That humble, almost nondescript building is a beacon — a shining light of hope in a black sea of impossible. In America, a country where gaming used to mean arcades but now means home consoles, that glimmering building stands out. For some, American arcade gaming is dead. For Kotaku reader Ryan Harvey, who contacted us after the Arcade Mania book announcement, American arcade gaming is well worth bringing back to life.
New Year's Day 2008. Austin's last-standing coin-op, Einstein's Arcade, was shuttered. That's where Harvey played Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike every damn day and duked it out in countless tournaments that drew up to 80 spectators. This is where he practiced for the Evolution Championships series. "It was a moment of despair in my life", he recalls. That was his hotspot, his hangout, poof gone.
But instead of simply bitching and moaning, Harvey and his friends thought of an action plan: Let's buy the machines from Einstein's and open our own arcade. After working out a deal with Einstein's owner, Harvey and a friend found themselves the proud owners of 8 coin-op machines. "In the meantime," he says "I immediately began looking at retail spaces in the city to get an idea of what was possible." Before they knew it, the two had a lease ironed out for the summer.
Like most children of the 80s and early 90s, Ryan Harvey grew up feeding coins into machines. The Texas-native's earliest memories were standing on milk crates so he could reach the joystick to play Vs. Super Mario Bros. "I played a ton of arcade games as a kid thanks to generous parents and arcade games conveniently located any place we went," he recalls. "I was hooked from the very start, and also have fond memories of Legend of Kage followed by Black Tiger a bit later on." Quarters flowed at family arcade outings.
As the decades continued, the games took more and more quarters. And American gamers shifted further from arcades to living rooms. "Arcade gaming died out in the U.S. for many reasons, but I don't think any of them are the reasons most people think about," says Harvey. "The number one reason it died here is because of our coinage system. The Japanese coin system is coincidentally perfectly made for arcade gaming with 50 yen and 100 yen denominations (50 cents/1 dollar)." Japanese arcade gaming was always based on the hundred yen coin, making it easier for player to pluck down one coin, compared to the increasing number of quarters.
And when U.S. arcade owners found out that prize games made more than actual arcade video games, fewer and fewer titles were imported from Japan. This caused a trend, Harvey points out, in the 90s from the "real" video arcade to the entertainment venues that rule today. "Ultimately, I don't think it's a matter of Japanese people being any more into gaming than Americans," he adds. "Arcades have been successfully marketed in Japan and adapted through an era of change; the U.S. operators just gave up."
While mini-malls and pizza parlors housed American arcades in the 1980s, along with the occasional mini-mart or gas station having a cabinet or two, Japanese arcades were located in urban centres, close to major train stations. On the way home from work or school, players could duck in for a quick game or two. "Japan is a culture built around easy transportation in metro areas, and there is always an arcade close by if you're in the city," says Harvey. American, a few notable expectations aside, is not.
Harvey should know. He spent a year abroad at Obirin University outside Tokyo as a Japanese major. His free time was spent climbing through countless Tokyo arcades, but most of his time was spent in a small local arcade called "Game UFO".
"Game UFO was a small mom-and-pop arcade," remembers Harvey. "It was dirty, didn't always smell great, and generally looked like it was about to fall apart. However, this was the kind of place you could go and make life-long friends, and the arcade machines were always in perfect shape. The regulars diligently attended almost every day, myself included when I lived there in 2005." It made such a big impression on him that he's even named the Austin arcade Arcade UFO after it.
That feeling, you know, the one you get being in the same room as your opponent or friends or even strangers is exactly what Harvey wants to bring back to Austin. "I want to bring back that feature which is long-lost in most of the arcades still standing in the U.S. today," he says, "the feeling that the other people in the room actually play video games and enjoy them as much as you do."
So far, the local support in Austin has been overwhelming, and Harvey is hoping that his arcade, Arcade UFO, will join the ranks of Austin's other local landmarks like Alamo Drafthouse, Bird's Barbershop and Thundercloud Subs. "Local businesses in Austin have been extremely supportive and helped to make sure everyone knows about us," says Harvey. "I couldn't be more thankful!"
Arcade UFO opens August 29th and the arcade's website is here. "Most people assumed that this meant regular video arcades were done, but I respectfully disagree," says Harvey. "I just think it hasn't been done right for a long time, and that's exactly what I plan to do!"