Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Rediscovering Arcade Nostalgia

I think I spent most of my childhood -- and a large part of my life as a young adult -- desperately wishing I was in a video game arcade. When I finally obtained my driver's license, my first thought wasn't about the girls I would take on dates, or the road trips I'd take with my friends. Sadly, no. I was thrilled that I could drive myself to the arcade any time I wanted. I distinctly remember my first encounter with each watershed game of the arcade era: my first Space Invaders, my first Pac-Man, my first Donkey Kong, my first Galaga, and so on. I kept a running mental inventory of where each unique arcade machine I discovered was in order to feed my burning arcade urges. I was always strangely eager to visit the unimaginably tacky tourist trap South of the Border because that was the only place I had ever found that had my beloved Crazy Climber. I can't say I know every single game on the KLOV, but I'm no stranger to many of them.

I can also attribute my career in software development to arcade games. Like many software developers, my introduction to programming was my Dad telling me if I wanted to play video games at home, I had to write them first. Tough love hurts. Home game consoles were the gateway drug of choice for parents who imagined their children as young programmers, a sneaky way for parents to trick their lazy game-playing kids into learning BASIC. And who can forget the more obvious mutant crossovers, like the Atari 2600 BASIC Programming cartridge?

atari-2600-basic-programming-game-program

I'm trying to imagine what it would be like to key in a BASIC program on these hideous Atari Keypad controllers.

Atari keypad controller

Oh, and you can't save any of your brilliant up-to-63-character programs, either, which had to be a little disheartening. If you were unfortunate enough to receive the Atari Basic Programming cartridge as a gift intended to launch you from gamer to programmer -- instead of an actual computer -- my condolences.

It's probably not surprising, then, that many adult geeks have a lifelong fascination with arcade nostalgia. As with any other hobby, it can be taken to extremes. Like, say, for example, if you were to add an arcade wing to your house and dub it Luna City. Could happen.

Unfortunately for you, I'm a classic enabler. If you have any interest in vintage arcade gaming at all, I'm warning you -- don't read any further. I've spent a solid decade pursuing my arcade obsession as an adult armed with full time jobs and disposable income, with varying degrees of commitment and success.

Let's start with the cheap and satisfying route. These large format, high resolution color coffee table books on arcade history are a wonderful trip through our shared geek heritage. I had tremendous fun bringing them in to work and paging through them with my coworkers. Writing about them now made me pull them down from my bookshelf and start flipping through again myself. They are, in short, why coffee tables were invented.

Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984

supercade-a-visual-history-of-the-videogame-age.jpg

High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games

high-score-the-illustrated-history-of-electronic-games.jpg

They aren't technically about arcade games, but Classic 80s Home Video Games: Identification & Value Guide and The Encyclopedia of Game Machines are in the same vein, also outstanding, and worth a look.

But these games beg to be played, not merely read about. The next inevitable step on the journey is to discover MAME, the venerable multiple arcade machine emulator. It's nothing less than a geek rite of passage. It is the acid test for any new hardware platform, whether it's a phone, a PDA, or even a digital camera: can we make it run MAME?

DC265 camera running MAME

Soon after discovering MAME, any true geek develops the irresistible urge to build real arcade hardware so they can fully enjoy these classic arcade titles the way they were meant to be played. Now that I'm thinking about it, I actually question the credentials of any geek who hasn't felt compelled to build hardware for MAME at some point. I've done it myself many times. My first true arcade build was my home MAME cocktail kit.

But the biggest and best build I've done to date is the SlikStik standup cabinet and authentic arcade monitor, through the generous patronage of my previous employer, Vertigo.

MAME Cabinet: Verticade

SlikStik is sadly defunct, but the cabinet lives on.

These are only two of several possible arcade cabinet form factors. It's not as complicated as it looks. The BYOAC site is an excellent resource, as is the outstanding Project Arcade: Build Your Own Arcade Machine book. Arcade control hardware is actually fairly simple, for the most part; it tends to be of the simple binary push button type. I've also taken a cheap USB gamepad and soldered a salvaged arcade controller together myself, as Bill Bumgarner describes. It's just downright fun to browse through the Happ Controls website and play with all the cool arcade hardware they offer.

If you don't want to invest the time and effort into building your own arcade controls, the best, least expensive off-the-shelf arcade controls right now are the X-Arcade series. They've finally gone fully USB, which means they're compatible with pretty much everything, Mac or otherwise. It drove me absolutely bonkers that for years, the accepted standard arcade control interface was a lousy PS/2 keyboard connector. The controller itself still shows up as a USB keyboard, which I find quite silly in this day and age, but at least it's progress.

There are a few different flavors, depending on how much you want to spend, and what kind of games you're into. The flagship model is the X-Arcade Tankstick, which bundles two sets of player controls and a trackball for $200.

X-Arcade Tankstick

They also offer a two-player controller sans trackball for $130, and a single-player joystick or standalone trackball for $100. I own several of these, and the build quality and feel is arcade to the bone. The included pinball flipper buttons on each side are a nice touch for a pinball simulator enthusiast like me.

If you're looking for something radically simpler, the Competition Pro USB joystick is a good choice. I've been happy with mine, but you do have to give up on the idea of playing any game with more than 2 buttons. It has to be imported from Europe, but it's not expensive.

competition-pro-joystick.jpg

Or at least it wasn't expensive. After browsing around for a bit, I'm not even sure the Competition Pro USB is available for sale at any price, anywhere. Options for inexpensive USB arcade controllers are pretty limited and often sketchy; I encourage you to look at the known quality of the X-Arcade controllers if you're at all interested.

I warned you. It's an addiction. Now where did I put my Pac-Man Operator's License? Oh yes, there it is.

Pac-Man Operators License

See you on level 256. Who knows, you might even learn something along the way.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror