|Hello everyone! I'm back again, this time to dive into more details on the collection of playable home-consoles on display at the 2012 Houston Expo. (Part #1 of my coverage is here. Part #2 is here.) For Part #3, I shall also recap the 1-hour presentation given by Joe Crookham of Classic Arcade Works on how to replace your battered and failing arcade cabinet with a faithful reproduction. Additionally, I'll give you an overview of the delightful conversations I had with Joe, about his business, how it's going for him, and his plans for future expansion. So with no further delay, onwards...|
Initially, I want to finish the pictorial of the show. Here is a sampling of what may have been my absolute favorite part of the show: The RETRO CONSOLES. I spent a solid several hours going up and down these tables, trying each machine, and every game I could for the systems. It took a while, much longer than I expected. Not only did I find myself spending a long time on some of the games, but at different times these machines were absolutely PACKED with people lined up to play a favorite.
In no particular order, here we go:
I was rather impressed with the 3D0 system which was there, and which had a goodly number of game CD's available to play. It was my first opportunity to get my mitts on the system, ever, and I rather liked the thing. This is one console which I wouldn't mind having for myself.
The SEGA Dreamcast got a serious workout from all the younger folks. Even now, this 13+ year old system can put out some seriously cool arcade graphics. Sadly, I snapped this picture about 1/30th of a second after the teaser gameplay stopped. So you get to admire the amazing text...
There was one working Odyssey console at the show, and although I never thought much of them at the time they came out, quite a few of my friends had them. Apparently there is a real soft-spot for this machine in a lot of folk's hearts, as the unit was being played quite often at the show.
I was genuinely surprised by the number of Atari 2600 consoles available for play. I was even more surprised as just how much the things got played during the show.
Of particular interest to me as a programmer, Atari Age had a display set up with stacks of home-brew 2600 games available for play. It was all structured via an interesting kiosk system rescued from the 1980's and repurposed. These were attached to a couple of the machines, allowing you to select and play any of the retro-cartridges installed!
The golden age of Atari was also well represented by a pair of 5200 machines, which had a great selection of game cartridges:
Naturally, there were the seemingly ubiquitous NES and SNES consoles at the show too, along with an N64.
To be quite honest, I didn't play any of the Nintendo home games at the show--I'm not a huge fan of the systems. This isn't to denigrate them as game platforms; there are some amazingly fun games which are available for those consoles. (Though I think the actual number of "great" games is far less than a lot of people would try to argue.) In my distant, dusty past, I did play Zelda all the way through on a friend's SNES while in the military, and most of Castlevania and Super Mario Bros. as well.
But the truth is, about four years before the original NES came out, I had gotten thoroughly sucked into my life-long obsession with programming. This meant that I basically lost interest in anything which didn't have a keyboard attached. It didn't help that when everyone else was going "OOOH and AAAH" over their NES + latest-game Christmas presents in 1986/1987, I was snorting with derision and contempt.
Why the hate? One word: AMIGA.
I'd bought a second-hand Amiga 1000 shortly after I got to college. There was nothing, and I mean NOTHING which could touch the Amiga for performance at that time. (I know, I know. I just ticked off a bunch of Atari ST folks... heh-heh.) Arguably, nothing could touch it in the "home computer space" for nearly 10 years, though some of the dedicated home gaming consoles of the early 1990's could match it's graphics and sound. The games available for the Amiga made the NES seem sickly by comparison. Even the SNES had problems competing--only those "super chip" cartridges could come close. (In essence, you had to have a really expensive cart with an extra CPU and specialty bit-slinging chips included, to allow the SNES to really show off some "OOOMPH!")
Not to mention, I also was playing with advanced UNIX graphical workstations by that point. Home gaming consoles were "puny toys" in my mind. (Yeah, even amongst geeks there are machismo rituals involving grunting and beating one's chest in a manly fashion, while attempting to seem cool... Which is a very hard thing to do when wearing a Star Trek t-shirt and thick glasses. But we tried.)
Having said all that, here is one piece of crude, 8-bit nostalgia which I can never pass up. Nestled amongst the various consoles was a lovely little cream-colored keyboard with a 2600 joystick attached: The Commodore VIC-20.
I've mentioned my beloved VIC-20 in earlier articles, and I'm planning both a video and blog entry here on the repair of it in the very near future. This machine was in extremely good condition, and had a terrific bonus attached; I got to try out the MEGA-CART. I absolutely MUST order one of these things for my own machine for Christmas! I spent well over an hour just trying out the various game ROMs offered on the cartridge, and I don't think I got to them all.
And that, I think, is enough of my grainy, fuzzy, amateur photo-journalism coverage of the 2012 Houston Arcade Expo.
Ok, maybe one more:
The show also offered these terrific "Mini-Cades" for free-play, all of which saw a heck of a lot of use during the show. While meant for younger kids, that clearly didn't stop the older ones (including ME) from enjoying them:
One of the real highlights of my weekend experience at the Expo was getting a chance to talk at length with a gentleman by the name of Joe Crookham. As I mentioned above, Joe is the founder and owner of Classic Arcade Works, a small company here in Houston, which makes a variety of custom arcade cabinets, as well as reproductions and kits of some classic arcade machines. His booth at the show featured some custom CNC-carved arcade signs, which are very well made and fit for any "man cave".
What follows next are my recollection of Mr. Crookham's hour-long presentation at the Expo, and of the three conversations I had with him outside of that. If I get any of this incorrect, I apologize up-front. I hadn't planned on doing any interviews while there, and had treated myself to a couple of Guinness beers at the time. Soooo, things are a might fuzzy in spots....
Joe started the company in his garage, which still houses the CNC milling machine he uses to precision-cut the various side-panels, top pieces, inner braces, control panels, and support pieces. He stated that his biggest seller is the "custom cocktail" which I featured in an earlier pictorial:
In addition to the custom cabinets, which all offer multi-game electronics boards installed, Joe also produces reproductions of a series of classic arcade cabinets. His website has the details on which machines, and which "kit level" options, he offers.
The cabinet build options come in three stages; two of which are kits of varying levels of pre-assembly, the third being a fully assembled cab. During the Q&A session after his hour-long talk, Joe mentioned that he doesn't offer the fully-assembled option for a number of cabs, simply because he's trying to keep the costs in a reasonable range for collectors. Some of the older cab designs are very iconic, but they also require a boatload of manual-labor for assembly.
It's worth highlighting the care and craftsmanship which Mr. Crookham puts into his cabinets. He had a reproduction of an Atari Star Wars upright cab at the show, which was simply stunning to behold. Joe kindly invited me to come behind his vendor table, and I had a chance to poke around inside the cabinet. I spent several minutes admiring the careful details of the interior bracing and monitor mounting, as well as the loving care he put into all of the motherboard mounting and cabling. (Many machines are a veritable rat's nest of shoddy wiring.) And don't take my word for it, he won "BEST OF SHOW" at the Expo for his custom arcade cabinets.
Of note is the use of melamine-laminated particle-board in the Classic Arcade Works cabinets and reproductions. Joe uses this instead of the MDF or plywood or OSD typical of most old-school cabinets. This board type is structurally stronger, not prone to warping, takes screws and staples better without tear-out, and it has a very slick surface which takes new/reproduction vinyl artwork smoothly. Best of all, the melamine surface doesn't mark up or ding easily like painted wood. (How many old arcade cabinets have you seen with some idiot's initial's scratched into the side, or places where the paint is worn off where 10,000 grubby hands had gripped the machine in a sweaty, beer-soaked gameplay panic?)
Joe's hour-long talk on cabinet restoration and recreations was quite good, and revealed some of the problems you encounter when trying to restore old cabinets.
As an example, he provided pictures of the Star Wars upright cabinet which he'd gotten as part of a bulk-sale; he used it as the template for creating the reproduction cabinet which he'd brought to the show. His original thought had been to restore the cab, but after opening it that plan went sailing out the window. A whole clan of rodents had apparently used the thing as an apartment complex for a number of years, and it was filled with all kinds of unhealthy dirt, dust, and unimaginable filth. He had to wash the thing out with a garden hose just to be able to bring it into his garage.
Joe stated that he was rather leery of spraying the cabinet down with water, but there was no way he wanted to risk a life-threatening airborne respiratory illness by blowing out the horrid filth with an air-compressor. He also said that some other folks on the various arcade repair forums have reported decent success with the "light washing" technique.
(Joe's reticence to bathe the thing is well founded. One of the greatest challenges with restoring or repairing old cabinets is water-damage; you get nasty de-laminating plywood, or swollen and crumbly MDF as a result. Another restorer at the show mentioned in his talk that out of all the cabinets which he's worked on, he can instantly tell which ones were installed in laundromats for any length of time; when you open them, they smell llike soap. Why? Laundromats are always flooding when machines malfunction.)
Apparently the impromptu shower helped the Star Wars cabinet in some respects, since Joe said that he was no longer completely afraid to touch the cabinet, though he stressed that he still wore rubber gloves to work on it. However while the nasty, disease-ridden dust was gone, the water drenching had a bad side-effect. It re-activated all the lovely smells which had seeped into the unpainted wood. Remember the mice? In his words, the thing "...absolutely reeked of mouse pee after that."
At that point, because of the smell and because of the crumbling bits on the cabinet, Joe simply used it for getting measurments. His reproduction cabinet solves a lot of the problems presented by the original cab, again because of his wise choice of material. The melamine/plastic-coated particle board he uses for his reproductions, while not waterproof, certainly holds up far better against accidental spills and floods, and the slick inner and outer cabinet surfaces can easily be cleaned with a wet rag and some disinfectant.
I stress this bit about the cabinet construction, since nearly all of the old arcade cabinets were made from bottom-of-the-barrel-quality materials. The machines were made as cheaply as possible, and not expected to last more than a couple years. For example; one long-standing story states that a great many Defender machines were manufactured from discarded banana-crates, which Williams got for next to nothing from the nearby shipping docks in Chicago. Talk to any restorer if you doubt me, and they can tell you horror stories similar to Joe's--the things just weren't designed or built to last the 32+ years they've been running.
Later on Saturday evening, after admiring his Star Wars upright cabinet and complementing him the fine quality of his work, I got to ask Joe some more questions about which cabinets he provides and what might be upcoming. He stated that he has partial plans for a goodly number more cabinets, but doesn't offer them on the website because of difficulty making a precise reproduction without an original from which to take direct measurements. He also explained that some of the cabs have metal brackets and other metal trim parts which are difficult to source reliably, so he doesn't offer the cabinet reproductions until he's certain he can obtain all the matching pieces. This dedication to providing a quality product is admirable.
When I asked Joe about the possibility of maybe providing a Star Wars Cockpit Cab, his face lit up in a big grin; "My original intention had been to offer a cockpit Star Wars, but I couldn't get my hands on one to take proper measurements from." I was a little disappointed at this news, explaining that if I take the plunge and buy a dedicated machine, I want to go whole-hog and get a cockpit version. Joe assured me that "something is in the works", as a friend of his had located a cockpit cab for him very recently.
As for the future, Joe said he does plan to offer more cabinet designs and reproductions, and is hoping to hire someone to do the assembly work sometime next year so that he can expand his business. I wish him well, and very much look forward to seeing what stunning cabinet reproductions he will be bringing to next year's show. If you have questions about cabinet reproduction availability, or wish to purchase one of his cabinets, please contact Joe at his website.
All right everybody, that's it for now. Another long post this time, but I hope everyone found it interesting. I have one more small article on the Expo to finish, this one on a "local" independent game studio which had a table at the Expo. I'll be posting my commentary on that, as well as my take on the new game-funding methods, in the next few days. For now, keep your trigger-fingers ready, and your favorite game-brew handy.