By DIANA PARKER | Rediscover The USA (NH Edition)
To most of us, an old 19-inch television tube is junk. To Gary Vincent, it's gold.
Vincent is the curator and president of the American Classic Arcade Museum at Weirs Beach. The museum is home to more than 300 video game machines and pinball machines, all of them at least thirty years old and no two of them the same. ACAM is the largest classic video game museum in the world.
The museum takes up most of the third floor of Funspot. On a recent midmorning in June, there are few visitors, but the games are lined up and ready to go, with their flashing multi-colored screens taking center stage from the muted overhead lights. Occasional blips, plinks, and whirrs emanate from each sparkling, shining cabinet as a woman walks by; it’s easy to believe the games are winking and smiling and calling her to play with them.
Vincent's passion for all things video and pinball was born when he was a high school student during the heyday of video games in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During that time, he says, video arcades sprung up everywhere. Sadly, almost 75 percent of arcades that opened during this time would close, in part, Vincent explains, because the owners didn’t understand the business, and in part because technology began putting arcade-quality gaming systems in homes-the games were victims of their own popularity. As a result, he adds, relatively few of the between 5000 and 6000 games that were made in the 1970s and 1980s still exist.
And that is why he is always on the lookout for 19-inch television tubes.
The ACAM story is a classic tale of an individual who turned a hobby into a career. Vincent remembers that he used to play video games at Funspot as a high schooler. At the end of the summer of 1981, owner Bob Lawton asked him to fill in for a couple of weeks to replace college kids returning to school. “That three weeks turned into 33 years.”
As an employee of Funspot, Vincent began noticing that guests always responded particularly strongly to the video games and pinball machines that were on the floor. “I noticed that people were coming in and still playing Defender and Frogger and telling me that they just didn’t see them anymore,” he says. “We were getting a lot of feedback on the old games.”
Bob Lawton was always looking to introduce something new to the business, explains Vincent, and over time he allowed Vincent to put all the old games into one place in the building. That place was the third floor. In 1998, the American Classic Arcade Museum was formally born.
Since that time, the decision to create the now 10,000-square-foot museum has proven visionary. As an example, Vincent points to the number of colleges who are creating computer game design programs. One such institution, Champlain College in Vermont, sends a group of students to ACAM every year to learn the history and the craft of game design. According to Vincent, the college reached out to ACAM and sent 50 students the first year. This year, 150 students traveled to Weirs Beach to study the old games.
The students get a treat not offered to members of the general public — Vincent actually pulls the backs off the games and allows students to look at the components and study the way they were designed. He also invites them into his back-room workshop where the actual work of restoring the games takes place. The back room is full of boards consoles, cabinets, and components stored neatly in drawers that once housed architectural blueprints and on shelves that Vincent built specifically for their purpose. This experience yields a cautionary tale for the students: Vincent proudly displays a circuit board from a Midway Ranger Race game from 1980 with a badly placed battery that leaked over the circuits and destroyed them. It’s an example of “what not to do,” Vincent warns.
The recent PAX East gaming conference in Boston drew more than 80,000 people in three days. Vincent says that the top computer game manufactures and designers were there, as well as stars in the nearly $10 billion a year industry. ACAM was present with a stable of thirty-year-old video games and pinball machines, including a Pong machine from 1973 that is generally credited as the first video game. “Here we were at the premier game show in the world, and there was a non-stop line of people wanting to play Pong from 1973,” Vincent marvels. “Our room was filled with people. Many of them were kids who were younger than the games they were playing.”
“It’s a real tip of the hat to the guys who designed these games originally,” he adds.
Indeed, while Vincent pays due respect to the current generation of computer games, he insists the old games possess a unique charm and an even greater fun quotient.
He offers the example of his purchase of a Nintendo Wii gaming system and balance board. After twenty minutes of watching the tutorial, he still hadn’t figured out the game. His wife even asked, “When do we start having Fun?” Vincent says the system went back into the box and never came out again.
In Vincent‘s estimation, his wife’s simple question sums up the overarching and everlasting appeal of classic video and pinball games: “They are easy to play and hard to master.”
The full range of mastery was on display at the museum this past June during the 16th Annual International Classic Video Game Tournament, where 1,134 entrants from 35 states and three countries — Canada. Australia, and the Azores — competed over the course of three days on ACAM's most classic machines. According to Vincent, several competitors even made the tournament a vacation destination. In a recent nod to modern technology, Vincent introduced a large touchscreen display on the wall of the museum so that competitors could record and track their scores throughout the tournament; the list of games takes up five pages of display space. And in a nod to all the benefactors who have supported ACAM since its inception, the tournament was dedicated to those who have donated games and components. Every game used in the tournament was donated.
It is the hands-on experience that distinguishes ACAM From other classic game museums, Vincent says. With very few exceptions, every game at ACAM is available for public play. Even though they are all 30 years or older, and some are starting to show their age, Vincent says that an arcade museum that didn’t allow the public to play would be like a classic film museum that allowed patrons to see only the cans the movies came in and not the movies themselves.
ACAM visitors can do much more than just look at the cans. In fact, the only machine that isn’t available for public play is a Stop and Go pinball machine from 1939 so old it doesn't even have the flippers that are the hallmark of later pinball machines. Vincent explains regretfully that it is just too old and too fragile to allow the public to touch it.
All the other games are ready For play at the drop of a token. Visitors can experience the largest pinball machine ever made, the behemoth Hercules game from 1979 that was donated to the museum by a man in North Carolina. "They can also play the full range of Pac-Man games: Pac-Man, Jr. Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man Plus, Super Pac-Man, and Pac and Pal.
Another highlight is Death Race from 1976, in which the game player attempts to run down zombies with a car. It was the most controversial video game of its time. According to Vincent, the original name of the game was “Pedestrian” and it triggered an uproar in the seventies over the violence in video games. The controversy even made it to “60 Minutes.” ACAM’s machine was “a total wreck when we got it," Vincent remembers. He rebuilt it from parts and even had a man in Florida donate a silk screen of the original design. ACAM’s machine is unique in another way — every other Death Race game cabinet was black and white but ACAM’s is black and yellow. “It is the only yellow Death Race that I know of,” Vincent notes.
Even though Vincent knows the story and history of each game at ACAM, he says he rarely plays for pleasure anymore. “I only play when I fix a machine and play it to make sure it works,” he says.
Vincent is hesitant to identify his favorite machine. Rather, he says, he enjoys the search for the parts he needs to fix and rebuild the classics and the rare intact game — for instance, a Monte Carlo video game from 1973 that sat untouched in a crate in Toronto for 41 years-that he occasionally finds online or in back — road warehouses.
Is there a particular game he is looking for? "The next one," he says with a smile.