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Retro arcade games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders are back - and booming, writes Jason Hill.
Versed in the classics: Retro games including Space Invaders are back in favour.
BEFORE PlayStation and Xbox, gamers got their regular fix at the local amusement arcade with a pocketful of loose change.
Earning the right to put their initials on the high-score table of coin-operated games such as Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Galaga, Defender and Street Fighter II was a badge of honour that earnt the respect of their peers.
When the first home computer game consoles began appearing in the early '80s their rudimentary graphics could not compete with the offerings and dedicated controls of arcade machines.
Gaming at home also lacked the camaraderie and atmosphere of those noisy, dimly lit, smoky, electronic wonderlands.
But when the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation consoles appeared in the mid-1990s the gaming landscape changed forever.
Suddenly there was little discernible difference between the graphics and playability of arcade games and their home versions.
The ever-increasing power, popularity and affordability of home consoles decimated the coin-operated market. Now almost all of Australia's "pinnie parlours" have gone, unlikely ever to reclaim their popularity, despite the attempts of the coin-operated industry to create a family-friendly image.
But the games themselves are refusing to die. Those "wayward" teens who once fed the insatiable coin-operated cabinets are now well into their 20s and 30s, and their nostalgia is fuelling a retro gaming boom.
Del Reiss, owner of pinball specialists Bumper Action Amusements, has been selling arcade games since 1972. He says many young professionals are buying genuine arcade cabinets to provide entertainment and a cool accessory for their homes.
Pubs are also jumping on the retro bandwagon, installing sit-down cocktail cabinets that are being manufactured again for the first time in two decades.
Second-hand arcade cabinets can now cost thousands, but Mr Reiss believes the original coin-operated machines are good investments.
"Quality games like Defender and Galaga are going to be worth a lot in the future," he says.
Space Invaders machines, for example, that could be picked up for as little as $500 a few years ago today sell for more than $1200, and Mr Reiss expects their value to double or triple over the next five years.
Retro gaming fan Ben Droste, 22, plays classics because he believes games have not evolved much since the the early days.
"I cannot justify spending $500 on a next-gen console and $100 on games when they are essentially the same games I've been playing for the past 10 years but with new, shiny visuals," he says.
Fellow gamer Drew Mayo, 29, indulges because "these games are still fun to play".
"I see it like a film buff who watches classic movies, partly for the nostalgia but more about enjoying a well-crafted piece of art," he says.
Sourivat Seignarack, 30, says he turns to playing classics because of their "quick and easy" nature and to reminisce.
"For those of us who've grown up playing games and don't have as much time to invest, retro games are nice quick alternatives to satisfy our gaming urges," he says.
Fortunately for gamers with modest budgets, clever software called MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) lets any PC owner relive their misspent youth, reopening a virtual Aladdin's cave of gaming gems. The latest version supports more than 3000 titles.
Cameron Davis, 31, a former "arcade junkie" who says modern games often demand too much commitment without a "fun payoff", plans to build a dedicated MAME cabinet and wants publishers to establish an iTunes-style download service for classic games.
To enjoy retro games as they were originally experienced, many fans are also investing in real arcade controllers or building dedicated cabinets housing a PC and hundreds of games.
Local arcade gaming "coin-noisseur" OzStick has been producing high-quality desktop controllers for the past five years and now supplies arcade parts and cabinets.
OzStick's Chris Wigg, who left a high-paying job in technical support to satisfy the demands of nostalgic gamers, says arcade games "may be plain to look at but they still deliver great gameplay".
"A huge number of people have walked into an arcade at some stage in their lives, usually as adolescents, and had an enjoyable experience," he says.
"We all remember our favourite games and wish we could play them again."
Prices for OzStick controllers start at $100 for a basic four-button model with a single joystick and go up to $260 for the two-player Ultimate.
OzStick can also customise controllers with additions such as side-mounted pinball buttons or track-ball "spinners".
An alternative to OzStick is X-Arcade, US-made behemoths priced from $180 for a solo version and $270 for a two-player model. X-Arcade uses replica arcade components, which have an excellent feel and a lifetime warranty. Adaptors let you connect contemporary consoles such as PlayStation, Xbox, GameCube and DreamCast.
NubyTech's solid Street Fighter Arcade Stick also has support for both PS2 and Xbox, and costs $150.
Despite the age of most titles supported by MAME, possessing game ROMs may breach copyright law.
Few games are in the public domain, even if the company that created them is long gone.
Legal opinion suggests that you need to own the original arcade hardware boards to legitimately possess a game's ROM.
And some publishers have paid scant regard to their back catalogues, with the result that games have been lost forever.
But the underground success of MAME has convinced many companies that there is still a market hungry for classic titles.
Retro game compilations from publishers including Namco, Atari, Taito, Konami, Capcom, Midway and Activision have been released for PC and consoles. Companies such as Jakks Pacific have also had success selling retro games built into cheap plug-and-play joysticks, while Microsoft is offering retro classics for download through its Xbox Live Arcade online service.
One of the best recent compilations is the Capcom Classics Collection for PS2 and Xbox, which includes 1942, Final Fight, Street Fighter II, Ghosts'n'Goblins and Commando. The package will soon be released on PSP where it will compete with Namco Museum's line-up of classics such as Pac-Man, Galaga and Pole Position.
Many collections, such as Taito Legends, come with the original artwork and background information on the games and their creators.
But despite the boom in retro gaming, OzStick's Chris Wigg believes the industry has not paid enough attention to its heritage.
"It's only since MAME and other emulators have become popular that they realised their old games and characters could be used as marketing tools to release classic collections," he says.
"ROMs for games older than 15 years should be made public domain so those games are not forgotten."
Gamer Ben Droste agrees. He points out that if publishers "offered their classics for quick, easy and cheap download, they would be far more popular than compilation collections, plus their manufacturing and distribution costs would be nil".