NO COINS, PLEASE

Vin­tage video games are get­ting a makeover for the 21st cen­tury — but you’ll need a lot more than quar­ters

Toronto Star - - ENTERTAINMENT & BOOKS - RAJU MUDHAR EN­TER­TAIN­MENT RE­PORTER

It took me 50 min­utes to as­sem­ble Ar­cade1Up’s new Street Fighter II cab­i­net and start dig­ging into my brain’s mem­ory bank to re­call how to do all of the char­ac­ters’ spe­cial moves.

It took five min­utes for my rep­u­ta­tion as the Star’s res­i­dent video game ex­pert to be left in tat­ters by the but­ton mash­ing of our so­cial me­dia queen Evy Kwong, who beat me in the first match of the news­room’s unof­fi­cial 2018

Street Fighter II tour­na­ment. Ar­cade1Up is made by Tastemak­ers, which is one of the many com­pa­nies cash­ing in the power of nos­tal­gia and retro-gam­ing. The com­pany just launched a line of some­what minia­tur­ized ar­cade cab­i­nets for home play of clas­sic games such as Pac-Man, Ram­page and As­ter­oids, which you can build at home IKEA-style. They re­tail for about $400. Mea­sur­ing just un­der four feet high, I was a lit­tle

sur­prised by how small it was at first, but once you fire it up, the game­play im­me­di­ately takes you back, with the same joy­stick con­trols and cheesy graph­ics that you re­mem­ber.

“Look, I’m in my 50s, I don’t want to stand all the time,” says a half-jok­ing Scott Bachrach, CEO of Tastemak­ers. The com­pany also sells a riser ($70) for those who want to stand and get even closer to the real ex­pe­ri­ence. I joke that to recre­ate the real ar­cade ex­pe­ri­ence, you still need a sketchy change guy in a dark and musty room, filled with cig­a­rette smoke and kids cut­ting school.

“Well, it’s your house, if you want that again, that’s up to you,” Bachrach says. “We’ll start you off with the cab­i­net.”

Since the game has been in the of­fice, I have seen its power. Co-work­ers have been drawn to it, won­der­ing what the heck it is. It takes peo­ple back. I’ve heard “That was the game at my dough­nut shop,” or, “I can’t tell you how many quar­ters I jammed into this game” more than a few times in the past few weeks. These new things are not the same, but they are close, and in some ways bet­ter. Like the fact you don’t need a sup­ply of quar­ters to feed this beast.

Video games have never been as ad­vanced, var­ied or per­va­sive as they are to­day. Gam­ing is the new sports. Pow­er­ful con­soles like the PS4, Xbox One and Nin­tendo Switch power the al­most $100 bil­lion world of gam­ing. Grow­ing par­al­lel to that is the consistent rise of very old games and the many new ways to play them.

Like vinyl, retro gam­ing is some­thing that never re­ally went away.

There is a rea­son that nerds like me still have an an­cient, in­cred­i­bly heavy stan­dard def­i­ni­tion TV and a VCR. That’s the best way for me to get my orig­i­nal Nin­tendo En­ter­tain­ment Sys­tem and play Duck Hunt — the clas­sic light gun game, which won’t work on a high def­i­ni­tion TV.

What’s dif­fer­ent to­day is that it’s eas­ier than ever to play old games, and more and more peo­ple are finding ways to power-up their gam­ing nos­tal­gia with new de­vices. Call it new-stal­gia. Ev­ery gamer has a mem­ory of a ti­tle that is etched into their psy­che: the tips from a news­pa­per route that were im­me­di­ately spent at an ar­cade on that new X-Men game; the buddy who first taught you the spe­cial move in Street Fighter; or the boss fight that took ev­ery ounce of your be­ing (and ev­ery penny of your al­lowance). It’s the power of those me­mories that this trend is re­ally ac­ti­vat­ing.

While there have long been clas­sic-game con­sole em­u­la­tors avail­able on­line, and plenty of knock-off de­vices, this trend got le­git­imized by Nin­tendo, when it re­leased the NES Clas­sic and SNES Clas­sic mi­cro-con­soles over the past two years. This was lit­er­ally nos­tal­gia shrunken down and shrink-wrapped. With li­braries fea­tur­ing some of the most beloved games from those con­soles, which was now no­tably smaller — and cuter — than the orig­i­nal, it also came with an HDMI cord to make it eas­ily con­nect to mod­ern TVs. The two con­soles were im­me­di­ately snapped up by fans and sold out, frus­trat­ing those who missed out. They have since been re-re­leased, and where they have gone, oth­ers will fol­low.

On Dec. 5, Sony re­leased the Play-Sta­tion Clas­sic, a smaller ver­sion of the PS1, with 20 older games, in­clud­ing Fi­nal Fan­tasy VII, Ridge Racer and Twisted Metal. Atari has plans to launch the Atari VCS next year, with retro ti­tles and more mod­ern op­tions like stream­ing. In­tel­livi­sion — yes, In­tel­livi­sion! — has also an­nounced plans for the Amico, a new fam­ily friendly con­sole, re­port­edly with a li­brary of older and reimag­ined new games. There is a Com­modore 64 Mini avail­able as well as all sorts of other retro prod­uct and mer­chan­dise.

Want the ul­ti­mate proof of the ret­rogam­ing resur­gence? Look no fur­ther than the of­fices of Unis Tech­nol­ogy Canada in Markham, Ont., which has given a slick up­date to what is con­sid­ered the world’s first-ever videogame: Pong.

If you are old enough to re­mem­ber the Atari orig­i­nal, this is like no Pong you’ve ever seen. For­get the grainy mono­chrome screen and the small hand-held con­trollers. This is a large cof­fee ta­ble, with round built-in con­trollers that are a lit­tle smaller than an adult hand. In the game­play area, there are three-di­men­sional pad­dles and a square dot that lit­er­ally glides across the ta­ble’s four­foot sur­face us­ing mag­nets and ser­vo­mo­tors. You are not look­ing at a dig­i­tal screen, but a fully func­tion­ing me­chan­i­cal ver­sion of the game.

Steven Tan, the gen­eral man­ager of the com­pany, can’t wait un­til you get your hands on it. “I travel around the world and I see it en­ter­tain­ing three gen­er­a­tions. Chil­dren as young as 6 to 8 play­ing the game, up to Mil­len­ni­als and their par­ents, or even grand­par­ents who were around when it was first around,” he says. “Ev­ery­one loves Pong.”

Unis Tech­nol­ogy spe­cial­izes in build­ing large-scale games for what the in­dus­try calls “lo­ca­tion-based en­ter­tain­ment” — games for places like amuse­ment parks, Dave and Busters or Cine­plex’s Rec Room, which is where this new Pong will be playable in Jan­uary. But Tan says Pong is dif­fer­ent, a cross­over prod­uct, which peo­ple are also buy­ing for their ac­tual rec rooms.

He thinks it can also be­come some­thing like Golden Tee, which broke out and was so huge it made it all kinds of bars and restau­rants.

“This is a brand that still has in­cred­i­ble power,” Tan says. “But it’s also bet­ter than ever. This ta­ble has five speeds. At 1, a child can play it. At 5, it is com­pet­i­tive level.”

Like ev­ery­body in the gam­ing in­dus­try, he’s in­ter­ested in es­ports and says his ver­sion can run a 128-per­son tour­na­ment with big prizes. Be­yond that, the ta­ble is Blue­tooth-en­abled so you can control it with your phone, and there are USB slots for charg­ing cords to keep them juiced. You can stream your own mu­sic through it, use it as an alarm clock and it is wa­ter­proof so you can put your drinks on it, be­cause it is, af­ter all, a cof­fee ta­ble.

It also doesn’t come cheap. The con­sumer ver­sion of the ta­ble re­tails for $3,800, and though they have only been on the mar­ket for a few months, they are sell­ing.

“We just started ship­ping be­tween July and Septem­ber, so we’re not even re­ally six months out, but dis­tri­bu­tion has been set all over the world. We have over 20-plus dis­trib­u­tors around the world, and all of them are now buy­ing them by the con­tainer load,” Tan says. “We are start­ing to see trac­tion of them go­ing out into homes. In terms of sales, we are 1,500-2,000 strong right now for those. Retro is back right now, and it is not just back, a whole in­dus­try has been cre­ated around it.”

It’s an in­dus­try that wants to draw the lapsed gamer back in, like the par­ent who hasn’t played games in a decade. And if they bring it into their homes and in­tro­duce it to their kids, the nos­tal­gia cy­cle just re­news.

An­other rea­son for the rise of these clas­sic games might be be­cause gam­ing has be­come so much more com­pli­cated, so as some gamers get older, they yearn for the sim­ple fun they re­mem­ber.

“Peo­ple my age (in their 40s) are start­ing to be the peo­ple who in­flu­ence cul­ture, and are start­ing to be the peo­ple who have control over these kinds of de­ci­sions,” says Clay Routledge, a life­long gamer and pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at North Dakota State Univer­sity who stud­ies the re­la­tion­ship be­tween gam­ing and nos­tal­gia. “It’s not a sur­prise to me to see peo­ple in the cor­po­rate world go­ing, ‘Hey, this is the type of stuff that meant a lot to me grow­ing up when I was young,’ ”

“I think your new-stal­gia term is re­ally good ac­tu­ally, be­cause to me, what seems to be part of what makes a nos­tal­gia cam­paign suc­cess­ful is to cap­ture the el­e­ments, and a lot of times they are tac­tile, or just sen­sory — they at­tack our senses in mean­ing­ful ways — that re­con­nect us to those past me­mories, but to do it in a way that in­te­grates newer fea­tures.”

RICHARD LAUTENS TORONTO STAR

Unis Tech­nol­ogy has helped man­u­fac­ture a $4,000 Pong Ta­ble. The ta­ble takes the orig­i­nal video game off the screen and into the phys­i­cal world.

RICK MADONIK TORONTO STAR

Raju Mudhar takes on Eve­lyn Kwong in a bat­tle of Street Fighter II. Scott Bachrach, left, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Tastemak­ers, which is recre­at­ing the ar­cade ex­pe­ri­ence, in New York.

MERON TEKIE MENGHISTAB THE NEW YORK TIMES

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