was listening. From quality control to features and title requests, the company was quick to react and allow fans — many of whom contribute via Facebook and Instagram — to share input that’s translated into reality. “An example of this includes dual speakers, deck protectors, better controls, faster button response, and, of course, a continuation of great titles,” Bachrach says.
The retro arcade movement is resonating at retail, with audiences’ interest piqued by seeing callbacks to the heyday, such as the Palace Arcade on Netflix’s Stranger Things. “We were one of the early adopters for retro gaming and one of the key launch partners for Arcade1Up, which has been very successful,” says Clint Walker, director of merchandising at GameStop. “I think a lot of gamers don’t realize that a lot of this classic content is available, and they have an epiphany in our stores when they discover something that truly spoke to them when they were younger,” he says.
And for many home gamers, a full-size pinball machine is an aspirational purchase that requires investment, space, and maintenance. Companies such as Stern Pinball exist to fill that niche, with recent tables including licensed machines based on The Beatles and The Munsters currently in production alongside the original Black Knight: Sword of Rage.
“There’s nothing more iconic in the pinball universe than the Black Knight character,” says Gary Stern, chairman and CEO of Stern Pinball. “Created by game designer Steve ‘the King’ Ritchie, the Black Knight has always taunted and antagonized players to battle him and now, for the first time, players will be able to fight back.”
BREAK OUT THE SHRINK RAY
For many gamers, the prospect of creating a physical arcade at home is not limited by funds, but by space. For those seeking maximum fun in a smaller scale, a variety of companies have stepped up to offer some options. Basic Fun! and Super Impulse are among a growing number of companies offering retro arcade games in a variety of sizes. Even Coleco is back in the game with new versions of the classic Mini Arcades it sold in the early ‘80s.
Super Impulse leads the charge with Tiny Arcade. These small video game cabinets are fully playable with full-color screens, backlit artwork, and working controls — and they’re nearly perfectly to scale with other companies’ 3.75-inch action figures. Wave three hit stores this summer, with Tetris, Pole Position, New Rally X, and Q*Bert joining the lineup. The company also launched Micro Arcade, a line of pocket-sized games the size of a credit card. Pac-Man, Tetris, and an Atari combo featuring Missile Command and Centipede are already at retail.
Basic Fun!’s Arcade Classics were among the first out of the gate — chunkier and initially with LCD screens — but like Super Impulse, recent releases, such as Fix It Felix Jr. (from Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph) and Rampage, boast full-color screens and high-resolution graphics.
This fall, Super Impulse will begin releasing pinball counterparts for its Tiny Arcade under the Boardwalk Arcade line that will include other arcade staples, such as Skee-Ball. A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles table is among the first slated for release.
GAMES THAT TOYS CAN PLAY
In the doll aisle at Walmart, kids can pick up an arcade cabinet scaled for play with 18-inch dolls from the retailer’s private-label collection, “My Life As…” The Arcade Retro cabinet features 100 games that kids can play while pretending that their dolls are at the arcade.
Without context for scale, New Wave Toys’ Replicade Amusements are often mistaken for the real thing in photos — with famous arcade games, such as Street Fighter II, Tempest, and Centipede, recreated as full-featured miniatures. At E3, the company introduced cabinets for 1942 and Missile Command, as well as a change machine that doubles as a six-port USB charger for Replicade cabinets or other devices.
New Wave Toys’ Gould says that there are quite a few challenges to balancing what the company does for both collectibility and playability. “The No. 1 challenge is making sure the miniaturized control panel stays true to the original, both visually and from a gameplay perspective,” he explains. “In cases where we have to compromise between the two, gameplay wins out because we want our machines to be as playable as they can possibly be. Visually, we make sure we get the scale right, first and foremost, and then we use traditional materials, such as wood, die-cast metal, and high-quality 3M vinyl art reproductions, to make a machine that not only looks good, but also feels great in
A NEW PLAYER ENTERS THE GAME
Home arcade machines are not new — in fact, they’ve been offered for decades — but affordable ones are. For the past two years, Arcade1Up has existed largely unchallenged, but this fall, a new player is entering the fold with a machine that could be an intriguing prospect for game enthusiasts who only have space for one machine.
AtGames’ Legends Ultimate cabinet was first announced last year, promising 350 games from a variety of licensors. At E3, the company revealed that the machine will not just feature 350 games, but it will be Wi-Fi enabled, allowing future games to be added via DLC, along with the possibility for on-the-fly software updates and online tournaments. The latest version of the cabinet was showcased at the Toy Insider’s Sweet Suite event last month. At launch, the Legends Ultimate will have titles from Atari, ColecoVision, Data East, the Tetris Co., LucasArts, and more. It will also ship with an authentic, arcade-style control panel, which includes two joysticks, six action buttons per player, a high-performance trackball, and two spinners on a full-size cabinet.
Additionally, the company will release the Legends Ultimate Compact edition, which will be a 3/4-size machine with 250 licensed games and specs that mirror the full-size Legends. While AtGames is new to cabinets, the company has been operating in the retro gaming space for years with a full range of Flashback plug-and-play game consoles licensed from Atari, Sega, and more.
GIVING THE FANS CONTROL
At the end of the day, the fans will continue to fuel the gaming movement, essentially putting themselves into the driver’s seat as the various companies are being placed in a position to react — or not. The gaming industry has been traditionally notorious for frowning upon customization and “modding” (modifying), but the retro space is opening up, and Arcade1Up has largely been supporting it. Rather than shying away from the community of modders at large, it’s not uncommon to see Arcade1Up sharing photos on social media complimenting individuals for their unique creations.
“Our fans and the community that they created is fantastic,” Bachrach says. “They are passionate and want to show off their cabinets: Some love to ‘mod them out,’ and they have done so in some incredibly creative ways. Here again, we have listened and have taken note, and this too has driven innovation into Arcade1Up machines with things like matching licensed risers and light-up marquees.”
As we head toward fall, the retro movement grows, and fans will soon see a wide breadth of merchandise that’s inspired by the games of decades past hitting stores. Following big deals for the Tetris Co., Konami Cross Media NY inked a deal with Bioworld for Frogger, Contra, and Bomberman merch; and Mario Kart — which launched on consoles and expanded to arcades — is becoming a line of Hot Wheels from Mattel.
In many ways, the home arcade boom is creating human connections by being disconnected from the current standards of modern tech. Walker says that an element of appeal for GameStop customers is something he’s familiar with as a parent. “With Arcade1Up, it’s not connected — it’s a safe environment for my family and children, but there’s still a community aspect,” he says. “It’s just innocent button-mashing.”
Gould agrees, calling arcade games “the ultimate antidote to the complex, over-the-top console games that kids are playing today.” And at the end of the day, he says a lot of the lasting appeal comes down to the simple aspect of being able to maximize time spent with family. “Many people from the ‘Golden Age of Arcades’ generation don’t have the time required to learn how to play modern games well,” he says, “but they’re happy to have at least one game in which they can beat their kid, … at least the first couple times!”
SHOWCASE: COMPANIES THAT HELP HOME PLAYERS MAKE A BIG STATEMENT
Owning a full-size pinball machine is considered an “achievement unlocked” for many home arcade enthusiasts. A sequel to Williams Electronics’ legendary Black Knight pinball machine from 1980, Black Knight: Sword of Rage is available in three levels of detail — Pro, Premium, and Limited Edition. The cabinet and table surface each feature distinctive hand-drawn art, and each game includes a custom sculpted, interactive, multi-functional Black Knight bash toy. The Black Knight will interact with players by taunting them with speech and movement, bashing and blocking shots. The game features a legacy sound package composed and performed by Scott Ian of Anthrax with Brendon Small from Metalocalypse, and includes custom speech by Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies.
NEW WAVE TOYS
New Wave Toys’ Replicade Amusements are fully playable, 1/6-scale arcade machines. Each machine runs the original game ROM and is officially licensed by the original manufacturer. Street Fighter II, Tempest, and Centipede are among the first to be released, with other classics, including Asteroids, Dragon’s Lair, 1942, and Missile Command, are currently in development. Each cabinet reflects the unique shape of its full-sized ‘70s or ‘80s counterpart, with complete detailing, right down to the coin slot.
INNOVATIVE CONCEPTS IN ENTERTAINMENT (ICE)
Super Kixx PRO Dome Soccer is the latest innovation from ICE, the makers of the famous Super Chexx PRO bubble hockey. Launched this summer, these arcade-quality machines are made in the U.S., and come complete with hand-painted figures, digital scoring, and live game calls. Players can customize each dome soccer game with graphics officially licensed by Major League Soccer, or take advantage of nearly endless customization options for a truly one-of-a-kind game room piece, direct from the company that supplies arcades and family entertainment centers.
Tastemakers’ Arcade1Up line expands this fall with the long-awaited release of Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Home Arcade Game. The first four-player game cabinet from Arcade1Up includes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989) and Turtles in Time (1991) games, four complete sets of joysticks and buttons, and authentic graphics emblazoned with the Nickelodeon logo.
Additionally, Arcade1Up will deliver a new version of a gaming experience that should be familiar to anyone who had a chance to eat at a Pizza Hut in the mid-1980s: the Namco Head-to-Head Pac-Man table. A 3/4-scale version of the tabletop staple that was made famous in the fast-casual pizza emporiums, the basic edition will feature Pac-Man, Pac-Land, Dig-Dig, and Galaga, alongside other Pac-related titles, in a self-contained table. The built-in screen flips side to side for genuine two-player action. A Sam’s Club exclusive will feature six titles and a pair of matching stools. The company will also issue a Capcom Head-to-Head Street Fighter table this fall.