California Extreme keeps the retro arcade scene alive

How one classic gaming expo is fueling a thriving and evolving retro arcade scene.
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The massive Hyatt Regency hotel hall is bathed in the warm glow of CRT screens and neon colored lights. The sounds of constant chatter between nostalgic players, electronic bleeps and bloops and pinballs bouncing off of springy bumpers all amass together into one giant deafening note.

It's July 13 and California Extreme (CAX), an annual classic arcade games and pinball show held in Santa Clara, California just opened its doors.

Over 600 arcade and pinball machines are spread throughout the massive play hall, arranged in a winding maze of paths lined with rows of cabinets. Walking through California Extreme is a lot like being transported through an electronic time machine. In just a few steps you can move through time from the pre-video amusement game Shoot the Bear, to the preeminent Pong machine, 1980s classics like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, the legendary Atari Star Wars cabinets and more contemporary Hydro Thunder and Primal Rage games.

It's an immense gathering of classic gaming cabinets that calls back to the arcade's golden heyday in the 70s and 80s. Here at California Extreme, for two days, the arcades never died.

The arcade enthusiast

Bill Esquivel pulls a sharp right as soon as he enters the hall. Bounding his way around the first bend of arcade machines, he rushes to a T-Mek machine. Beneath this dual-stick futuristic tank simulator, Esquivel pops open the front panel of the cabinet, and promptly sticks his hand inside. He prods wires just behind this panel opening with a voltmeter to make sure everything is working.

"My T-Mek is a proto number one," Esquivel boasts about his cabinet with the same pride a comic book collector would express over their first print issue of Amazing Spider-Man #1 or a wine collector would about a vintage bottle. Many of the cabinets here are very rare and old machines. "Atari tested the game as an upright and then they made it as a sit down production model, so [this cabinet's] kind of unique."

For some arcade collectors owning one of these heavy, expensive machines is simply fulfilling a wish born from their childhood memories at the arcade. Other enthusiasts like Esquivel, who has been a longtime collector of almost 30 years now with 100 cabinets in his possession, take up a personal mission to collect these rare machines to make sure they are well maintained and treated correctly.

"You see games on Craigslist and there are people buying them to make 60-in-one multi-games and sometimes they're making them out of some rare games," Esquivel says. "I scour Craigslist to see if there's something rare so that people don't buy it and convert it, because it's sad when it's something rare like a Paperboy."

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Free-to-play

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"I brought 14 machines!" Esquivel shouts as he peers his head over the T-Mek machine's open panel. He also brought along a Cloak and Dagger cabinet with other machines including Smash TV.

"When you come here there are [typically] two or three games that aren't working. My T-Mek wasn't working and I live 11 miles from here," Esquivel says as he makes his final checks. The machines are not only old; many of them are extremely heavy with some weighing up to 800 pounds.

"Most of these big ones with 25-inch screens are 300-plus pounds [while] these 19-inch games are about 300 pounds," he says. "It's an effort to move them because from just the vibration of moving them, things break."

It's a risky endeavour to bring all these heavy and fragile machines out for show attendees to play. But Esquivel says he and many of the other exhibitors share a collective belief that these games were meant to be played — not sealed in foil like trading cards or a plastic sleeve like comic books for all of eternity.

"The games have no purpose existing if no people are playing them."

"The whole point of the show is to get these games out here," he says. "There are some games that are very common. There are lots of BurgerTimes and Centipedes. Then there's stuff nobody has. Teeter Torture is a prototype game that TJ [Beyer] owns that was never produced. It has a handmade marquee and nobody ever saw it until it came to the show."

Later on, while speaking with the show organizers, who have been at every show since the very first expo in 1997, collector Ken Chaney gives a much more pointed and personal reason for why his own one-of-a-kind cabinets are out for play.

"The games have no purpose existing if no people are playing them," Chaney says. "It's like a Spinal Tap guitar, don't play it and it can never be touched — don't even look at it, and what a tragic end for a guitar or a game."

Brad Martinson, another CAX organizer, steps in, adding that all the games were designed for commercial use to be durable and played 24 hours a day. "Putting [a cabinet] in a museum with a rope around it is counter productive to what the game's purpose was," he says. "There are a large number of one of a kind or very low production games here and it's nice to see games that you don't see anywhere else."

Keeping the machines alive

For the most part these machines exist exactly the way you imagine — under a black satin sheet hidden away in a storage container. When you come to the show and simply roll up to a Q*bert machine amongst the classic cabinets that still look brand new, it's easy to forget some of these machines are pushing nearly 50 years old now.

At some point anything electronic breaks down. Over time RAM chips wear out. Screens burnout. Even the original game ROM, which contains the image of a game, programmed into the arcade board can become corrupted given enough time.

Esquivel paints a particularly bleak picture.

"It's harder because the capacitors just dry out, so you have to go in and replace a power supply [that] fails," Esquivel says. "You have to learn how to rebuild them or the hobby is really expensive if you have to hire somebody to fix your monitor or power supply. Eventually, you get to the level where you have to fix boards and you can't get new monitors anymore — that's the biggest thing."

"People are converting to LCDs and it's so bad now that people are scouring for 19-inch and 25-inch television screens just so they can fix their games."

But it's not entirely hopeless.

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A mission to save arcades

Martinson, a lean, tall man with graying hair confirms Esquivel's point about the failing CRTs, but there's still an untapped supply of screens. Periodically, someone will find a warehouse full of old arcade games. While it doesn't happen everyday, it's not entirely uncommon. In most cases, according to Martinson, a portion of the machines will be too far gone to save, but the parts can live on in other games.

However CRTs won't last forever even with newly found caches of them. Martinson says, "CRTs eventually get old and wear out and there is some cannibalism, where you take a good monitor out of a game with a poor cabinet and put it in a nice cabinet."

LCDs are also a potential replacement but for most arcade enthusiasts something just does not look right. To maintain the true arcade experience, Martinson says they will use CRTs as long as they're available but people will eventually get used to LCDs. The real problem is that even though LCDs give you a more accurate color display, the pixels don't blur in the same way a cathode ray does which makes larger pixels look worse.

"Making a new arcade machine is certainly something that's been getting easier to do."

Although CRTs will be going away someday, Chaney says that, surprisingly, the older machines are easier to keep going than the more modern ones. In his experience, newer PC based games, like Come on Baby, have a lot of reliability issues that need to be babysat to find exactly the right video card or a fresh copy of the data off of a hard drive.

Martinson attributes the older arcades' longevity to being designed by engineers who used to develop for aerospace and the military. The engineers building the arcades in the later space age of the 80s understood reliability was a huge factor and these lessons in electronics were passed down to arcade machines. At the same time, Atari and other cabinet developers would often reuse existing hardware that would have easy to fix and well understood problems; whereas newer machines would often use one-off custom hardware that was irreplaceable.

Restoring an arcade's original electronics isn't as hard as you might imagine — assuming you can assemble the parts. But even if the part eventually runs out, someone in the arcade community will often figure out how to create a copy. At the same time, everything else that goes into making an aesthetically original cabinet can simply be reproduced from the side art, the buttons and even the cabinet's entire marquee.

"Making a new arcade machine is certainly something that's been getting easier to do," Chaney remarks. "It's not so much the technical part of the electronics — those have been relatively durable on a lot of games like Robotron — it's the cabinet fabrication."

"CNC routers [shaping machines that carve wood using a computer controlled dremel] have become relatively accessible lately with places like TechShop," he says. "So it's getting easier and easier for people with the passion to actually build an arcade cabinet."

A thriving player base

For most attendees, California Extreme is an incredible show that lets adults relive their childhood arcade days and gives younger folks a chance to play an arcade machine for the first time ever. Exhibitors bringing their machines use the show as a chance to air out their collections and potentially buy even more machines.

But even for regular visitors attending their first show, it's easy to get sucked into the idea of buying machines simply from the feelings of childhood nostalgia.

Mark Birsching, an attendee of the very first California Extreme and now one of the show organizers, says he caught the pinball hobby bug through the show.

"When I went to my first show I didn't even own any pinball machines," he says. "The second show I bought one. By the fourth show I had six. By the time I knew it I had 43 pinball machines."

Birsching says he always liked pinball for most of his childhood, but never thought about owning a table himself. By the second CAX show he was financially able to buy his first thinking that it would be "kind of neat." Today most of his 43 machines are in storage while a third of them are outside, ready to play at any time. For him, CAX has really become a venue to take out all his machines, show them off, and rotate his collection.

Other exhibitors, meanwhile, come to the show with the explicit reason to sell their personal cabinets or purchase new additions to their collections.

All the cabinets are tagged with a written sticker on who the owner is, if it is for sale and a phone number to reach them. The sale of a machine is laid back with a friendly conversation, handshake, cash exchange and sometimes a friendly drink or cigar behind hotel room doors. As for the price of these arcade machines, most start at around $400 or more depending on the rarity and condition of the machine.

Beyond buying an arcade in person at California Extreme, there are other retro cabinet shows including the Midwest Gaming Classic and an even larger series of International Pinball League conferences. Meanwhile, you can almost always find machines sold on Craigslist and eBay. The larger retro arcade scene also convenes on the Internet through forum communities like Rec.Games.Pinball and CoinOpSpace, which still live on today.

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Building new machines

Hidden amongst a row of Robotron: 2084 machines set up for a classic arcade stick shooter tournament, one cabinet is curiously taller than the others.

Matt Walsh stands proudly next to his machine with his arm reaching over the marquee as he tells me "we built a from-scratch Robotron cabinet. I wanted one — my Robotron was crap — and it's an extra two inches tall, because otherwise I would have to crouch."

Walsh gives a full rundown of all the custom work. First off the entire cabinet is original, created by a fifth generation woodworking friend named Rick Hogan. The control board and bezel around the screen are painted reproductions, there are new buttons and arcade sticks and all the metal bits are newly powder coated too. Walsh also admits that the CRT problem reared its ugly head again, and in this case, Walsh says it isn't an original nor the best looking panel around.

"It's the original electronics," Walsh says wrapping up in a nearly exhausted breath. "Although, I'm actually running what they call a J-Rok board, which is a multi-game emulator board that's implemented with an FGPA [short for field-programmable gate array, a larger reconfigurable CPU]. So it's a cycled-gate, perfect emulation of the original game."

Walsh continues explaining that while emulation is considered sacrilege by most arcade purists, there are two ways of doing it. The first method is straight software emulation on a regular computer CPU. This, of course, can create problems with timers that aren't running exactly right, making a barrel in Donkey Kong roll faster, among other glitches.

Alternatively, a FGPA board basically shrinks all the gates you would find on an original arcade CPU — which is larger than a modern day PC motherboard — into something about the size of a mail envelope. The real point behind all this work is to exactly reproduce the same exact game as if it was playing on the original machine.

"Digital gates are digital gates; it's just squished onto a different, smaller piece of silicon," Walsh explains in short.

Bringing the arcade back

In many ways Walsh's new arcade cabinet represents a physical culmination of everything California Extreme wanted to create as a celebration of old arcades and a community gathering of cabinet curators when the show first started in the summer of 1997.

Chaney and Martinson explain that they, along with a rag tag group of arcade enthusiasts, first started California Extreme after seeing there had been a long tradition of pinball shows. With a number of shows dedicated to bouncing pinballs that had been going on for years, the CAX group felt it was time for video games to get similar treatment.

"People might come here and say 'wow, that's really boring' but at the time it was really amazing."

"It was right around the time arcade games started to be thrown away," Martinson says. "One of the things we wanted to do was recover classic games that should be played. Things that weren't commercially viable, but were fun to play or had historical interest."

The first two California Extremes were held at an abandoned library at the former Town and Country shopping center in San Jose. Martinson remembers the line of 80 games they pulled together, between the organizers and a handful of exhibitors, were mainly "old black-and-white and barely color games."

Among the arcade games at the first show there were early black-and-white games like Blasto — a sort of Bomberman and Minesweeper precursor where you play as a spaceship tasked with clearing out mines; or even older amusement games predating electronic screens like Penny Pitch — which had you turn a wheel to control the speed and throwing arc of an electronic ball.

"People might come here and say 'wow, that's really boring' but at the time it was really amazing," Martinson says. "Looking back it's still amazing what they could do with such limited hardware these 70s games were made with at the time."

Since then, the show has moved around three times, grown in scope and attendance, while never missing a single year with a total of 17 expos.

"It's gotten bigger!" Chaney, a man of tall stature over six feet tall, jokes with a hearty laugh as he looks around to the 600 machines on the floor. "More games, more people."

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Quarter up

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Chaney and Martinson say they aren't sure what will happen at the show next year.

"The show has always been driven by what people want to bring or see," Martinson says, explaining that, although they are the show organizers, California Extreme is an organic outgrowth of the community. "What's retro [or] fashionable is the question that's answered by the people who bring games and people who attend."

At the same time the show is constantly evolving to include newer games. In recent years California Extreme has been slowly introducing newer games like Dance Dance Revolution and DJ Trooper, as well as fighting games from the 90s.

"The show has always been driven by what people want to bring or see. What's retro [or] fashionable is the question that's answered by the people who bring games and people who attend."

"The people growing up playing those are now involved and I'm glad to see that," Martinson says. "Of course we get older and older model machines each year, but we've always had whatever was new at the time. Things are always evolving."

One particularly new addition to this years show was the inclusion of indie developers who have developed new arcade games. In a part of the expo entitled the "New Arcade Movement," indie developers — such as Sortasoft's Joshua DeBonis and Nikita Mikros who developed Killer Queen, the Lewandowski brothers forming Team2Bit and Syed Salahuddin of BabyCastles, among others — brought new titles that share some design DNA with the coin-op classics. "When we lost the arcades we lost a lot of the social aspects of gaming," Martinson says. "Sitting at home with your headset on Xbox Live is not the same as going to the arcade and hanging out."

"The indies are trying to bring multiplayer back out into the public space," he says. "So people can meet each other and socialize. It's a great aspect and I'm really hoping that's a movement that will progress. It is an evolution that I think we really need again."

Tomorrow

As the final night of California Extreme winds down, the crowd begins to thin out, leaving after one last game of Tempest, Don Quixote, Hydro Thunder or what have you. Cables are wrapped and the electronic slight hum on hall floor begins to fade away as dozens of CRTs blink off. As lights of the arcades dims away, exhibitors begin to roll their machines off the floor, carting them away on hand trucks to be hidden away in their respective storage containers until next year rolls around.

The arcade is closing down again. But if the knowhow and passion of these arcade enthusiasts is any indication, the show will be back next year and many years after that.





Images: Kevin Lee
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone

Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan

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