Inside California's Secret Arcades

Inside California's Secret Arcades

COVER STORY: With the arcade scene long since dead and buried, hobbyists are building private arcades of their own. We visited one.

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Smash Bros. Melee at Gamecenter Mk. III.


Arcade enthusiasts are remarkably attached to the old cabinets. They treat playing on an actual machine as something akin to a religious experience. It's not something that can be replicated, nor can it be replaced.

Kim discovered that firsthand when he asked the regulars at Gamecenter if they'd be interesting in shifting to console setups. They would be able to fit far more TVs and consoles into the space, he reasoned, which would mean more games to play. The response he received was a resounding, "No way."

"The tournament standard has moved on to something else, but there are a lot of people who value the premium experience," Kim smiles.

Kim himself is someone who values that sort of premium experience. When Gundam Extreme Vs. arrived on PlayStation 3 back in late 2011, he bought four copies of the game and housed them in arcade cabinets for a more authentic experience (the actual arcades need to connect to a Japanese ISP to function).

Kim's appreciation for arcades has also made him keenly interested in their preservation. He explains, "This is hardware that never had an intended duty cycle of five, maybe eight, years, and it's pushing two decades at this point. This hardware was not meant to last this long, and that it has is a minor miracle. When it does breakdown, it's so hard to find people who can still do the repairs. I had a CRT monitor that burned out. Who do you know who repairs CRTs?"

Every CPS-II game ever. Seriously.

He picks up a CP System II board, the hardware that has housed everything from Super Street Fighter II Turbo to Alien vs. Predator. "Because this technology is old and breaking down and the new technology is getting cheaper, it's allowing us to modify some of this old technology. For example, this CPS-II... so normally the way games like this happened is that you had board like that with ROM chips stuck in. That was the data. But micro-controllers are so powerful and cheap now that, inside this CPS-II, you pull all those ROM chips out, you put in this micro-controller that has pins that fit in all the sockets, and it can pipe whatever data you want into the board. So you keep the original arcade form factor, but you just replace the data source."

As a result, Kim says, a CPS-II board like the one in his hand can hold every single CPS-II game ever made. And for the most part, it's thanks to the hobbyist community that these sorts of mods exist. Without them, many games may have already vanished entirely. And as Kim points out, even a port isn't enough in the hyper-dedicated fighting game circles. "All of these people have been playing these games in excess of 20 years at this point; so when a modern day port comes out, it feel terrible. It's all wrong. Because you have been inculcated over the past two decades on a certain standard. So in that way, especially for the older games, nothing can replace the arcade versions."

Going forward, hobbyists like Kim will have to work even harder to keep their preferred format viable. As arcades continue to fade, nostalgia is bound to fade with it. A 21-year-old in America today is unlikely to remember the arcade scene at all.

Kim acknowledges as much, "Arcades, as they are, are completely dead. If you visit Round One or Dave and Busters, you still get smatterings of current arcade games, but they are wrapped up in a 'family fun center.' They are very different from the older style of arcades. You can still kind of see the games, but the arcade culture is not there. They are monetizing off a very different model."

"This is hardware that never had an intended duty cycle of five, maybe eight, years, and it's pushing two decades at this point. This hardware was not meant to last this long, and that it has is a minor miracle. When it does breakdown, it's so hard to find people who can still do the repairs. I had a CRT monitor that burned out. Who do you know who repairs CRTs?"

He continues, "It's not an industry, it's a curio. It makes me sad, but I don't begrudge because there's plenty of other things that has happened to. It's not like they die. There's still hot rod meetups. There's pinball meetups; and not the stuff that you or I play, but stuff like solenoid pinball - the super old-school stuff with no digital displays. There are people who are diehard purists for this stuff."

If that's the case, then spaces like Kim's are apt to be how arcades are experienced going forward: private groups hosted by diehard hobbyists, or perhaps the odd museum. For now, they are a place for enthusiasts to come together in a way that has become increasingly uncommon in the gaming community and share their interests.

And it's not just the old veterans who are showing up. Jon Kbf is one of those aforementioned 21-year-olds who doesn't remember the halcyon days of the fighting game scene very well, but has nevertheless found a home at Gamecenter Mk. III. His own experience best encapsulates the appeal of such a space. "I was homeschooled from grade school through high school, and I was incredibly introverted and shy, so I often struggled to find people I related to. I struggled to find a hobby and a social outlet for a long time."

"Myung's Gamecenters have been one of the only places I can go to be around people who I knew shared my interests, people who have turned out to be wonderful, and were one of the first places I could eventually feel comfortable opening up, talking to people, and making friends."

Maybe not quite a new generation of arcade enthusiasts; but in the end, it's a start.

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Kat Bailey

Editor in Chief

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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