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Back in the game
Planned ‘retrocade’ resurrects the arcade gaming experience for geeks and noobs alike.
Locals Daniel Solis and Terry South have a vision. It’s a place filled with classic standup video game cabinets, titles like Galaga, Mrs. Pac Man and Donkey Kong. An ideal world would see pinball, too, with all its associated sounds of flippers springing to life and bumpers racking up a high score. Call it a throwback. Call it a dream. Just don’t call it an arcade.
“What you would call an arcade is just a square building with video games lined up back to back, wall to wall,” said South. “What we want is something different.”
That something is called a “retrocade,” different in the fact that it’s not about bringing kids in and relieving them of change, but about creating a social environment where people — young, old or somewhere in between — can play games for the fun, the nostalgia, the competition or all of the above.
“We want people to walk in and everything to look nice. We want different areas, places where people can sit down. It needs to be social, too,” South said.
The retrocade isn’t a concept that’s unique to Solis and South. It’s been done elsewhere nationally and even in Arkansas. Fayetteville saw the opening of one earlier this year. As is the case there, the pair envision it having a paid admission with everything inside free to play. The planned name is Z82 Retrocade.
“We’re not in this to get rich,” said Solis, who said they just want to keep the lights on. “We’ve both had the option to make a lot more money. We’ve been there, done that. This is for the gamers, and something that if we don’t do it, we’re going to regret it.”
To the cynical that might just sound like some savvy business talk, just telling the customers what they want to hear. But the fact that the guy saying it is wearing a Pac Man belt buckle and a T-shirt with the famous maze on it would argue otherwise. So would the fact that Solis and South are the guys behind the Classic Gaming Association, a group all about organizing casual and competitive play sessions. That, in turn, is sponsored by their business Arcade Wizards, which does service and repair for classic cabinets.
For the last year or so, the business has hosted the CGA in its Sherwood warehouse on the last Tuesday of every month, where those who caught on through social media have had a chance to play the games South and Solis have acquired and repaired. Meanwhile, the technophiles of the group have a chance to talk circuits and parts and the literal nuts and bolts of things, be it in the gaming machines or other electronics.
It’s a formula that’s basically the product of the people behind it. Solis is a self-described long-time gamer and South is a tinkerer whose experience extends to many things mechanical. Together they can not only fix what’s broken, but also know what the end product should feel like. And that’s what keeps arcade games alive in a world where hundreds of them can fit on a CD for console play at home.
“It just doesn’t have the same feel,” said South of playing something like a Pac Man on an Xbox controller. “It’s hard to describe.”
And the games themselves ... well, they were designed with a different idea in mind — one that involved inserting quarter after quarter, Solis noted.
“These games were trying to kill you, not entertain you,” he said.
Not that they aren’t capable of the latter. At October’s gaming gathering, a crowd of a couple dozen or so ranging from under 10 to over 50 from Fort Smith to Pine Bluff poured over After Burner, Rampage, Star Wars and the like with equal acumen. Unlike in Back to the Future II, in which fictional kids of the 21st century were disdainful of using their hands to play a game, these kids too young to remember the Golden Age of Gaming took to machines with undaunted gusto.
What they and many visitors don’t realize is that every single one is the product of uncounted hours of painstaking restoration. You see, being a gamer entails a certain level of perfectionism, and Solis and South have that in ample measure. Neither could say exactly how many hours go into the average restoration, because there is no average really, but both mentioned a recent job in which the whole cabinet was painted and stripped twice because the color wasn’t quite right. Yeah, it’s like that.
“If we put out a piece of junk, that represents both of us,” South said.
“I was short sighted at first,” added Solis. “I couldn’t see where we were going, so I said let’s just make it work ... but now, with anything we achieve, we really really want to make it right.”
That’s getting harder and harder in a world where the old cabinets are disappearing and often broken down for parts. A joystick and button panel from one game might get cannibalized into another. But you don’t play Donkey Kong with six buttons. So if that’s what the machine has in it, that has to be replaced before it’s finished, the pair said. And it has to be finished to be rolled out.
Right now the two have around 115 machines between them, stored either at home or at the warehouse. Some 52 of them they call functional. Around 25 they put in the “pretty” category, that last, most pristine group fit for public consumption. They’d like to have 50 or 60 to that point when they open Z82, which is slated for late spring but will depend on finding the right space, probably in Sherwood or North Little Rock.
Until then, the prototype of the concept is already in the works every month when the CGA gets together, as they will this Saturday at Arcade Wizards, 6136 Getty Drive in Sherwood, for a Christmas party (since the usual get-together date, the last Tuesday of the month, is Christmas Day). And, yes, the public is welcome to come check it out. The idea will also be on display the evening of Jan. 12 at Kapow! Comics in Sherwood and at a competition slated for Feb. 16 at Arcade Wizards, an event featuring Donkey Kong and Mrs. Pac Man contests.
“We’re all about the more the merrier,” said Solis, who explained he envisions a community where high scores are kept and coveted and, no, there is no playing favorites with who holds those honors. He’s an accomplished gamer himself, but gladly offers tips and tactics to any student willing to listen because he loves seeing a new high score set.
After all, it is the celebration of the victor and the resolve of the dethroned that make classic gaming what it is. Even in rivalry, there is a bond. And that’s what Solis and South see when they look at a room full of machines.