By the late '90s, with Street Fighter II's saturation reaching an exhaustion point and Mortal Kombat's hoary violence no longer a unique draw, the arcade--that place of social gathering, low light, and the booming sounds of attract screens--began to wither. But like most nostalgic things, arcades have made a slow return as the millennium reached its teens. 1980's nostalgia took off. Gen X and millennials grew up, as did their disposable income. It took a decade--two even--but arcade games made their comeback. Looking at the rising collector's market for vintage machines and the likes of Wal-Mart embracing machines with their shelf space, it's almost like they never left.
There are now a range of home arcade games to choose from, from My Arcade's roughly six-inch plastic replicas, foot-tall Replicade collectibles, and Arcade 1Up's four-foot in-between scale machines. Both My Arcade and Arcade 1Up reached the shelves of Wal-Mart, penetrating the vaunted mainstream consumer market. We've even seen SNK release a mini-arcade machine, and Capcom has licensed its games to Koch Media, who will issue a $250, two-player arcade stick with 16 Capcom arcade games included. No more hauling machines with 300- to 400-pound frames. The arcade of 2019 can fit anywhere.
But why now? Shiloh Prychak founded Replicade based on the idea of selling foot-tall, accurate replicas of the most beloved arcade machines. He saw the market, ran a successful Kickstarter, and now sells a $99 replica of Tempest (and others) at a fraction of the real scale. "When I had the concept to shrink down the cabinets to sixth scale, there was basically only a company called Basic Fun," says Prychack. "Basic Fun made a Centipede and Q*Bert running NES ROMs. That was the only thing on the competitive landscape, plus a host of unlicensed products. The idea was, let's make the best collectible [for] these uber classic games… the idea was to build your own miniaturized arcade in your office… now you've got all sorts of people doing the same thing," said Prychack.
Amir Navid is creative director at My Arcade, a company who also saw the potential in revisiting arcade games, and at a smaller scale still--around eight inches. "I feel that the interest in retro-era games is different between groups of people. There are those of us who lived through the time and are going back because of nostalgia, but there is also a whole new generation of young gamers discovering these games for the first time. With the rise of gamer as an identity, and esports, kids want to be knowledgeable about the history of the culture," he writes in an email response.
It's crowded out there, though. Replicade found a niche targeting hardcore collectors with their online-only, $99 mini-machines designed as an accessory of sorts to the real thing. My Arcade produces plastic replicas that nestle comfortably in Wal-Mart's toy department for the more casual consumer. These enter a competitive market alongside cheap consoles stuffed with arcade ROMs. Why buy a machine with one or two games when another exists with 30 or more?
"My Arcade's signature Micro Players are meant to be collectibles, comparable to small-scale figurines, and are more about the entire visual and packaging. The 8-bit games on them are great and make for a fun playable collectible while maintaining a price point that encourages our customers to collect them," writes Navid.
For Prychak, it's an entirely different market. "We're not for everybody. If what you're looking for is the Data East collection and you're okay with the games being less than perfect, you're not for us. If you want the real artwork and the real profile of the cabinet and all this attention to detail and high-quality finish, we make our cabinets out of wood, our coin doors are die-cast metal, the stickers we use the proper type of vinyl, the LED temperature is correct, not to mention you're playing Centipede with a trackball. You're playing Tempest with rotary controls. All these things add on to our value. We're just trying to give you the ultimate experience," says Prychak.
Customer reviews for My Arcade, Replicade, and Arcade 1Up vary wildly across Amazon and Wal-Mart. It's clear these machines do not replicate the durability of the real thing, from broken trackballs on Replicade offerings to My Arcade's that fail to power on at all and Arcade 1Up's decals that fade with mild use. Others find them to be a "little masterpiece" according to one Amazon user speaking of Replicade. From the 2018 Christmas rush, it appears Arcade 1Up made for fine gift-giving. Conversely, Capcom's upcoming arcade stick has come under fire for using an open source emulator.
Arcades breaking into the mainstream doesn't mean this is all contained in the home; that just makes things accessible to a mainstream shopper who's happy enough with a facsimile of the real deal. Longtime arcade game collectors, on the other hand, started using their full-size vintage cabinets to recreate the unmistakable atmosphere of true arcades.
Take California's Megan and Shawn Livernoche. Via auction, they purchased their first arcade cabinet in 2007. In time, their one-bedroom New Jersey apartment became so crowded with actual hardware, their multi-piece sectional became a single piece. A dining room table? That went too. "Once we got to like 15 or 16 games in our one bedroom apartment, it started to not make a lot of sense," says Megan, laughing as she recalls the memory of that packed living room.
Then they moved all of this cross-country to California and opened High Scores Arcade in Alameda. Shawn saw the market explode even before the advent of things like Arcade 1Up, and a time when the collector's market for actual games was weak. "Before the prices ballooned out of control, people just wanted to get rid of [arcade games]. They were sitting in warehouses. They were no longer of contemporary value to the video game market. That kind of changed around 2010 or so," says Shawn.
"Here we are trying to re-interest people in arcade culture, bending over backwards to keep these old dinosaur machines running," says Shawn. Megan quickly replied, "And if people can just buy them at Wal-Mart, what does that say about the real thing?"
What caused that jump in collectibility? "King of Kong drew a ton of people in back into it," says Shawn, referencing a 2007 documentary that chronicled a battle for the world record score in Donkey Kong. "There was still a kind of community that existed, even though it wasn't prevalent like it is today with the barcades. The community existed," said Shawn. Also, Disney's 2012 animated film Wreck-It Ralph brought arcade characters to the forefront and used an arcade as its central story piece.
Both in their 30s, Megan and Shawn represent the expected audience for arcades--those who grew up alongside Missile Command and Defender. But then comes Steven Van Splinter, a 20-year-old who represents the demographic noted by My Arcade. Van Splinter started tinkering with older pinball machines, fascinated by their mechanics. He was only 16 when he acquired his first cabinet in 2014. Now, he's opening a museum/arcade called Gameseum in his home state of Pennsylvania. He first discovered a small collection of older machines at a campground, an example of the arcade's far-reaching impact.
"I experienced this arcade phenomenon in my own little way. Probably 10 to 20 years after the heyday, but in a way, it was the same kind of experience. It's interesting how that reflected on me, that similar, same experience," says Van Splinter.
Those who run arcades and collect original hardware see the purpose of these mainstream home machines, even if they ultimately don't see them as replacements. "Most of the purists have really negative opinions of them because they're cheap and junky compared to the real thing. But I recognize they serve a certain purpose for the regular consumer. Even those people recognize they're not the real thing and they're more of a toy but it runs the real software for the game," says Van Splinter.
"The reason why we're in our business, there's something about the environment of the actual cabinet. You want to be able to play with those original controls. They were designed to be enveloped with their art," says Megan.
Shawn doesn't agree. "I feel like they're a lame, cheap attempt at capturing something in the past that some people settle for if they're not experienced or exposed enough to know what a real cabinet looks like. If you look at the [replica] cabinets, they're constructed poorly, the screens look bad, they put a bunch of games into one machine where the game and control optimization doesn't exist." Shawn also noted the price of an Arcade 1Up Machine, questioning the production cost to turn a profit. Arcade 1Up machines retail between $199 and $299.
Shawn then found a way to correlate the whole thing to the gum stuck to the underside of an arcade game's control panel. "I want you to imagine any good arcade, imagine that as a bowl of fruit that has fresh kiwi, bananas, strawberries, peaches, plums. One of these [replicas] is like a piece of gum that's strawberry, kiwi fruit, watermelon flavored. You can chew it and taste the flavor of these different things, but it's not the same thing," Shawn says.
It's a trip back to a simpler time when the limits of technology forced developers to be clever and really focus on making gameplay fun and challenging. Just like a piece of music that was written 30 to 40 years ago, these games still have the power to move us,
However, they do serve a purpose. Inaccurate to their source, yes. Impure in the eyes of collectors? Certainly. "Where they serve the market well is that any old mom or dad that wander into [a store] and say how much does it cost to put one of these in my basement? And they don't care at all about how these buttons feel or even how long it's going to last. They want a novelty sitting in their basement. For their interest level, they only need it to last a year or so. They're not going to nitpick. It's as disposable as their interest," responds Megan.
Owning an actual arcade machine, with a bit of work and additional luck, can be done for around $300, assuming this turns into a small fix-it-up hobby. Of course, issues of size and weight come into play. Grandma and Grandpa likely won't strap a real machine to their backs and drag it to their basement to get rekindle the Pac-Man affair of their youth, no matter how cheap the real thing is. Megan recounted a story of a machine falling on her leg, resulting in a broken bone.
And with Replicade, even at only a foot in height, accuracy still matters. The company sources their ROMs carefully. "We go through about 40 versions before a product is done and complete. We make sure everything is proper," says Prychack. Replicade also uses accurate controls, including trackballs, just shrunk down into a manageable scale so you can keep your couch.
All of this combined, no matter personal feelings toward Arcade 1Up or toy-like devices, it all leads to the same place: reigniting interest in a once-lost culture. The business of arcades in the home and arcades as a separate place of business survive on a co-existence. They feed one another. Wal-Mart instills the idea, the separate arcade sells the authentic nostalgia.
"These toys, the Arcade 1Ups or whatever, they're not going to affect the business. I think if anything, they're going to draw more people in. They're on that part where they're genuine enough to give the interest to people and for them to play them, but they're clearly not the real thing to nearly everyone who plays them. I would definitely say it's going to draw more people in to play the real thing. I can't see any negative effects," says Van Splinter.
"It's a trip back to a simpler time when the limits of technology forced developers to be clever and really focus on making gameplay fun and challenging. Just like a piece of music that was written 30 to -40 years ago, these games still have the power to move us," writes Navid.
For Prychak, he sees the long- terms possibilities. This isn't just a sudden burst of those looking to recapture their youth. "The community is growing and it will continue to grow… we're just scratching the surface at this point."
Editor's note: Quotes for My Arcade were incorrectly attributed to PR representative Blane Humphries and have now been corrected to be from Amir Navid, creative director at My Arcade. GameSpot regrets the error.