Ok, so let’s get something out of the way. Since perfection is subjective, labeling something as “the perfect” anything is asking for trouble. You like what you like. That said, I’ve been collecting arcade games and pinball machines long enough, and seen enough basement arcades throughout the years, to offer some guidance on what can make the difference between a room simply filled with games and an honest-to-goodness gameroom that you won’t want to leave. Whether you’re into video arcade games, pinball machines or more, here are some tips to build the home arcade of your dreams.
Before you can have the “perfect” gameroom, you have to find the games. Hands down, the best source for great games are other collectors. Not only will collectors be the best way to get hard-to-find games, but the prices between collectors are usually much lower than retail. Most collectors, who you can connect with via online forums like KLOV BYOAC, or Pinside, lovingly care for their games and have at least some experience repairing games and diagnosing problems, so buying from them can save you some technical headaches down the road. That’s not to say buying games from a retailer is bad. In fact, if you have the money, there’s nothing quite like buying a factory fresh, new-in-the-box game and knowing you’re the only person to play it (not to mention the warranty that comes with it). However, if you’re looking for games you remember from your childhood, the chance of finding your “holy grail” is much better with other collectors. Plus, once you connect with that community, you instantly have access to a group of friends who possibly have their own “perfect” gamerooms to share. When all else fails, there’s always the crapshoot that is Craigslist, but you may want to know a thing or two about repair before dipping your toe into that cesspool.
Reliability is a key concern for any gameroom owner and nobody wants their electric dreams to go up in smoke. There are way too many repair and upkeep concerns to go over in detail, but there are a few things of note that homeowners should be aware of before purchasing a game. If you’re into classic arcade games, the first thing you should know is that those giant CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors are the most common failure point and practically worth their weight in gold. You see, those glass screens which display pixelated Marios and Space Invaders are no longer manufactured or imported by law, so you can’t just go order a new replacement off of eBay. Dried out capacitors and cracked flybacks are the usual culprits, so if the game you see for a great deal on craigslist has a funky display or is advertised as just needing a “new light bulb for the picture tube” (spoiler alert: it doesn’t), you may want to pass until you have the skills to repair it on your own.
For pinball machines, the most common problem is also the most preventable. To save your high score, manufacturers mounted the circuit board that control the games with batteries. If the batteries aren’t changed regularly, they leak corrosive nickel and cadmium goo all over your precious, formerly-working boards. Some early arcade machines also used batteries to save scores, so as a gameroom owner, the best thing to do is remember to replace the batteries on your games the same way you would tend to your smoke detectors. Fortunately, while there are many things that can go wrong with games, internet forums and YouTube are valuable resources for learning to diagnose and repair your machines.
As you can tell from the worries listed above, it’s not always fun and games dealing with games. For instance, if you’re planning to make your own gameroom, you have to consider the lifeblood of these games: electricity. Unless you want to keep blowing breakers, you need to remember that most arcade, redemption, or carnival games operate on 1.5-3 amps of power with a pinball machine drawing 3-5 amps. A normal 20-amp circuit in your home may be able to tolerate many games on one circuit, but the safe way to proceed is to do your math and keep your games’ electrical needs in check.
Likewise, with these games ranging in cost from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, don’t skimp by neglecting to put your machines on a high quality surge protector. Not only do surge protectors keep your games safe from lightning and other worries, but you can easily turn on multiple games with the flick of a single switch. Lastly, water is your nemesis, so make sure your games are placed well off the floor with casters or rolling wheels in case your water heater decides to burst or that pesky icemaker line decides to leak. Fortunately, most homeowners’ insurance policies cover the contents of your home, including your games, but make sure to document your possessions for your insurance company before any disaster strikes.
A great gameroom should be more than just a handful of games thrown into a basement, bedroom or garage. The best gamerooms I’ve ever seen have really show attention to detail and a sense of the homeowner’s personality. Whether you want to paint your walls to mimic an authentic 1980s arcade or you want to go all out with a tiki theme, it doesn’t matter, as long as the room you walk into transports you and your guests to a place outside the normal walks of life. Blacklight carpet, collectible ephemera and unique signage are all popular methods for collectors to step up their gameroom “game.” However, one of the quickest and easiest ways to make your gameroom stand out is with lighting effects.
The arcades of our youth were mostly dimly lit affairs, and the best home gamerooms should be as well, with a few exceptions. Advances in technology mean LED lighting is affordable and accessible. Whether you want to “bling out” your pinball machine’s playfied or rig up color changing lights behind your games, LEDs are an easy and cheap way to make an impression. As the cabinet for the classic arcade game Tron proves, ultra violet lights, or blacklights, if done well, can be tastefully otherworldly. Neon signs, as well, can give off the perfect electric glow to give some great color and brighten up a dark arcade just the right amount. If you want to stick with traditional lighting, track lighting (gasp!) may be a good option for you. Track lighting allows you to position your lights so you’re not affected by glare while playing your games, and as a bonus, you have an easy way to mount hardware should you ever decide to start a Twitch channel or record a world record attempt.
Regardless of whether you decide to go with paint, lighting, or other decorations, making sure your gameroom design is personal is one step closer to making your gameroom memorable.
One of the things you learn rather quickly as a gameroom owner is that sometimes they games you’ve dreamed of owning for years turn out to not hold your interest in the long term. Unless you plan on rotating games in and out, consider picking up games with great replay value. While playing with family and friends helps to break up the monotony of many of these games, realize that most of the time, you’ll be playing by yourself. Any pattern-based games lose their appeal rather quickly and once you no longer have to worry about making a single quarter last, quarter-eaters like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stop feeling like a conquest and more like a chore. A pinball machine (or several), with its inherent randomness, can be one way to keep things exciting in your gameroom and ensure you never play the same game twice.
One thing I’ve learned over the years of collecting is that space becomes a premium. The amount of space I have in my own gameroom will never be enough to hold all the games I want to own. While some collectors value originality above all else, space conscious consumers may be more interested in getting the best bang-for-the-buck. MAME cabinets or multicade machines offer a ton of different games in a single cabinet, for endless hours of fun. MAME also gives you the ability to play unusual games you’ve never heard of before or allows you to really make an informed decision before you commit to buying that rare game that seems to be all the rage on the collector forums. Even pinball has gotten into the multiple-games-in-one-cabinet model with things like Virtual Pinball and new manufacturers such as Multimorphic.
Lastly, another thing I’ve learned over the years of being immersed in gameroom culture is that variety is the spice of life. A really good gameroom offers a variety of different games for people to play. Gun games, driving games, foosball and pinball always seem to be more popular during parties than just rows and rows of videogames. People like being physical, too, so consider incorporating something like darts, ping pong, Rock Band or Dance Dance Revolution if you have the space.
Creating and filling your gameroom is a fun and exciting challenge, and making it “perfect” will definitely take some time. Plugging into your local collecting community can certainly make things a bit easier, save money, reduce headaches, and provide for some friends you would never have encountered in your regular walk of life. Game as you see fit, but by taking these considerations to heart, you can have a fun space as close to perfection as possible.
Preston Burt co-hosts the Gameroom Junkies Podcast, founded the Atlanta Pinball League, and organizes the Southern-Fried Gameroom Expo in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter @nocashvalue80.