Sunday, 15 April 2012

Introduction Part 2: Remembering the Arcades

As mentioned in Part 1 of my introduction, I played a lot of Atari and Nintendo in the 80’s.  As great as those consoles were at the time, I always viewed them as second-class citizens in the larger gaming realm, ever subordinate to the coin operated titles that could be found at the local arcades.  The latter were not just games, but machines—dressed in colourful artwork and packaged in monolithic cabinets that towered above my pre-teen frame; oozing bombast with their thumping sounds and over-sized, fuck-off displays; their mesmerizing attract modes beckoning me to waste my allowance on the cutting edge gaming experience that lay within. 

I missed these games when they were current.
I was too young to experience the so-called “golden age” of arcades, a time when kids would queue up in droves to showcase their skills at classic quarter-munchers like Pac-Man, Galaga, Defender, and Donkey Kong.  By the time I was old enough to ride my bike down to the local bowling alley without a parental chaperone, those games had all but vanished to make room for the latest hot titles; which, at the time, included the likes of Double Dragon, Altered Beast, R-Type, and 1943.  There were a handful of games that were slightly older and still relatively common, such as Kung Fu Master, Ring King, and Exciting Hour (also known as Mat Mania).

In those days, it was still quite common to see arcade machines in the lobbies of restaurants, at gas stations, and in convenience stores.  This meant there was always an assortment of games to play right in my own neighbourhood, all within reach of a 10-15 minute bike ride.  Games would get churned through the local circuit fairly quickly, so it was exciting to stop in at those places on a regular basis to see if anything new had come along. 

Fast Eddy's in its glory (top) and downfall (bottom).
The neighbourhood scene was nice, but the ultimate arcade experience in my hometown could only be had by venturing downtown to a two-floor establishment known as Fast Eddy’s.  It was the quintessential classic arcade: dingy floors, dim lighting, a symphony of electronic sounds, and air redolent of stale popcorn.  It enjoyed a surprisingly long tenure; I remember going there with a friend and his dad when I was only about 5 years old, and I continued to drop in there from time to time all the way up through my late teens.   Sadly, Fast Eddy’s closed down in the late 90’s when it was bought out by a development firm to make way for an office building.

These days, arcade machines are all but extinct in my area.  There are some “family centers” around town that still contain an array of coin-op video games.  I was recently informed by a friend that he went to one of those places with his son and saw what sounds like one of those “Class of ‘81” cabinets that plays Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man.  By and large, though, the selection is usually limited to dancing and racing titles that don’t interest me in the least.
Shortly after I took a renewed interest in retro games in the fall of 2010, I got to thinking about the old days of the arcade.  I found myself wishing I could play some of those old favourites again; games that I hadn’t seen in 15-20 years, but could still vividly remember.  Cursory internet research indicated that I’d have to drive several hours to have any hope of finding a bona fide classic arcade, which was a bit discouraging.   So, I turned to something I’d dabbled with briefly several years prior but never really explored in-depth: a little miracle known as the Multi-Arcade Machine Emulator, or MAME as it is more commonly known.  If I couldn’t play the games on original hardware, playing them on my PC at home would have to suffice. 

I got myself a copy of MAME and some ROMs, and bought a Logitech USB gamepad at Radio Shack for about $10.  I had to climb a bit of a learning curve on MAME before I was able to get it up and running, but before long I found myself browsing through thousands of old arcade titles, many of which I’d never heard of.  It was fun for a while, but the whole experience wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped it would be.  I quickly attributed the lack of excitement to the environment; it was obvious that I’d never be able to recapture the experience I was craving by sitting at my computer desk with a handheld d-pad controller.

So, after a very brief foray into the world of MAME, the half-assed experience of playing arcade games on my computer meant that my limited budget of gaming time would be spent elsewhere.   

Then, one morning during my 45 minute commute to work, a light switched on in my mind.  What if I were to mock up something that resembled an arcade cabinet?  Would I then be able to install a MAME PC inside, and more faithfully replicate the arcade experience I was longing for?  It was a very intriguing idea, and I decided that I would check the internet that evening to see if anybody had ever done such a thing and written about it.

When I fired up Google and entered a search for “homemade arcade cabinet”, I was a bit shocked at what I saw.  Not only had this type of project been attempted and documented by countless people around the world, but there were entire online communities dedicated to it as a hobby!

At that very moment, the “homemade arcade cabinet” or “MAME cabinet” went from being a hypothetical curiosity to a veritable work in progress.  I knew it was going to be time consuming and probably a little bit expensive, but my mind was made up—I was going to do it. 

Anyway, this wraps up my introduction.  Stay tuned—in my next post, I’ll share some thoughts and opinions on how to conceptualize your MAME cabinet

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