Tips on Buying and Owning a Vintage Arcade Machine

Welcome back Michael Underlin, who’s here to rap about his adventures in home arcade ownership with a second guest post!

Home arcades FTW!

Purchasing an arcade machine can be the ultimate childhood dream come true. When friends visit for the first time and notice you own a classic arcade cabinet all subtlety of who you are flies out the window. Ever since I watched 1988’s Big starring Tom Hanks and saw his downtown New York loft with its trampoline, pinball, and even a Coca-Cola machine I knew one day I had to own one. That scene stuck with me over the years as I grew up, and then one day I made my dream a reality when I bought a 1981 Galaga game.

What Did I Just Buy?

There’s a lot to consider with owning a vintage arcade cabinet. For one, unless you own the coveted Nintendo PlayChoice-10, you’ll need to happy playing a single game possibly thousands of times. How sick of Ms. Pac-Man, Frogger, or Donkey Kong Jr. will you be after a few years? Think of your cabinet as more of an interactive art piece in your home. The cabinet art, backglass, and retro sounds all create a particular atmosphere that’s a great conversation starter. Before you take the plunge you need to be sure you’ll be happy with this “alternative furniture” taking up valuable space in your home for the foreseeable future.

Don’t Buy a Lemon

Never buy a game that doesn’t turn on unless the seller discounts it 80-90% from the operational value. If the buyer says, “Oh it’s just this that needs replaced and it will work perfectly” run away as fast as you can! Just like an old car, you will end up hundreds of dollars in the hole with nothing to show for it. These old games have power supplies, circuit boards, lighting systems, screens, coin mechanisms, and moving controls that were often made cheaply close to 40 years ago. If you’re considering a pinball game you’re talking flippers, flashing lights, scoreboards, plungers, and many more moving parts that will eventually need to be replaced. Don’t get into this because you think you’ll make money or impress a girl.

Then again, it couldn’t hurt

Be Carful During Transport!

Another aspect to consider is many of these cabinets were never ever meant to last more than a decade, much less 35 years. Many manufacturers including Namco, Bally, and Atari made these cabinets with cheap particle board that would disintegrate the moment it got wet, and these wooden cabinets have no metal frame for extra support.

I learned a valuable lesson bringing my Galaga cabinet home and not setting it down as gently as I planned. My friends and I underestimated the weight and as we lowered the dolly down there was a sudden drop… The cabinet seemed fine but within a few days air seeped into the vacuum of the tube and the screen went out. Two hundred dollars later I had another used vintage screen, which was definitely more than I had planned to spend. Always keep in mind with these types of projects you’re going to spend more than you think.

Put It Somewhere Safe

Now that you’ve gotten your game home now what? Choosing a location for your arcade cabinet is important. You’ll need to keep it in a dry, temperature controlled area. You’ll also want the game away from major room traffic. Fitting it into the corner of a room may seem like a good idea but what if you have two players? One player may be squished against the wall, so I always recommend having two feet of space on each side. Place the cabinet at a 45 degree angle perpendicular to the corner. You’ll be able to see both sides of the cabinet art and any would-be spectators who witness your game-playing glory will thank you.

Remember seeing arcades in places with lots of windows, like gas stations, and how faded the side of the cabinet would be? Make sure your cabinet won’t be getting any direct sunlight. You didn’t spend all this money to have the beautiful retro artwork become sun-bleached!

I recommend sitting your arcade on a rug that’s roughly the dimensions of your arcade cabinet that extends an extra foot or so allowing you to stand on it. A rug also allows you to slide it easier on flat surfaces without scratching them. Finally, never put your cabinet in a place like a basement that might flood! Water is the number one enemy of your machine and if it floods it will turn that particle board shell into mush, destroying your investment.

Cleaning the Inside

Once you’ve found the right location, remove the back panel of the machine and a look around with a flashlight. Are there cobwebs, dead bugs, or leaves? Much like the inside of your PC, clean out all the dust and debris! The good part is, these old processors typically don’t heat up enough to require a fan like a modern computer. That means it’s a (mostly) closed off system, so you won’t have as much dust collected inside.

That doesn’t mean the occasional bug won’t still make the cool, dry spot it’s new home. I was once gifted a 1982 Apple IIe computer, and when I opened it up I found a nest of brown recluse spiders who went scurrying everywhere. Now that I’ve painted that lovely picture in your mind, I bet you’ll remember to check the insides before you buy. Also, never hook up a game directly to your wall outlet but protect your investment with a surge protector. You’ll tell yourself you’ll buy one the next day and then suddenly that day will become a week, then a month. Then one day a storm comes and your investment won’t turn on because you burned out your power supply. You’ll thank me later.

Be sure to test the coin slot and coin return buttons before the purchase. Open up the front panel and make sure all the coin mechanism parts move fluidly. I recommend buying liquid graphite and every few years lubricating all the moving parts including the key hole for good measure. The key tumblers need to be kept nice and lubricated. This is personal preference, but I prefer to leave the game on default mode instead of a free play mode. The advantages of requiring coins in order to play include keeping the arcade experience genuine, getting to watch the game demo, and keeping those parts moving.

Free Play Mode

You didn’t spend hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars just to play a video game! For most games it would have been much cheaper to buy the console version. You’re paying this extra money for the total experience. Dropping your quarter in the machine, listening to it bounce around the mechanical joints, and hearing the electronic credit chime is quite satisfying.

Free play mode typically won’t give you a screen demo and therefore won’t let you see the game in action if no one is playing. I personally love to walk by my Galaga cabinet and see spaceships blasting the alien ships to kingdom come. Using the coin slots on a regular basis and keeping them lubricated ensures they’ll be working for decades to come. I typically have quarters available in the coin return slots for players to use.

Unless you have a friend who’s an electrical expert you may have to fix the arcade problems yourself. Luckily, we live in the digital information age so there are plenty of tutorials and YouTube videos that can lead you in the right direction. Again, and I can’t stress this enough unless you want to learn how to solder, don’t buy a pinball game. I have seen too many of them relegated to a forgotten corner of the least-used room left to rot because the owner doesn’t want to take the time to fix it. Much like a pet that’s gotten old, you need to take care of your purchase through the good times and the bad.

Galaga: always a hit at parties

I’ve had unique opportunity to not only work AT an arcade but also OWN an arcade machine. Hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought on purchasing and maintaining a 1980’s relic. My Galaga game is my favorite collectable I’ve ever purchased and I’ve never regretted it for a second. If you don’t want to buy something old but still want the nostalgia you can always make your own shell and turn it into a MAME cabinet. My buddy not only built his own cabinet but installed a kegerator, complete with beer taps on the side. Keep that in mind next time you see an empty spot in your place that needs a conversation starter.

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