The golden age of the American arcade has long since passed, its torch taken up by modern consoles, iPod apps, and Facebook games. But walking down the aisles of vintage game cabinets in the American Classic Arcade Museum, you would never know it. People young and old dart from machine to machine, clutching plastic cups brimming with tokens, while Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" is piped in via overhead speakers. As far as the museum is concerned, the great arcade crash of the 1980s never happened. However, this sanctuary for retro gaming might be in danger.
"The whole American Arcade Museum is a labor of love," says Gary Vincent, president of the museum. When asked why he bothers restoring and maintaining the nearly 300 vintage arcade cabinets, Gary doesn't hesitate to respond: "They're part of American history. Look at the popularity of video games today. Where did it all start? With games like Space Invaders and Pac-Man."
A veteran of the arcade business, Gary describes his introduction to the classic gaming world as little more than a temporary job: "I started at Funspot in August of ‘81. It was going to be a three to four week, end of the summer fill in job. I had a blast, so I came back the next summer." Thirty years later, Gary now helps operate one of the most revered arcade museums in the United States.
Founded in 1998, the museum's goal was to maintain and restore classic arcade games while still making them available to the public. Its notoriety rose sharply upon the release of The King of Kong, a documentary highlighting the Donkey Kong high score rivalry between Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell. The museum is also well known for its annual International Classic Video Game Tournament in which gamers the world over come to compete for high scores and set world records. However renown alone can't pay the upkeep for the massive games collection.
A non-profit organization, the ACAM doesn't make money from its tournaments or coin-op machines. "The only steady source of funding we have right now," admits Gary, "is the bingo game we run on Thursday nights. It's getting to the point where it's expensive maintain the collection." Many of the machines on the floor of the museum are built piecemeal from salvaged parts. Someone might donate an empty cabinet, a control overlay, or a marquee. Gary and other volunteers reconstruct the games from these parts, sometimes over the course of years. All of this costs the museum time and money.
Because nearly every game is available for public play, Gary must also contend with the collection's ongoing maintenance. With decades old titles, every day presents the museum's staff with a new stuck button, flickering screen, or jammed coin slot. It's a rare day when every machine on the floor is fully functional. Yet it's this element of interactivity that creates the museum's authentic arcade experience.
This January the ACAM kicked off a fundraiser with a goal of $25,000. As of this writing, $2,000 has been raised - around 7% of its stated goal. Gary points out that the proceeds are already making a difference: "We've been able to buy parts for the games with the money we've raised. There are still a lot of projects we want to tackle."
While some might dispute the relevance of an arcade museum in 2011, Vincent says the institution has found new life in modern gaming culture: "Last year, the guys from PAX East contacted us and asked us bring down some games. I thought we were going to be oddballs of the convention, bringing out these old dinosaurs for people to play. We opened our room up and within ten minutes it was filled, shoulder to shoulder. It was crazy."
The museum is slated to return to PAX East this year, and will continue to host its yearly tournament this summer. But as each machine in the collection gets older and the parts needed to repair them become rarer, it's plain to see the museum will need additional proceeds to sustain itself. With the fundraiser ending March 15th, it looks doubtful that the museum will meet its goal. Gary Vincent remains optimistic: "I think we're preserving a lot of people's childhood memories, and a part of gaming's heritage here. I think people will see the value in keeping this part of history alive."
The American Classic Arcade Museum is located in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire.
Photos courtesy of Amanda Lynch.
Writer, student, gamer Jon Lynch avidly plays old PC games and covers the New England competitive gaming scene when not buried in snow. He blogs at No Crisis Yet!. Article republished with permission.