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Game Not Over!
Written by Chuck Miller    PDF Print E-mail

A quarter keeps the fun going at Peter Hirschberg’s Luna City Arcade

Once again, you are the pilot of a starship, trapped in the cold black world of deep space. Gigantic boulders are floating toward you, and if any one of them touches your thin hull, you will explode. With that, you use the only weapon at your disposal – an energy launcher, activated at the touch of a button, to spray energy bolts at the huge flying boulders. The boulders explode into smaller rocks and stones, each of which could still kill you upon impact.

So you use your jet fuel and fly out of your safe location, shooting all the rocks until they vaporize into black nothingness. A few moments later, all the rocks are gone – only to be replaced by larger, more dangerous boulders, ready to encircle and destroy you. You try to avoid them – but, without warning, you touch them. The last thing you see, as the fragments of your ship dissipate into the blackness of the universe, are the words “GAME OVER.”

The game’s not over, you say to yourself, as long as there are still quarters in your pocket.

These scenes took place in arcades, bars, taverns and convenience stores throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was the world of Asteroids and PONG, Space Invaders and Pac-Man. After years of high scores, bragging rights among your friends and a depleted allowance that went, quarter by quarter, into the coin slot, these video games faded away. New, more-modern video games appeared to take their place, with names like Street Fighter and Dance Dance Revolution and Time Squad. The old games went back to warehouses, fell into disrepair and were forgotten.

Peter Hirschberg never forgot. His love of classic coin-operated video games has led him to create his own personal arcade, in an expansive building next to his wooded Virginia home. In his Luna City Arcade, vintage video games, stacked in rows and columns like an arcade of old, once again flash their lights and sounds. Space ships are on the alert to fight off aliens; yellow semicircles are poised to travel through mazes to chew on dots and attack blue ghosts. The arcade is lit with ultraviolet black light, reacting to any fluorescent artwork in the room; spinning disco balls rotate from the arcade’s ceiling; a soundtrack of 1970s rock and pop emanates from the arcade’s speaker systems. And if you’re short of quarters, Luna City Arcade even has vintage coin-changing machines, so that you never run out of quarters.

“I first got hooked on coin-operated video games when I was a kid,” said Hirschberg, who currently works as a computer programmer for America Online. “I saw a PONG game when my parents were looking for a house in Virginia, the game was in the lobby of a hotel we were staying at. My dad played a couple of games of PONG with me, I was five or six at the time, but I remember riding on the way home, wishing I could carry a portable version of PONG with me. My parents scoffed at me, saying it would be too big to carry that machine home. I figured the games would be around forever and that I would never need to take a game home; it would be like trying to take home a McDonald’s when you could just go to the restaurant any time you were hungry.”

Over the years Hirschberg poured quarters into all the classic video games of the late 1970s and early 1980s, including such classic titles as Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac-Man, Tail Gunner and TRON. Over time, however, those games were replaced by more detailed and complicated constructions, and the older entertainment devices were stored away.

Six years ago, Hirschberg started collecting vintage coin-operated video games, looking for the classic competitions of his youth. His first video game purchase was a “cocktail table” version of Asteroids, in which the game screen doubled as a tabletop, and players could control their own spaceships with dedicated controls on either side of the table. “I went over to a friend's house for a party, he had a cocktail table Asteroids machine for sale. I thought to myself, this is my chance, I could pay some money and buy the game and actually have my own Asteroids machine. He had two games – one was not working, I bought that one for half-price, and fixed it up when I got it home.”

One game led to two, and then to three, and soon Hirschberg’s house was filled with coin-operated video games. Eventually Hirschberg created Luna City Arcade, borrowing the name from a 1980s-era online bulletin board. Hirschberg stored the games in his basement, but as he added more classic coin-ops, he knew the basement would run out of space. His next step was to build a dedicated arcade building out of the adjoining four-car garage next to his house. In went the games, the blacklight-reflective space carpet, the disco balls, the murals of classic video game artwork, all to eventually create video game paradise.

Hirschberg searched all over the country for video games for his arcade. Working or nonworking, he would have them shipped back to his Virginia home, pull out his soldering equipment, and bring the game back to life again. “The one that I spent the longest time trying to find was Tail Gunner (a 1979 vector-graphics game in which you shoot down enemy planes before they pass through your defenses). That game was the one that I missed the most; that was my favorite game when I was a kid. It wasn't around the arcades very long, and it was a very unreliable machine to keep working.”

Hirschberg knows that the circuit boards and firing buttons and joysticks on these generation-old machines are finicky and often break down. Luckily, he has the knowledge and skill to open up the cabinet door on each machine, look inside, diagnose the problem, and get the game up and running once again. And if he gets enough machines working at the same time – then it’s “Game Day.”

“Every few months, I have what I call Game Day. It's whenever I get enough machines working all at the same time, where I'll want to share my video game collection with others. So I’ll announce it in the local newspapers a couple of weeks ahead of time, and I'll send out e-mails saying, ‘This is the day, this is the time, and come and have fun, let's play.’ It's like when you see a movie you like, you want to tell your friends this movie is awesome. I built Luna City Arcade for me, but it's fun to share my love of video games with other people in that same way.”

Among his prized collection of video games are working examples of the 1982 game TRON, and its 1983 sister machine, Discs of TRON. TRON was released at the same time as the Walt Disney cyberpunk motion picture, and became one of the biggest video game hits of the early 1980s, with its scenes of fighting lightcycles, deadly grid-bugs and maurauding tanks, all wrapped around an electronic orchestral score by avant-garde composer Wendy Carlos. In fact, the video game TRON actually brought in more money than did the film upon which it was based.

“The first time I saw the TRON arcade game,” said Hirschberg, “I fell in love with it. I still consider the TRON video game the absolute pinnacle of where the arcade scene was at the time. The machine had ultraviolet blacklights around the cabinet, it was extremely flashy, and the game play was fantastic. TRON is the shining moment of video games in the early 1980s.”

When walking through Luna City Arcade, one cannot help to notice the influence of the Star Wars film franchise on many of the games. For example, the video coin-op Space Encounters features a fighter flying through the canyon of a huge Death Star-like space destroyer, with the goal of hitting a target at the end of his run and blowing up the enemy. “Many of these video games were influenced by Star Wars when the movie first came out,” said Hirschberg, “and Space Encounters is one of them. I remember this game being in color, and I was surprised a couple of years ago when I got one of these machines and found out the game itself was black and white – and that the monitor was painted several different shades to simulate a color screen.”

Hirschberg’s collection is not limited to vintage coin-operated games. Above the Luna City Arcade is a second floor of classic home video game consoles and cartridges – everything from stacks of Atari 2600 gaming systems, to a vintage Radio Shack TRS-80, to the bulky Apple II personal computer. “I just love all that vintage stuff,” said Hirschberg. “I'm putting together a vintage computer collection to go with my arcade. All this stuff is just cool to me, because it was part of the early video game era of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and there was an overlap between the computer industry and video game industry. Most of the appeal of the home personal computer was to help create the arcade experience at home. I have a collection of SIMON electronic memory games, and I plan to rewire them so that they flash their colors in synchronization with whatever music is playing in the arcade.”

A generation after their original appearance, classic video games are making a comeback. Several companies have recreated 1980s arcade and home computer games for the Xbox and PlayStation consoles. Two documentaries, King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (chronicling the attempt to set the all-time high score on Donkey Kong) and Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (visiting and interviewing several arcade players who participated in a 1982 “best of the best” tournament) have opened to rave reviews.

Collectors can employ website resources like the Killer List of Videogames (located at http://www.klov.com) to acquire information on classic games, and even buy and trade rare consoles.

But for Hirschberg, the joy of bringing these electronic devices back to life – and seeing the wonder in kids’ eyes as they play Pac-Man or Donkey Kong for the first time – is his true wish fulfillment. And as the spotlights and ’70s soundtracks swirl around the arcade, Hirschberg smiles again. “I was restoring this Asteroids game,” he said, “and noticed that someone had actually carved their initials into the control panel. I left that in, just like I leave the original manufacturers’ distribution stickers on the front screens of the consoles. It’s an example of how dedicated players were when it came to games like this, that they didn’t want to see their top scores disappear the day the power went off and the game went into storage.”

For more information on Luna City Arcade, visit http://www.lunacityarcade.com or http://www.peterhirschberg.com.

Video game trivia

  • Several rock and rap musicians have incorporated sound effects from video games into their music. The Pretenders’ song Space Invader features sound effects from the Space Invaders video game; while current rapper Lady Sovereign adds the melody from the game Tetris in her song Love Me or Hate Me.
  • The first coin-operated video game, Computer Space, has a cameo in the 1973 science-fiction film Soylent Green. In the film, Leigh Taylor-Young is seen playing the game and thanking doomed Soylent executive Joseph Cotten for purchasing the game for her.
  • In 1979, the New Zealand band Mi-Sex had their biggest hit with the song Computer Games, while American rockers Buckner and Garcia scored a U.S. Top 10 hit with the track Pac-Man Fever.
  • Several characters from coin-operated video games later appeared as part of their own Saturday morning cartoon series. Pac-Man and Dragon’s Lair aired on ABC, while Pole Position lasted for two seasons on CBS.
  • The 1984 film The Last Starfighter used the premise of a top video game champion being recruited for his video game skills to fight a real outer-space battle.
  • The popular laserdisc video games Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace featured original animation from Don Bluth, while the laserdisc video game Cliff Hanger recycled footage from the Japanese anime series Lupin the Third.
  • From 1982 to 1984, a televised game show called Starcade challenged kids to play against each other in video game competitions. The program originally aired on the TBS Superstation, and was later syndicated.
  • The video game GORF was the first coin-operated game to feature a voice synthesizer. The electronic voice actually taunted and insulted players when they lost a life or the game ended.

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