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Arcade Archaeology: Saving Gaming's Relics

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Arcade Archaeology: Saving Gaming's Relics

I’m riding in the passenger seat of a Ford F-350 with the seat warmers on, protected from the rain and cold that continues to bear down on us. It’s December in Northeast Georgia, and we’re experiencing a somewhat unusual cold spell. Trees and farmland whip past us on either side as we speed along the patchy pavement. I can see where we’re driving, but considering all the turns, u-turns and unfamiliar landscape, I may as well be blindfolded. There’s no way I could retrace this path if I wanted to. Forests turn to pastures before finally revealing some silos and industrial-looking buildings. “This is it,” my friend Kyle announces as we pull the truck and the attached 15-foot trailer down a winding driveway until we stop behind a building that looks like a mixture between an old chicken house and the forgotten factories spread across Detroit. I put on my leather gloves and grab my flashlight before opening the door to leave the warmth of the truck. Despite the weather, I can hardly contain my excitement because I know what the forlorn structure in front of me contains: hundreds of dusty videogames and pinball machines pulled out of arcades and left here years ago, forgotten.

No matter how many times you have the opportunity to do it, a “warehouse raid” is one of the biggest thrills an arcade hobbyist can experience. Though the billion-dollar arcade industry experienced a massive crash in the mid-eighties followed by a slow demise throughout the 90s, and barely exists today, its remnants can be found in the warehouses, barns and basements of old amusement operators that still dot the landscape of our America. Mostly, these locations are nondescript, for years their contents unknown to anyone besides the owners, just waiting for collectors like myself to reveal the treasures within.

The smell of earth, mildew and rat urine fills the air as we open the door to the warehouse Kyle and I are raiding this day. So remote is the building we enter that there is no lock on the door and we are able to enter unassisted, the owner obviously not concerned with theft. We, however, are here with permission—Kyle arranging a deal with the owner through a luck encounter and bringing me along for the ride. A lone fluorescent light illuminates the large space in front of us, revealing row upon jumbled row of games. In multiple places, the roof supports have collapsed and portions of the ceiling have buckled under the strain. In the far right corner, daylight is peeking through a huge opening where the roof itself disintegrated from neglect. While I spot games like Pole Position, Twin Cobra and Bally bingo machines as far as the eye can see, I also see stacks of newspapers, restaurant equipment and mattresses rotting from the rain pouring in through the exposed holes—all reminders that what waits for us here was used, unwanted and discarded.

It seems ridiculous that these games, which cost upwards of several thousand dollars when purchased new many years ago, would simply be left abandoned for 10, 15 or 20 years. However, many amusement operators—the people who purchased the games and placed them on location to earn kids’ pocket money—simply viewed these machines as means to generate revenue with no inherent value after their service was complete. At the height of the “Golden Age” of arcades, a game purchased new could pay for itself in quarters in only a couple months or even a few weeks. After that, every dollar earned by a machine was profit. Once a machine stopped earning money, whether through waning interest or falling into disrepair, it was taken off of location and a newer, hopefully better-earning, machine would take its place. The warehouse I was in that day was where those retired games came to die.

A quick walkthrough of the facility revealed a treasure trove of classic arcade games: Ms. Pac-Man, Sprint 2, Tron, Space Invaders, Centipede, and many, many more. Pinball machines were well-represented too with titles such as Haunted House, Big Indian, Bobby Orr’s Power Play and Firepower lining the walls. Though the majority of the machines surrounding us were from the arcades, this operator made his money off of all things coin-operated, so pool tables, foosball, ticket redemption and poker machines filled any spaces in between. Kyle had been here before and “cherry-picked” several games, but this was my first visit and I only had a limited amount of time, money and space with which to make my selections.

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Though the first arcade game I owned (a Varth: Operation Thunderstorm I bought from an arcade in the mall where I worked during college) was purchased in 1998, I didn’t start collecting coin-op games until 2007, when a new house my wife and I purchased boasted an empty basement and a detached garaged that practically begged to be filled. When I first started collecting, I would see photos of other people’s warehouse raids and bulk buys on internet forums and dream of the day I would ever have such an opportunity, never realistically thinking it would happen to me. However, over the years I have enjoyed the experience of numerous warehouse raids, basement buyouts and bulk purchases. I have personally owned over 150 games over the course of seven years.

The first opportunity I had for a bulk purchase came through a friend who knew my affinity for the classics. He had spotted several games corralled non-working in the corner of a laundromat. That lead would introduce me to Bob, who I would later learn once owned the arcade in my town back in the 80s. What started out with an agreement for me to repair those neglected games to their formerly functioning state in exchange for my pick of the leftovers eventually lead to my purchase of the contents of his basement: 30+ games, parts and supplies remaining from his days as an operator. After successfully clearing out the contents of his basement at the unbelievably low price of $1900 in 2008, garnering me such classics as Tempest, Kangaroo and Dig Dug arcade games along with Superman, Elektra and Black Knight pinballs, Bob revealed that he had yet another cache of games up his sleeve. I can’t recall exactly what he said to me back then because all I heard was the arcade collector’s magic word: “warehouse.”

When Bob opened the door to his warehouse the day he allowed me to see his collection, it was the first time he had entered the building in twenty years. Unfortunately in those years we found that neglect had ravaged and ruined many of his games. Moisture and pools of water had caused many of his games to collapse, the wooden bases of some games decomposing and turning into mud. The squeaks of rats could be heard just before you spotted one running across a rafter above you each time you entered the building, and a lack of power meant numerous run-ins with spider webs as you felt your way from game to game. Though I would have to “part-out” many of the games (a term used by collectors to indicate stripping a cabinet of its usable parts before disposing of the carcass), there were several classics I was able to save from further ruin. All told, I purchased 80 games in one swoop.

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Back with my friend Kyle at the warehouse at hand, I make my initial sweep through the derelict building combing through the aisles of games and the cobwebs that cover them. This warehouse has too many crammed in close together, so I have to climb on top of the games to see everything this place has to offer. I’ve become pretty adept at maneuvering my 6’1” frame in position above the fray to spot the diamond in the rough. The names I see on the marquees all call out to me at once, placing me at a specific time or place in my childhood as I read them. Galaga: My Mom would pull up a chair at a restaurant for me to stand on so I could reach the control. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: It gave me a mild shock when I would touch it with bare feet at the waterpark. Street Fighter II: It made me feel like a God among men as I defeated one opponent after another as a skinny, bespectacled twelve year old. Pushing those memories aside, I focus, and after searching closely, something finally catches my eye.

A game most have never heard of, The Glob isn’t very memorable. It is unique. Having seen as many games as I have, most of the beloved classics have lost their allure for me. Instead, it’s the rare and unique ones that still get me excited. The game in question was easily forgotten when it was released in 1983. At the tail end of the bubble of popularity for early arcade games, title after title was released to capture as many quarters as possible, and not every game was a hit. Epos, the little-known company that released The Glob, made conversion kits to capitalize on the coin-op frenzy and turn those low-earning games into (hopefully) new money-making games. These conversion kits would allow operators and arcade owners to take an existing low-performing arcade cabinet and swap out the artwork, controls and internal circuitry in order to have a brand new game on hand while paying considerably less money for the conversion kit than they would a factory fresh cabinet.

I carefully climb down from the top of the row of games to slowly make my way to inspect my new find. I’m always mindful of my surroundings and am careful to watch where I step. Throughout the years, I’ve enjoyed the company of rats, snakes, scorpions and hornets in these forgotten storage facilities, and I’m always leery of finding a new unexpected guest. A left at the Missile Command, a right turn past the cigarette dispenser, and I reach my target. Looking closely at The Glob, I immediately recognize the shape of the Pac-Man cabinet which now houses the game. Some may shake their heads in disgust that a bona fide pop culture icon would be converted to this cheap clone version with bad artwork, but I’m glad I found it. By some estimates more than 400,000 Pac-Man cabinets were manufactured. But how many copies of The Glob were produced? 10,000? 1,000? Fewer? And of those produced, how many still survive?

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After admiring my find and inspecting to see that it wasn’t ruined by moisture, I look for Kyle to tell him my pick. Even though he’s been to this location days prior, there were so many games that he is still discovering new acquisitions. On this trip alone, I help him uncover a box of small circuit boards for a Nintendo Playchoice 10 (which dotted many Pizza Huts across the country and allowed kids to play the NES in the arcade!) which, sold individually, were worth more than several fully working arcade games combined. (He would later tell me he sold the contents of that box for over $3,000.) It’s that way with many of the parts strewn about in operator warehouses. Collectors can, and will, pay a premium for certain parts to restore their games to once again be fully operational or to look brand new. Many of these parts, upwards of 30 years old, have never been reproduced. In fact, the production of CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) television monitors, the lifeblood of every single classic arcade game, has been made illegal in the United States. The window for preserving and enjoying these artifacts is closing.

I find Kyle in the back of the warehouse, deftly moving cabinets with his handtruck. “Help me with this, will you?” he asks me. He’s found one of his “grails.” We pull games from side to side, shifting them little by little until we reveal one of the most iconic games ever produced: Tron. Yes, Tron, the game based off of the classic Jeff Bridges feature film stands before us in all its glory.

Excitedly, I shine the flashlight on the game while Kyle begins to dust off the controls, pulling the joystick trigger and turning the spinner knob as if muscle memory has taken over. “This one’s going in the trailer!” he says as we clear other, less-worthy games out of our path. Positioning his appliance dolly underneath the machine, he slowly tips back the 300-pound cabinet. Without warning, several objects fall off the top of the machine and crash to the ground hitting my friend on the way down. Kyle reels back in pain and covers his arm. The easily-recognizable sound of broken glass lets me know this could be bad.

Expletives are hurled about indiscriminately as we make our way back outside to his truck to inspect the damage in the overcast daylight. A small, but deep, gash is on his left wrist, just missing important blood vessels. It isn’t as bad as it could have been, but it still starts to bleed and we are at least 15 minutes away from any medical facility. Kyle doesn’t have a first aid kit in his vehicle, but he does have fast food napkins and electrical tape which we use to make a makeshift bandage. “I’m sorry,” I say knowing the day has ended prematurely. “Hey, it happens,” he says nonchalantly, trying to mask the pain.

“Let’s get you to a hospital,” I say as I start putting my flashlight away. “What! Are you kidding?” Kyle asks. “Let’s get that Tron!”

We pull away from the chicken house, Tron in tow. On the way to the clinic where Kyle would eventually receive eight stitches, I add broken glass to my list of snakes and rats as something to be careful to avoid in the future. As the trees blur past us, games keep flashing through my mind. I try to make a mental note of other games I want, whether I could fix them, sell them or make them part of my permanent collection. I would eventually take home several games from that warehouse with Kyle, but the joy of each new discovery leaves me with the disappointing thought that each one could be my last. As the years go by, fewer and fewer new discoveries are made.

How many forgotten games are out there? How many will never be found?

Preston Burt is a graphic designer living outside of Atlanta, GA. He has previously written for the Screen Crush Network and co-hosts the Gameroom Junkies Podcast. He is a founder and organizer of the Southern Fried Gameroom Expo.

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