In Search of the Holy Grail

In Search of the Holy Grail

Cassidee Moser tells the story of Seth and Tim Peterson, the owners of the San Francisco-based arcade rental service All You Can Arcade.

Seth and Tim Peterson are trying to save the arcade industry.

"It's no secret that the classic arcade has fallen on hard times," Seth says, confirming an unfortunate reality. The good old days of arcade popularity and machines dotting the walls of bars, restaurants, and even grocery stores have largely gone the same way as stirrup pants, Pogs, and jean vests; all ushered out the door in favor of a newer, more connected digital age. It is this same digital age to which Seth attributes the industry’s fall. "Once the smartphone came out, people quit pumping quarters into the games and it left professional arcade operators with a big bulky inventory that is expensive to store and can't earn more than $20 in quarters per month to split with the location," he explains. "The result has been a glut in the market for games that has driven down prices on all but the most popular titles."

Because of this, unwanted arcade machines began piling up in places ranging from warehouses to people’s basements. In order to keep them running in their fullest capacity, a community of people dedicated to collecting and restoring these machines has reached out in an effort to preserve them for future generations.

This very collapse inspired Tim and Seth to start their own business focused on preserving everything great about arcade gaming. Called All You Can Arcade, the California natives started a service that rents arcade cabinets and machines out to people for placement in their private homes and businesses. "We think that arcade games will always be loved by the public and that the collector community does a great job of saving the most popular games," says Seth of the hardships. "Where we are losing the war for preservation, is when it comes down to saving games that weren't as popular. The combination between their rarity and lack of collector base has led to the extinction of some games, and we're hoping that our company can help provide an incentive to keep the games playing."

Their ambitious ongoing mission had an equally ambitious start. Like so many within the collecting community, Seth and Tim were fueled by a drive to obtain their Holy Grail. Borrowing the name from King Arthur’s fabled golden chalice, a Holy Grail is known within the collecting community as a certain machine a collector desires above all others and typically holds most dear. Often, nostalgia or value will cause collectors to go to great lengths to track down and obtain their Holy Grails, scouring online sources such as eBay or Craigslist, visiting online forums, or simply networking with others within their community.

The Petersons' Grail, however, was different. Borne out of a challenge and necessity to start their business, their search was a tumultuous one that would very nearly cost them their lives.

It all started when the brothers picked up a machine a few blocks away from their house. Lovingly dubbed a “Hellcade” by the Killer List of Video Games (KLOV), the machine was a strange amalgamation of both the space tube shooter Tempest and the infamous cross-country road racer MotoRace USA, also known as Zippy Race and Mototour elsewhere in the world.

Wanting to fully restore both machines, Seth and Tim set out to find a spare cabinet. Being that Tempest was a more popular game and had been the subject of preservation for some time, Seth knew that the real challenge would be finding the parts necessary to restore the less-beloved MotoRace USA to its former glory.

"We knew restoring the Tempest would be expensive, but because of its collectability people still salvaged parts, so they were available," Seth remembers. "MotoRace, on the other hand, would prove nearly impossible to find. The parts weren't expensive, but finding them would be tough. Even when it was brand new, MotoRace didn't earn. Without a large base of gamers dedicated to preserving it, the game has been all but forgotten over time."

The brothers were finally rewarded in their search when they tracked down an empty cabinet in the middle of the Nevada desert. With few other options to restore their grail, the brothers readied themselves for a long road trip and began their journey.

Seth recalls having to hold off on taking showers when his water heater flooded the basement shortly before they left. With the plans laid out and everything ready to go, he had no choice but to face repairs once they returned.

In order to save money on fuel, the brothers decided to take a route cutting directly through Echo Summit near South Lake Tahoe, braving the dead of winter in the mountains and banking on the hope that nothing would hold them up along their journey. Thankfully, everything went smoothly, and they arrived to pick up the cabinet with few complications.

Content with the cabinet, the Petersons were ready to pay its owner and leave with their score when they were given an enticing proposition.

"Before we made a deal for the game, the operator told us that he wanted to retire and told us he would give us a deal if we bought more games." Limited funds and the constant reminder of a broken water heater at home initially gave the brothers pause, but they made the collector the best offer they could and walked off with a cabinet for their Hellcade, some spare parts, and all 50 of the operator’s games.

Originally having planned for only one cabinet, the brothers had to resort to renting a U-Haul truck in order to get their eight tons’ worth of games home in one piece. This alone was a difficult task, but the trip crossed into dangerous territory when they were caught in a blizzard during their trip home.

"Once we started to make our way towards Tahoe, the weather turned bad," Seth remembers. "Almost in an instant, the roads turned icy and visibility dropped." The poor road conditions would have proved challenging for any average vehicle, but Seth recalls that the extra weight of the machines made every turn on the road treacherous.

After an attempt to put chains on the tires proved futile, the two continued to press on, finding themselves in complete whiteout conditions around 2 a.m. with nothing to keep warm. "Right before we began to make the descent down the mountain there was a single police officer standing in the middle of the snow amid the sub-freezing temperatures. He took one look at our cargo and started laughing."

The officer told them they would have to park the truck and wait for conditions to clear before pressing on, leaving the two stranded on the side of the road for 20 hours with nothing but their precious cargo.

Harrowing as it was, Seth knows the wait was for the best. "We wouldn't know it until we made our descent, but without a doubt, he saved our lives that night, because going downhill with eight tons' worth of games would have meant death on that ice."

When the weather finally cleared, they were able to attach chains to their tires, finding themselves much more ably prepared to finish their journey. After a day and a half longer than they originally expected, the brothers reached home and had a more important issue to face: they now had 50 machines and extra parts that needed to find a place to stay.

Sacrifices were made to find a place for the machines, which included Seth enduring cold showers and cutting costs in order to save the money they would need to make repairs and start up the business. They weren’t in vain, however. "For the next month and a half, I would end up eating rice and beans and had to take cold showers until we could replenish the funds, but the foundation had been poured and once we would be able to repair the games, we had the resources that we would need to launch All You Can Arcade."

Seth and Tim’s Holy Grail hunting story is admittedly drastic, but it speaks to the passion endemic in the arcade collecting and restoration community. With no official governing body to protect them and a waning public interest, it has largely fallen on these grassroots efforts to obtain and preserve these machines, often resulting in challenging but rewarding experiences.

When interviewed, Seth was initially asked about his Holy Grail and what he and Tim had to do obtain it. Their answer was surprising; although MotoRace USA was the object that they went to the greatest lengths to obtain, there wasn’t necessarily one cabinet they wanted more than any others. Rather, their Holy Grail was an idea, a mission, a mentality that fueled all of their efforts and drives the very nature of their business. "Each title may not be a personal Grail [for us], but somewhere out there, someone loves that game, and if we can make it easy for them to find and support its restoration, then even games like our Hellcade can be saved."

For Seth and Tim Peterson, the Holy Grail is gaming’s history.

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