Tuesday, August 18, 2015

DSG Vintage Arcade Post-Mortem (For Now)

This is a somewhat sad article for me to write, but I know it's for the greater future.  Unfortunately, the DSG Vintage Arcade is, for now, effectively gone.  Reduced to a single classic vertical multi Ms. Pac-Man upright, a vestigial icon of what used to be, and which will remain in operation for as long as we're in business.  The greater dream of incorporating a genuine vintage arcade in the DSG business structure has, unfortunately, been relegated to the woodshed.  Space constraints are merciless, and the raw math has every square foot competing with every other as DSG continues to develop at a blistering pace.

In today's article, I'm going to recount how we got to this point, including showing some photos, and then we'll take a look forward to what the future holds for this business segment.

As some of you may know, I am an arcade video game and pinball enthusiast.  I use the word "enthusiast" in understatement here; one might as well call ordained priests "Jesus enthusiasts."  I love arcade games.  I utterly love them.  Ever since my first game of Pac-Man at the ripe old age of six years, in 1980, at the 7-11 store on Baseline and Price in Tempe, Arizona, I have been completely in the tank for arcade games.  Their combination of instant approachability and a challenging but rewarding learning curve had me hooked from the start.  And they rewarded literally: the better you became, the longer you could play on a single quarter.

Even when the Great Video Game Crash of 1983 hit, I was undeterred.  I gobbled up consoles and cartridges from the bargain bins and obliterated them in relentless play.  I took my allowance to the local pizza joint every chance I got and dumped those tokens into Gauntlet, 720 Degrees, Black Tiger, VS Super Mario Bros, Xybots, S.T.U.N. Runner, Mercs, and Cyberball, the internecine generation of arcade games between the golden age and the Fighter Era.

Oh, the Fighter Era.  That was when arcade games became a permanent thing in my life's journey.  Just as progressive metal music had started to eclipse video games atop my priorities list during my high school years at Brophy, during the tail end of my junior year, Street Fighter II: The World Warrior arrived at Golfland and seemingly everywhere else, and I couldn't get enough quarters to feed it.  I practiced the Shoryuken over and over, ad infinitum.  Champion Edition followed and I was there.  Mortal Kombat was so huge it even made governments take notice.  And all the while, the 16-bit and 32-bit console generations were delivering superb experiences to players at home.

Around the Street Fighter Alpha era, hardcore fighting fans started to build "Superguns," or adapters allowing them to plug JAMMA (Japanese standard architecture) arcade motherboards into television outputs and handheld controllers, and it became possible for us to play the real arcade fighters at home.  I bought a cheap and dirty imported Supergun, and I needed more.  In spring 1999, when I was partnered with Arizona Gamer, I bought a full upright Street Fighter II on eBay.  That launched me into a five-year binge of collecting, fixing, and operating arcade games.  Around 2003-2004 I sold off what I had at the time to avoid having to keep moving it from one rental dwelling to the next.

Here were two of my early units, a Vampire Savior 2 cabinet running SF2 Champion Edition (the VS2 board must have been in my Supergun at the time) and an X-Men vs Street Fighter in a converted Pit Fighter cabinet.  These are shown in spring 2000 in the back room at Gamers Cardz in north Phoenix.

That XvSF later got sold to a friend of mine, who then sold it back to me when I opened DSG.  I upgraded it to a Marvel vs Capcom 2, and then moved the MvC2 motherboard into a better cabinet.  That unit is now in my den at home.  Fifteen years of lineage continuity; not bad.  Lineage is a big deal with arcade game collecting, especially with so many converted in the field.  A perfect restoration would have units reverted to their original game as manufactured, and for "kit" games meant as conversions only, installations in reproduction cabinets.

Here were three units that were mine at the time (the candy cabinets) and one that was not (the Gauntlet), shown in summer 2000 at Gamer's Edge in Chandler.

The one and only Ray Powers bought them from me, took them home, had them in his kids' playroom for a decade, then sold them back to me when I opened DSG.  One of the candy twins had failed on him and been replaced with a 3Koam Z-Back cabinet, which I brought to DSG in the form of a Street Fighter II: Champion Edition machine, and then later Street Fighter Alpha 2.  Here it is in the foreground with DSG's opening-day arcade line-up!

Yes, that's a Star Wars, Ray's Gauntlet, a TRON, that same XvSF, and more.  Our initial vintage arcade line-up was pretty good if I do say so myself.  I was completely thrilled in early 2012 to be able to rebuild the arcade dream and make it an authentic value-add and an aspect of DSG that would set us apart from the competition.  And for a while, it did that.

After opening day I completed repairs on the Neo Geo candy cab that Ray sold me, and then added a Mortal Kombat II and 4 to the line-up.  A series of other games cycled in and out at a rapid pace.  Donkey Kong Jr and Mario Bros, SNK vs Capcom, a Nintendo Red Tent, Zaxxon, Black Tiger, and Rampage World Tour, among others.

DSG even had an exclusive!  Thanks to some archaeology by one of the business partners, we got hold of one of the only Ms. Pac Plus motherboards in existence.  We had a marquee custom printed for it and used a restored Ms. Pac cabinet as the shell.  Check it out, the only working copy of this game ever operated in public:

We still have the innards and marquee from the Ms. Pac Plus, but refitted that cabinet to a multi-Pac and sold it to a customer.

Late in the summer of 2013, we hit a jackpot of sorts.  A non-working Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA became available locally for far less than market value.  That same business partner and I knew we could fix the problems the owner described, so we picked it up.  It turned out to be an original first-run dedicated (not converted) unit, one of about 250 ever built by exclusive distributor Betson Vending using internals supplied by Sony and Konami.  The core system was a heavily modified Japanese Playstation 2.  The VGA monitor was dead and we replaced it, and voila:

Unfortunately, he and I were the only ones happy about it.  The other business partners hated it and its earnings after the honeymoon period weren't enough to defend the space it took up.  I really wish we had been able to store this thing for the future.  I grudgingly went along with the narrow majority preference to liquidate it instead.  A few eBay buyers bit and then flaked out; running out of time to decapitalize the item for tax purposes, we donated it to the Boys and Girls Club down the road.  Considering they got it from us for nothing, maybe they'll let us buy it back for a nominal fee at some point, if it's still intact.  It's absolutely gorgeous gear, it worked bang-perfect, and as an arcade game manufactured in 2006 (practically yesterday where this industry is concerned), it had an operational life expectancy as long as you like.

Over the course of early 2014, the arcade wasn't popular around DSG.  I wasn't working there full time and our then-manager didn't like it.  It still earned money, especially when we brought in a restored High Speed for DSG's first pinball machine.  As long as cash came in, the business prerogative kept at least some of the arcade on location.  However, space constraints had already effectively killed it; we just didn't realize it yet.

See, during the window of time when the DSG Vintage Arcade had around a dozen units operating, it was a draw all by itself.  People came just to see that, and we had a chance to get them interested in our other offerings.  Yes, it also earned money from existing customers, players waiting between tournament rounds or what have you.  But it also gave mainstream visitors a touchstone, a comfort point.  Something they understood and recognized.  Increasingly throughout 2014, comics took over the latter role, and as the arcade dwindled, it became an afterthought.  If you're not running at critical mass, it's just not an attraction.  The Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas takes in over a million dollars in quarters annually using a line-up of restoration gear a lot like ours.  We'd be happy with a fragment of that, but we need to provide enough of a draw to move the needle in a market where "barcades" and weekend spots like Mesa's awesome Starfighters Arcade are the emerging factors.

The business partners and I understood the arcade could not succeed for as long as DSG's other business was physically crowding it out.  The economic benefit of a rack of retail against an arcade cabinet in that same square footage was no longer a question: Retail wins.  We were already starting to constrain organized play space, giving a haircut to the top end of our capacity that we never used and reducing our effective seating from 146 players to 108 -- and really only 72 when not running three games per table.  Around this time we began our long planning process toward our next location.  And it was agreed, the arcade would migrate to the homes of the equipment owners until such time as it could come back to life as an attraction on its own again.  We had to focus on making every square foot count, on monetizing our space as efficiently as possible.

I traded the red Z-Back to my business partner for a Tempest, which had been a longtime grail for me ever since it appeared in the Rush "Subdivisions" music video.  With my Donkey Kong vertical multi, the initial Bahrcade took shape in my living room:

Meanwhile, my business partner made a large buy of pinball gear from a container shipment and has spent the entire year 2015 so far gradually restoring the machines, week by week, piece by piece.  We have some amazing titles in store, both comic-relevant (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), sci-fi relevant (Star Wars), rarities within the pinball world (Whodunit and No Good Gofers), and all-time greats (We're going to keep these a surprise for now).  We are bursting at the seams with excitement that we will eventually be able to bring all these and more to our customer public.

The final DSG Vintage Arcade line-up before it was reduced to the single Ms. Pac-Man included three other units: Street Fighter Alpha 2, High Speed pinball, and Star Wars Episode I pinball.  Episode I was one of two tables built on the Pinball 2000 architecture and is a genuine pleasure to play, an unexpectedly good game considering the poor quality of the movie license it wears.  Alpha 2 is in my home, while the two pins went back to the other guy's place for now.  The front corner where the arcade lived out its final days is being converted this week to retail rack and fixture.

At home, now located in my den, the Bahrcade today features a nostalgia row of hardware from DSG's now bygone era and a couple of pieces that are my own.  Clockwise from the east: Asteroids Deluxe, Tempest, Donkey Kong multi vertical, Radikal Bikers, Nintendo Playchoice with multi-NES Everdrive cartridge, Street Fighter II: Champion Edition pinball, Vectrex multicart, and not shown but added to the den since this photo was taken, my fighter cabinet with SF Alpha 2 and MvC2 motherboards in it.  I sold the TRON to a collector who made me a cash offer I couldn't refuse.

It will be at least the summer of 2016 before DSG is able to open a new location, and there will be overlap while the existing store still operates during its remaining lease.  The new location is being scouted and will be selected knowing that we intend to bring back all the glory of our vintage arcade many times over and we will need room to facilitate that.  I know I am setting a high expectation, but I also know how much amazing gear we have squirreled away right now, so I am confident of our ability to deliver on that promise.

If you're on the Video Arcade Preservation Society's KLOV (Killer List of Video Games) message board, you can find me there from time to time under the moniker Mike Valmike.  (My pseudonym is a Les Miserables reference.)  You can find the above-referenced DSG partner there as well under the handle MJMMX.  For privacy he prefers not to publish his real name online.  The Arizona collecting community on the KLOV board is really quite friendly, sociable, and helpful, and we are always happy to welcome another collector to the fold.  I guess you might say we're all... enthusiasts.

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