Step out from Shinjuku Station’s west exit, and you’ll be greeted by an invader. Large, proud and pixelated, the alien from Space Invaders marks the entrance to the famous Shinjuku Taito Station. Five floors of neon, synth music, and games in every genre you can think of, the whole building is a love letter to the golden age of arcades.
Or at least, it used to be. Taito’s Shinjuku arcade permanently shut its doors during March 2021, one of many in the string of closures that swept Tokyo amidst the pandemic. Viewed as the last bastion of the retro gaming era, some saw Japan’s iconic arcades blinking out as the final blow to the industry.
But a few refuse to call the game over. Around the world and locally, pockets of gamers who grew up during the golden age are fighting to keep the credits from rolling.
Last Call? Not Quite for Arcade Bars
Some arcades soldier on, even amidst the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
Mark Starkey, owner of Heart of Gaming in Croydon, fights to keep his arcade alive by making sure customers are comfortable enough to stay. For Heart of Gaming, that means copious amounts of sanitiser and round the clock sanitation of machines: “When you're having fun, it's important to have peace of mind.”
At the Tilt Arcade Bar in Toronto, where you eat and where you game are now two separate areas. “I can’t have people walking around with drinks,” says co-owner Mike Bartolo. Cabin Fever, another barcade based in Canada, has had to accept guests on a reservation basis only.
But these barriers haven’t deterred people from going when they can. Keen to shake away the stupor from being home-bound for more than a year, gamers are eager to be social. Arcade bars like Starkey and Bartolo’s establishments are the perfect places for reconnecting over good games, food, and a pint. “We all have dark memories of being stuck in our homes for the last eight months. I think we’re providing a place for people to get their fix of going out and enjoying themselves” says Jeff Brown, owner of arcade and entertainment centre Fair on 4.
Continuing Through Community Support
The arcade scene has always revolved around a unique sense of community. Before online clans and guilds, there were the friends and regulars you’d meet every Friday night at the neighbourhood arcade.
The same solidarity is helping local arcades stay alive. People remain protective of their local haunts, even though they may not draw the crowds they used to. The Neon Retro Arcade in Pasadena, California weathered the first wave of closures through the donations. Now the arcade is back in business. Another community raised £11,000 to help their arcade hang on a little longer.
Some developers, who are gamers first and foremost, are also pitching in. Team17, publisher of games such as Worms and Overcooked, donated the proceeds from their limited edition run of Narita Boy to three arcade museums around the world.
Bringing the Fight Back Home
The struggle of the arcade scene isn’t new. It has been “dying” since the early 2000s. You can find campaigns to save it as early as 2009, when Cadbury-owned Stride Gum ran competitions to encourage players back to select arcades.
The pandemic has accelerated the fall of the arcade as many know it. However, this “demise” may be less game over, and more an evolution. The industry has proven itself hardy, bouncing back with buzzing barcades that kept the spirit alive.
Now, as modern arcades and barcades strain to go back to full capacity, cabinets are migrating to an unlikely space. Arcades started losing steam in the late ‘90s, when consoles with better hardware and flashier games moved the video gaming experience into homes.
Today, home may be what keeps the industry alive. Owning your own arcade cabinet has always been the pipe dream of many gamers, but size and cost have prohibited most from fulfilling it – until now. The pandemic has meant that, for a lot more people, money earmarked for a fancy holiday has instead gone into ordering custom machines, such as those we sell here at Bitcade.
The search and demand for personal arcade machines are even saving some cabinets meant for landfill. In Japan, machines from arcades that close are typically junked or gutted. But one MUSECA fan has discovered that you can adopt these machines if you’re lucky enough to talk to the right people.
Continuing the Legacy
News of arcades shuttering may be plenty, yet industry predictions show that the industry is far from dead. Experts predict the market to increase in value by $1.56 billion until 2024. Much of that growth is driven by people who have played retro games. “They call and ask if we have Space Invaders. They aren’t interested in new games, they want what they played in their twenties,” says Andy Palmer, owner of Arcade Club, a three-story arcade in Bury.
It’s this nostalgia that’s turning people into new, proud, cabinet owners. Bringing arcade machines home also brings the added benefit of introducing the younger generations to retro games the way they were meant to be played, not through mobile ports. “Kids raised in the digital era, they’re yearning for some of this physical stuff. And it’s becoming cool again, in a sense, because it’s different to what they’re used to,” says Josh Fairhurst, owner of Limited Run, a business that creates retro cartridges of games.
By buying cabinets, owners don’t only invite Pacman or Donkey Kong into their home. On the outside, modern arcade cabinets look just like their retro predecessors, complete with trackballs and coin slots. But these machines house hardware exponentially more powerful than the 16kb gaming boards of the past. At Bitcade our emulators are loaded with thousands of games to make every cabinet its own arcade.
Your living room may be no Taito Station, but it doesn’t have to be. One cabinet is all it takes to transform any home into a bonafide arcade of its own. And as brick-and-mortar stores try to rediscover their footing in a post-Covid world, it’s these machines that will give retro arcade games an extra life into the future.