Video gaming in Vegas (part 1)

April 29th, 2013

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on April 17, 2013

If you grew up in Las Vegas, chances are you may recognize such names as Mary K’s, Ted, Ned, & Freds, Star-Cade, Pinball Palace and Jeanie Moore’s Arcade. During the heyday of the scene in the early 1980s, dozens of arcades were located all across the valley, and wherever there wasn’t an arcade nearby, there was a Poe’s Pizza or some other seedy establishment with a handful of cabinets sitting in the back just waiting to be played.

Casinos, of course, also had their own arcades, but aside from the rare exception, most of those were afterthoughts, meant to keep the kids busy while mom and dad whiled away the day on the slot machines.

These days, finding a local arcade is much harder, but luckily, Las Vegas has had a bit of a resurgence over the last few years. Here are some of the standouts.

GEMINI ARCADE PALACE

First, a suggestion. Visit Gemini this weekend.

The family-owned arcade has been a rhythm gamers’ mainstay for three years, featuring rarities such as the taiko drum game Taiko no Tatsujin, Sega’s quirky light-based Flashbeats and multiple iterations of DJ simulator Beatmania IIDX and Dance Dance Revolution.

But hurry — the arcade will shut down on Monday, April 22.

All is not lost for Bemani fans, however. While Gemini has chosen not to renew its lease at Sandhill Square, word from proprietor Juli is that they will reopen in a new location sometime in the future.

And a heads up to Gemini: The former home of the venerable Jeanie Moore’s Arcade and Mary K’s, smack in the middle of Commercial Center, is vacant. There’s a long-standing tradition of arcade history in that suite, ya know.

4180 S. Sandhill Road

PINBALL HALL OF FAME

Some arcades you wander into after dropping off the dry cleaning. Others are the kind vacations are planned around. Tim Arnold’s Pinball Hall of Fame is one of the latter.

After a successful stint running Pinball Pete’s in East Lansing, Michigan, Arnold packed up his extensive Gottlieb pinball collection and made his way to the warmer climate of Las Vegas. He would occasionally hold charity events called Fun Nights, where he’d open the doors of his warehouse and allow in-the-know members of the public to experience and play his historic collection of machines.

In 2006, Tim and the Las Vegas Pinball Collectors Club secured a spot in a Tropicana strip mall, moved in the machines, and opened the doors daily. Three years and the purchase of a building later, the Pinball Hall of Fame settled into its current location.

By far the largest arcade in Las Vegas, PHoF has a playable showcase of more than 200 machines, featuring everything from electromechanical parlor games to modern pinball and arcade cabinets.

1610 E. Tropicana Blvd.

INSERT COIN(S)

Opening two years ago this week, Chris Laporte’s Insert Coin(s) is the most visually impressive arcade in the city, if not the country. Billing itself as a videolounge gamebar and drawing inspiration from both arcade nostalgia and the Las Vegas club scene, Insert Coin(s)’ event lineups feature everything from video-game tournaments to performances by a rotating stable of resident and guest DJs.

Aside from an impressive list of arcade cabinets (with games priced at 50 cents a pop), Insert Coin(s) also offers access to the newest console titles along the expansive lit bartop. If you’re club-minded, head to the row of high backed couches and consoles against the wall, where bottle service is offered alongside the arcade quality fightsticks and Super Nintendos.

512 Fremont St.

HI SCORES

Take the concept of Insert Coin(s), add a dash of PT’s, throw in one of the best craft beer selections in town and you’ve got Hi Scores. Nestled against the less gamey and more cocktail-focused Player’s Club (both owned by Incredible Technologies founder Richard Ditton), Hi Scores features a casual atmosphere and a solid assortment of entirely free-to-play arcade and pinball machines, including Namco’s elusive Pac-Man Battle Royale, a simultaneous four-player take on the arcade classic.

Last I heard, Hi Scores was doing so well that Ditton and his team plan to open several new locations across the Las Vegas valley.

A heads up to Ditton: Have I mentioned that there’s a Vegas-historic arcade space available in Commercial Center?

65 S. Stephanie St.

link love 122309

December 23rd, 2009

Hurray for game studio holiday breaks! Looking forward to spending the next week catching up on video games, starting a new restoration project, and uh, writing up design docs for work.

A Video Game Timeline (1967-Present)

Last month, Simon Parkin interviewed competitive Street Fighter legend Daigo Umehara. Go read it at Eurogamer.

Jeri Ellsworth is designing and building her own pinball machine. Here’s her progress so far: day 3, day 4, and plastic bending in a toaster oven.

Jason Scott is taking pre-orders for his text adventure documentary GET LAMP. 25% off until the end of December.

Restoring Count-Down: Finished!

December 12th, 2009

As the system that straddled the electromechanical and solid state eras, Gottlieb System 1 pinball machines were, even brand new, notorious for their electronic issues, and now that the components have aged for thirty years, the potential problems have only compounded. There are very few who’d call troubleshooting a System 1 an enjoyable experience, and some techs refuse to work on the machines entirely.

By the time I called Nick at Planet 9 Pinball, I’d rebuilt the power supply, replaced a half dozen of the transistors on the driver board, and had gotten everything up and running but the outhole kicker and a couple other troublesome bits. Unfortunately, I managed to short out the transistor on the bottom of the power supply against its bracket, setting off a minor chain reaction. This is when I called Nick.

He quickly resolved the remaining under-the-playfield issues and was able to get the machine back up and running, but while a testing low voltage issue he inadvertently discovered a bad potentiometer, shorting a handful of chips on the MPU board in the process. I replaced the bad pots, and over the course of the next week he tested and replaced MPU chips one by one until things were (mostly) back to working condition. Plans were made to source the remaining chips (for the display controllers), and Nick went on his way, vowing to never work on another System 1 game again.

[Btw, I highly recommend Planet 9, Nick’s a good guy, his rates are reasonable, and he’ll slog through the muck to get your machine up and running again.]

Knowing that the playfield mechanics were solid and that this machine would be living with me for years to come, I began to look into some of the more recent System 1 replacement boards developed by boutique outfits and hobbyists in the scene. I’d heard glowing reviews of a modern all-in-one board designed by Pascal Janin, and having just buffered my arcade project coffer with a few parts sales, I took the plunge and ordered his PI-1 X4.

Pascal Janin's PI-1 X4

The PI-1 X4 fits into the backbox and replaces the power supply, MPU board, driver board, as well as the three-tone sound board mounted in the front of the cabinet. In addition to replicating the base game functions completely, it adds a whole mess of new features (skill shot, attract mode, free play, multiple high scores with name entry, etc), moves the stored data from battery backup to NVRAM, and corrects many of the faults of the original hardware.

Pascal’s manual was well thought out and installation took maybe 20 minutes. After thoroughly testing everything and setting the parameters via his display menu system, I gave the playfield a quick wipedown, replaced the glass, and played my first game on the fully working machine. Man, did that feel good.

Here’s the PI-1 X4 mounted in the backbox… lots of room leftover!
 PI-1 X4 installed in Count-Down

And finally, after too many hours, a lot of sweat, and a little bit of blood, here’s my finished Count-Down:

Count-Down!

More Count-Down!

Count-Down in the dark! All new playfield lights, including colored LEDs in the inserts and behind the drop target banks:
More Count-Down, in the dark!

And a final gratuitous playfield closeup:
More Count-Down, in the dark!

Pinball Hall of Fame’s new home.

November 14th, 2009

On Tuesday, November 3rd, Tim Arnold’s Pinball Hall of Fame reopened in its permanent location, a 10,000 sq ft former tile store across from the Liberace Museum here in Las Vegas.

I dropped by last night a few minutes before closing, and took a handful of photos of the new space.

New machine row!

Full story, after the jump »

Restoring Count-Down: the cabinet.

October 18th, 2009

So here’s what I started with… a handful of erratic spraypaint additions and a repainted backbox surround.
Count-Down side
Count-Down backbox
Count-Down front

The original Count-Down stencil art is (in my opinion), the worst of all the Gottlieb System 1 games. A shame, as the playfield and backglass designs are some of the best from the era.

If you look at some of the better System 1 examples, you’ll see a much more skillful use of style and composition in the stencils. Thoughtful design, sharp and flowing edges, graphic design pieces that hold up as art on their own. Now compare those to Count-Down: rather than choosing lines carefully and pushing towards the iconic, the rocket was simply illustrated as a child would draw it (although I do like the coiling smoke of the liftoff), with cabinet front stenciling that did nothing to connect the pieces or bolster the overall theme.

So I said purists be damned, and drew up something new.

In the old days, back before the word hitchhiker became analogous to murderer, if you came across traveler with her thumb out while you were only driving a short distance, this is the gesture you’d give:
Hitchhiker gesture

That gesture said, “hey there space babe, you’re welcome to come along, but I’m not going far,” giving your prospective hiker the chance to pass and wait out for a more beneficial riding opportunity. And in space babe terms, circling the Earth in a space station would certainly be considered short distance travel.

With that in mind, I themed the stencil redesign on the NASA space program of the 1970s, with a Saturn V rocket (carrying the Skylab payload), and a font based on the agency’s then-current worm logo. At the same time, I still wanted the cabinet to be recognizably Count-Down.

Here’s the final artwork, just before sending the Illustrator files off to Rich at ThisOldGame.com for reproduction.
custom stencil

While the addition of the numbers meant that two sets of backbox stencils would have to be made (usually, stencils on one side simply mirror those on the other), I felt it was necessary to anchor the art to the game, and to help the backbox stand out as more than just a smaller version of the main cabinet design.

Here’s what I received in the mail a few weeks later:
custom stencils from thisoldgame.com
Full story, after the jump »