Fewer and fewer new releases find their way into arcades these days. Even the latest version of Street Fighter, a series synonymous with the scene, ended up forgoing an official arcade cabinet having settled instead solely on the virtual arena of online multiplayer. Fortunately, there are still people trying to preserve the feeling of local co-op with new machines.
The arcade cabinet for RotoRing is one example. A light puzzle game created by Gregory Kogos, the original prototype was a small tabletop configuration with a tiny control mechanism and a little light display. There are concentric circles with small lights that rotate through them. The player controls a different light and has to hopscotch through the rings without colliding with on of the other lights. Putting it into a full-blown cabinet, however, makes it an infinitely more approachable experience, especially for the types of social spaces where the game does best in.
The Mashing is another. Designer and artist James Medd put it together as part of the Awkward Arcade, a curated collection of small games with the intent of getting people to mix it up socially. It included the work of Anna Anthropy, Paolo Pedercini, and others, each manifested in physical form, whether a small arcade machine intended for a lap or table or a stand-alone-sided one. As “a love letter to and a critique of button-mashing,” The Mashing tried to play off the feeling of when you’re outclassed in a fighting game match and it all goes to shit.
But rather than channel that jumbled desperation into a violent collision of pixels, Medd’s game has two teams of up to five players press their buttons as quickly as possible to try and pump up a square projected on the screen of the same color. Whoever square gets biggest wins. Though its commentary on button mashing might appear a bit on the nose, it clearly has something more in common with Twister than a high-strung competitive match. No doubt even more so if you’ve had a few to drink.
And the people playing these games in their arcade cabinet habitat most likely will have, since these projects have increasingly found a home in boozy get-togethers and night clubs. We Throw Switches is one of the groups that’s helped coordinate their production. It both loans them out for other people’s events as well as showcases the machines at its own annual GamesAreForEveryone event in Edinburgh. “We tend to keep a lot of the curation under wraps until that night, because we love the sense of discovery that people get moving through the venue and seeing what’s in each vault, and around each corner,” said Andrew Dyce and Craig Fairweather, the duo who runs We Throw Switches, in an email. “For Vol.VI we’ve got a double-ended dog simulator, a googley-eyed VR dance game, a 4 player architectural co-op game, and a chance to reign majestically—it should be wild!”
Some of the group’s arcade cabinets were at this year’s EGX, one of the UK’s biggest gaming expos held in September. Others are currently on display at the Paradigm Electronic Arts festival going on right now in Edinburgh. “We have a really diverse audience, as well, which is really cool,” they said. “It’s devs and creators and people who are are really into games, through to people who are just curious and want have a drink and explore.”
Their work has even drawn fans to visit multiple events in the hopes of getting more time on a specific machine since most of the games aren’t playable in the same way with just a computer and keyboard. “We had a really lovely moment when we showed them in the V&A Museum in September where someone managed to just blast through RotoRing so quickly on their first try,” said Dyce and Fairweather. “It turns out that they’d actually played the cabinet a tonne up at EGX, and it was super cool to know that this person already had a history with this one-of-a-kind cabinet that we’d only showed like three times, hundreds of miles apart. That was awesome.”
The cabinets were designed by them specifically in the ways they thought would best show off the experimental games they’d be placing inside. The cabinets are still adaptable for things like wired pads, keyboards, and mice but are also able to house joysticks, buttons, and the occasional alternative controller.
“We also designed the cabs to be a sort of be an installation in their own right,” they said.
“We wanted them to be intriguing, physical things that draw you to them, even before you know what games they’re showing. Shape-wise, they’re large enough that they have a real presence in a space, and we also decided pretty early on that we wanted each cab to have its own distinct personality, so they all have a different art style commissioned from a different local artist. (Part of what we like most about this is that, because every cabinet is different, it allows people to form attachments and have favorites, which is ace).”
Unfortunately, the nature of an arcade cabinet means it’s hyper-localized, and We Throw Switches isn’t in the business of mass producing its cabinets yet.
They are hardly alone though. Every day, other designers like them with a passion for both video games and artful craftsmanship have set themselves to creating the arcade machines of the future. Left only to the predilections of big game publishers, arcade cabinets would surely go extinct. For now, however, others have taken up the call.