Bringing old arcade games back to life

September 20th, 2013

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on August 8, 2013

I stood before the cabinet, tapping buttons, idly moving the grimy joystick from side to side, frowning at the faded artwork and cigarette-burned control panel. The cabinet had spent time outdoors, maybe in a shed, with water damage along the bottom and busted up corners. The weathered back door sat off to the side, revealing a rat’s nest of wire (along with what might have been an actual rat’s nest) and dust-covered main boards. I slid in a quarter. A loose connection somewhere echoed noisily in the speakers as the game’s theme began to play, misaligned text on the screen inviting me to have a go. The machine was a mess, but it worked.

“Will ya take three hundred?”

This week! Bring an old arcade game to life for fun and profit!

tron

In the summer of 2008, I restored TRON. I’d been a fan of the game and franchise since I was young, and one of my earliest gaming memories was wandering into the Disneyland Starcade as a child and seeing a row of brand new TRON arcade machines lined up along a wall, each one topped with a second monitor so that spectators could watch from the crowd. The game itself was attractive (four different games, all in one machine!) but what really captured me was the electronic music and the soft neon glow of the artwork, panels, and joystick. I was in awe.

Who knew that roughly 25 years later I’d have one sitting in my garage. It was in rough shape, sure, but it was TRON, and I was going to make it new again. I began the teardown in earnest, stripping down the cabinet while scouring forums and manuals, learning just enough to continue as I moved from task to task. And as I worked, I realized, this was a hell of a lot of fun.

The following summer, I tackled a pinball machine. Then a Neo-Geo cabinet. Then a Missile Command. Up next, pending time and workspace: a pair of mid 1980’s era Japanese arcade cabinets, short and squat and built like washing machines.

Look, you’ve read this far, you’ve gotta be at least a little bit driven by nostalgia, right? Is there an arcade game in your past that you remember fondly? Ever considered yourself the tinkering sort? Buy an old arcade cabinet. Park your car in the driveway for a couple months and dedicate the garage space to a restoration project. These things are only getting older, and it’s going to be up to the collectors and restorers to ensure they stick around.

Let me help you get started.

First off, be patient. So you’ve decided that yes, you’re going to try this. Awesome, but don’t just buy the first machine that pops up on Craigslist. Pricing for arcade games is all over the place, and unless you’re looking at an incredibly rare machine, don’t pay over a couple hundred dollars for a game that you plan to overhaul.

Don’t do this to make money. With the cost of parts and the time involved, the last thing you should expect to do is restore a game and sell it for profit.

Once you’ve got the machine, label everything. If you’re undertaking a ground-up restoration, the first thing you’ll want to do is take the cabinet apart. Don’t assume that you’ll remember anything about how it goes back together, because chances are you won’t. Have plenty of painter’s tape (label those pieces!), baggies, and Sharpies on hand. Take photographs. Start by photographing the cabinet and internals before removing a single screw, just to have a reference point. Photograph all plugs, connectors, and anything else that comes apart.

Tools-wise, you can pretty much dismantle a cabinet with a couple of screwdrivers and a socket set. A wire crimper and multimeter will be handy when you’re putting everything back together. If you are repainting, Citristrip is your friend. Invest in a decent sander, and paint with oil-based paints. If you need to repair damaged corners or other parts of the cabinet, use Bondo, it’ll outlast wood filler.

Take advantage of the community! Plenty of online discussion boards are out there. Some of the best for the budding restorer include the arcade-museum.com forums and the Build Your Own Arcade Controls community at forum.arcadecontrols.com. Both will lead you to useful background information, discussions, and even sources for cabinet parts and reproduction artwork.

Above all, don’t be intimidated. With all the available resources online, restoring an arcade cabinet is like building a model; you’ll find walkthroughs and guides for almost everything. The pleasure of restoration is that it forces you to learn a little bit about a lot of skills: a little bit of woodworking, a little bit of painting, a little bit of electronics. Dive in, have fun, and send me photos when you’re done.

A weekend at the Evo fighting game championships

September 18th, 2013

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on July 25, 2013

On July 9th, just days before the start of the world’s largest fighting game tournament, a call came down from Nintendo, stating that the organizers did not have broadcast rights to stream Super Smash Bros Melee, a recent tournament addition as a result of a fan-funded charity drive. While thousands of attendees spectate at the event itself, most viewers, including the majority of those who’d donated to see Super Smash Bros Melee join the mix, would watch the matches from home via live online video that in previous years had surpassed over a hundred thousand concurrent viewers.

The announcement added to the pre-show chaos as organizers struggled to reschedule events, removing Super Smash Bros Melee from the streaming lineup and shifting start times of others in order to fill the gap. Enthusiast sites caught on to the news immediately, and players and fans went ballistic, further cementing the view of a doddering and out of touch Nintendo of America.

Less than three hours after the announcement, Nintendo, responding to the sudden and intense negative pressure, rescinded their decision. The original schedule and lineup returned, and everyone involved breathed a sigh of relief. The streams were safe and the game was on.

This week’s column: Evolution Championship Series!

evo2013

“Ooh, the RJ!” she beams, impressed by the business cards we’d just handed her.

“Kind of. Citylife, actually. Same parent company.”

“Oh. Well, here you go.”

It’s Friday, day one of the Evolution Championship Series (known as Evo), and Bally’s Las Vegas is already humming with players in Evo t-shirts lugging about personalized arcade-style joysticks, readying for upcoming matches, discussing strategy and brackets and contenders.

Press badges in hand, we walk through the crowded entry hall and into the half-full Indie Game Dev panel, where four successful independent developers are discussing the process of creating, funding, and marketing their titles in front of a small crowd of eager video game enthusiasts and a handful of established industry folk.

While Evo has always been about fighting games and a passionate community of players, 2012 saw the introduction of the Indie Showcase, a small section of the conference hall set aside to showcase standouts from the independent game development scene. Divekick, one of the seven featured 2012 Showcase titles, was popular enough last year to warrant its own streamed tournament this time around (alongside fan favorite Skullgirls), and the 2013 Indie Showcase, organized by Capy Games’ Nathan Vella (Critter Crunch, Sword and Sworcery), was awarded a larger and more prominent space (and more games) among the vendor and publisher booths of the exhibit area, providing a temporary oasis from the intensity of battle on glowing screens peppered throughout the hall.

Organized by brothers Tom and Tony Cannon via Usenet in 1996, the Battle by the Bay (also known as B3) was a 64-competitor Street Fighter II tournament held at Golfland in Sunnyvale, California. The largest such gathering of fighting game players at the time, the turnout and popularity of B3 led to successive tournaments around the country, and in 2002, with the addition of co-founders Seth Killian and Joey Cuellar, the tournament was reborn as Evolution.

As Evolution grew in size and prestige, players from around the globe were drawn to the event, and publishers and sponsors began to take notice, leading to an even more spectacular presentation and the recognition of international fighting game stars such as Japan’s Daigo Umehara and the United States’ Justin Wong.

Three years later, having outgrown the college ballrooms and arcades of past years, Evo relocated to Las Vegas, Nevada, where the tournament continues to be held.

It’s Sunday night and we’re watching the Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 finals, clutching smuggled beers and cheering at the massive projection screens above with the rest of the audience as Justin Wong and Angelic, nebulous hunched figures in the distance from our seats near the back of the hall, duke it out in the X-Men’s Danger Room.

To the unfamiliar eye, Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 is chaos, super kinetic boxing with more colors and less sweat and grimacing, flashes and beams and movement everywhere as Marvel comic heroes and classic video game characters leap in and out of play, throwing punches and projectiles. It’s hypnotic, and one can’t help but be drawn in by the fervor of the crowd.

While I’m partial to Angelic’s underdog rise and his fielding of Shuma-Gorath, a Cthulhu-like space octopus from the Marvel universe and a rare sight in top levels of play, Justin Wong’s game is on key and he wins the set 3-1, sending Angelic to third place and securing his own spot in the Grand Finals.

Evo 2013 shattered previous records, hosting 3538 competitors and over 30,000 matches over its three day span. 1.7 million viewers tuned in to the online streams over the course of the weekend, and Super Smash Bro Melee, the Nintendo game that came close to being removed from Evo entirely, drew in an astounding 134,000 concurrent viewers, even more than Super Street Fighter 4 AE, the headliner of the tournament.

If it’s been years since you last placed a quarter on the marquee of a Street Fighter II arcade cabinet, if you’ve never seen a fighting game match with commentary, or if this is all new to you and you simply want to see what the kids are doing these days, head over to evo.shoryuken.com and watch a highlight match or two. And remember, unlike many pro-level tournaments, Evo is open, meaning that anyone can sign up and compete. It’s never too late to pick up a joystick and start playing.