I’m 25 year old male and as such, like many people, I have dreams and aspirations. Be it to own a car that doesn’t squeal when traversing a round-a-bout, grow a ZZ-Top beard or even something simple like clear my student overdraft. Since I was a kid my favourite part of a summer holiday was to hit up the local arcade, no matter where we were in the country or even world I would keep my ears open for that familiar twang of midi audio being pumped out of a kids ride or the avalanche of coins hitting the metal tray on a Penny Pusher.
The stale smoke mixed with urine and faint whiff of regret that permeated all these establishments world over was like a drug to me. I learnt pretty early which games to sprint towards and which to avoid. Side-scrollers and light-gun games were a must, however to this day I still don’t understand the concept or practices behind playing a Fruit Machine, the flashing lights and loud noises grinding my brain to dust as I try to comprehend the processes involved, I class myself as a true gamer and I like to think i’m pretty good, but these machines seem to have just passed me by.
One of my earliest memories of the arcades was some sea-side town in the north of England near where my grandmother lived. This arcade had the usual Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Daytona USA, Street fighters and Virtua fighters. One treat that I only saw there for a number of years was a 4-player stand-up official Simpson’s arcade machine. Each player would control a different member of the Simpsons clan, Homer, Bart, Lisa and Marge. Obviously Maggie is missing from this line up due to a) her being a baby and incapable of any true damage and b) the plot of the game. The story is a bit of an unusual stretch in terms of Simpson’s canon; Mr Burns seems to want to rob a jewellery store and during the heist a diamond is flung into the air and replaces Maggie’s pacifier, rather than just take the diamond out of her mouth, Mr Smither’s decides that armed robbery isn’t enough for his record, he needs, totally out of character, kidnapping too.
Stories in arcade games are a hard thing to do, generally they just don’t bother, and this is fine, why complicate the issue and waste people’s valuable time when they’ve thrown a couple of silver coins into the box all the want to do is mash on the buttons. People don’t want to have to sit through a 10 minute cut-scene or read an essay on the character’s motivations and loves. The Simpson’s machine obviously had to cram a story into a 20 second animation that would be played on loop all day every day only broken up by the occasional gameplay demo.
The game itself was a traditional side-scrolling beat-em-up affair, one punch button, one jump button and an 8-direction stick. My dad only really played games in his later life, and even then they would be RTS’s like Command and Conquer or for a very odd period became obsessed with Half Life 2 and it’s various spin off’s. He would always take control of Homer, my elder sister would take Lisa and I would have Bart. The Marge buttons and stick were always left empty, because I’m pretty sure even the poor kid who watched on longingly at us play wouldn’t have wanted the pity character. We sucked at the game, 2 or 3 levels in was pretty much our best, but I loved it none the less.
I started talking about the wild dreams people have at the beginning of this article. My dream for years was to have my own arcade machine, 6 months ago I actually bothered to go ahead and fulfil this want of mine. On Ebay I found the perfect machine for me, 2 player upright box with a disturbingly heavy 26 inch monitor. It was being sold by a man living in Bournemouth, about a 3 hour drive for me, or rather my friend with a van, when I first saw the machine I realised that it was massive, I’m 6ft 3in and to be honest it towers over me. This should have been a bad thing but it reminded me of those northern arcades with the monolith casting lights over my tiny frame.
The machine itself was a generic box, no artwork other than red stripes running down the sides. The PCB inside was to be perfectly honest not my cup of tea, but it did help keep other bidders away I’m sure, Taito’s 1992 EuroChamp Football. The game itself was harmless, nothing I would have spent money on back in the day, but fun once I had worked out how to use the Dip Switches.
Dip Switches are basically the buttons that the arcade or bar owners would use to screw us punters out of our money. A series of 8 sliding buttons arranged in a particular way would affect how much a game costs, how long the game would last, whether winner stays on or even the difficulty. I’m amazed the greasy trolls could work the process out as it took my friend and I easily 30 minutes to get the game running to a good standard.
I’m not a football fan, never have and never will be, as such the novelty of my arcade machine wore off. Rather than start hunting online for the games that built my gaming childhood I decided to turn the box into a project. Running Mame means that I could have all the classic games of yesteryear.
Pulling out the innards of the arcade machine felt somewhat sacrilegious, thankfully not having artwork on the side or butchering a classic Space Invaders or the like made it easier. I had a spare Shuttlebox PC case knocking about, getting the required software to run was an easy enough process, the hard part came with working out what to do with the controls. I’m not an electronics expert and the thought of soldering 30-50 wires was not appetising to me so I decided to cheat, an old PS2 fighting stick was to be my keystone on this project. 8 buttons for 2 players was perfect for the older games and for the more recent fighters. Hooking this up was wonderfully simple, PS2 controller to USB converter plugged in a working straight away.
All this has lead up me going back to the classic arcade games and replaying them with a modern eye, some have stood the test of time in an amazing fashion. Clearly games like Bubble Bobble, Pac-Man and Street Fighter II, and it’s many variants, are classics and no matter what the players tastes most people have some memory of them from childhood. Other games are less known by the masses but are easy enough to get your head around. Track and Field is a perfect example of this, a few friends and I became addicted to this and spend a month filling the 40 space Hi-score board with 3 letter swear words, not an easy task, some liberties were obviously taken with spelling. I’ve also managed to go back and try out game s that either didn’t make it to a UK release or just passed me by. Games like Windjammers, Sunset Riders and Pig Out (also known as Pig War) are games that I’ve added to my favourite arcade titles.
The machine is still looking very red-neck at the moment, as I haven’t built a face to go over the PS2 controls or found a 26inch 4:3 monitor yet but it’s definitely something that’s taken many of my friends back to their various memories of games. It’s also a good way of testing your gaming trivia as many people will see it and say things like “do you have that game where you’re walking around punching people and at one point crash a car into a T-Rex before you get out and destroy it?” I would stand there for a second before responding “yeah, it’s Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, you punch a velociraptor near the start.”
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