Retronauts Episode 13 Loves You, and It Loves Old Arcade Games

Retronauts 13 cover

Just a brief note here, since I’m on an island somewhere far away and time and bandwidth are limited for me at the moment. Retronauts Episode 13 is here! And it was recorded a long time ago! A few months ago, to be precise, back when I realized I needed to move across the country; we queued up a bunch of episodes all at once since I didn’t know when I’d be able to return to San Francisco to host episodes in person again. So… if it seems a little weird that we’re talking about things like Resogun in future tense, well, just consider this an episode of Retronauts that became “timeless” (read: dated) before it even debuted.

Arcade fanatic Sam Claiborn (of IGN fame) joins us again to discuss — what else? Arcade games. Specifically, we’re talking about the “golden age” of the arcades, with an emphasis on pre-Pac-Man works. It’s a long, rambling, digressive episode, which means it’s pretty much my personal platonic ideal for this podcast. It may not be particularly focused, but it’s a bunch of guys talking about old games they dig. Hopefully you will agree.

Music from this episode comes from Bucker & Garcia’s Pac-Man Fever, along with Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Rydeen.”

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30 Responses to Retronauts Episode 13 Loves You, and It Loves Old Arcade Games

  1. There’s something about the classic video game arcade scene. It’s a room where the sounds of twenty or more machines blooping and beeping in some sort of weird technological chorus. It was a beautiful sound. The sound of those old arcades is one that I really miss.

  2. Cory

    Great discussion as always, everyone. Go Sam with the Iowa City represent! I had to hang out in Aladdin’s Castle in Dubuque, but I was too young for the games you guys hit this week. An episode someday aimed at kids like me who would spend 3 or 4 bucks in tokens to beat Primal Rage and Area 51 at a 10th birthday party?

    • Holy smokes, that’s really cool! I vaguely remember a PlayChoice at Aladdin’s Castle, and some hubbub about SMB3 on it before it came out. But I was pretty intimidated by arcades then.

  3. bdjeffyp

    Great topic for this week’s episode! Can’t wait to listen to it after work.

    One recommendation that I would make is that you should post the link to the episode’s applicable website article in the podcast’s description. This might help in getting more views on the website which you sometimes bring up at the end of an episode. Just a thought.

    Keep up the great work! Looking forward to more!

  4. Nat

    I’d love to see those photos of arcade machines at BART stations!

  5. Josh

    One of my earliest arcade memories was playing a Burger Time at a Winchell’s Donut house. I still haven’t worked out the logic behind that.

  6. Aaron Schafer

    I came along much too long to experience the golden age you’re talking about here — Space Invaders and Pac-Man and all the rest were Atari games to me; I didn’t realise until much later they were originally arcade machines (though I do love the sit-down arcade versions of Pac-Man and the Ms.) — but having spent more than a little time at Exhilirama, the good mall arcade when I was a teenager (the bad mall arcade was Tilt, at a smaller, crappier mall), I do miss the sights, the sounds, everything. Born in ’80, I came of arcade-going age right around the time Street Fighter II was taking over the world, and that game, along with the six-player X-Men monster, were the centerpieces of the place, always surrounded by a huge crowd.

    It’s funny; I guess there isn’t really all that much difference in today’s gaming experience, where kids play online against other foul-mouthed people with names that usually contain the number 69, but somehow I feel they’re missing out on the experience of stepping up to a Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat machine, putting in your quarters, and testing your mettle against the winner of the last match in front of a crowd of people. Some kind of crucible, it seemed at the time, to be there, surrounded by both your peers and the unimaginably cooler 15-year olds smelling of their high school black market cigarettes, trying to prove you had some sort of worth to the world, that you could pull off Baraka’s fatality if called upon. I suppose one could argue today’s online gaming is the same thing, but I think we all know it isn’t. Sure, it was stupid kid stuff, but it was still the real world. You put down your money, you did your best, and you learned to look people in the eye even after that asshole kid just 45-hit combo’d you on Killer Instinct.

    Also, fuck Killer Instinct. Hate that game.

    Further also, more to the topic: the Imo’s Pizza we occasionally order pizza from when I’m at my parents’ house has a Galaga machine. It’s still wicked awesome.

  7. Aaron Schafer

    Love the Yellow Magic Orchestra tune here, too. Rydeen and Firecracker are probably my two favourite YMO tracks, though I’m not nearly as familiar with their full catalogue as I would like. I can’t say I would take them over Kraftwerk, if someone held a gun to my head and told me I could only listen to one pioneering electronic outfit, but they did always seem to be having way more fun. Or maybe it’s just that Kraftwerk’s fun is German fun, which is really only kind of kissing cousin to fun as the rest of the world thinks of it. And I say that as a person with extremely German heritage.

  8. Chris G.

    Great topic!

  9. Chris G.

    Now that we are at the halfway point of this iteration ‘s (committed, at least) life-span, are there any thoughts about where / how-long the show will run? This third volume has been fantastic overall, I can’t wait to see what’s next.

  10. Zach Adams

    The Army Battlezone project was troubled from the beginning, as most of the people working on it still harbored serious resentment toward the US military in the post-Vietnam era. It ended up being scrapped, but the prototype is on the first Atari compilation for Nintendo DS. (It’s pretty unplayable, in part because it was designed to be crewed by a team.)

    Video games for me were physical therapy in the golden age (I’m legally blind, and had no motor skills or hand-eye coordination to speak of when I was little.) My first real memory is of seeing Pac-Man, Defender and Astro Blaster at the Kroger in Little Rock. I was fascinated by Pac-Man, but would jump out of my shoes every time the Astro Blaster machine started yelling. But from 81 until all the arcades in LR closed in 84, every week my dad took me to play $5 worth of whatever happened to be available. I fondly remembered being in total awe of the Sega Star Trek machine the first time I went to a proper arcade (the sit-down cabinet designed to look like Kirk’s chair), but by the next week it was gone and I never got to play it again.

  11. theBigSnit

    My exposure to the arcade scene was minimal, but lasting. We had one predominant location called Magic Land; you would basically pay a set fee to enter and nearly all of the machines were free to play. This place was incredible, granted this was well after the 80’s arcade zenith, but the sheer variety of games available was staggering. I never really noticed too many bums/uncouth types, mainly because I was too focused on the bright flashing lights and free arcade cabinets.

    In the end it still couldn’t pull me away from the comfort and relaxing environment home gaming provided.

  12. Sean C

    It’s a shame Jeremy was the only one old enough to live through the classic arcade scene. That’s were I first played Videogames and fell in love with them. Probrably my first memory of Videogames is playing one at the bus stop by Dad took to work every day when we picked him up as a kid. And at pizza parlors. I remember a really cool arcade when I was small in the Concord mall that had a lot of older games. It was the only place I ever saw with the Firetruck game with the two seater fire engine where one player controlled the front and one the back. Oh and I also loved the Dog button. I think as a kid all the way to a teenager, wherever I went I would seek out the arcades. Whether the arcade at pier 39 in SF, to an Alladins Castle in Souther California mall. Hell even Disneyland had a killer arcade in the 80’s. Even in Japan I would always go to the awesome arcades they had when I was there a few times in the Navy. (My favorite probrably being a Sega Joyoplis I think in Fukuoka.) I even would go to hole in the wall arcades that seem to have all but disappeared. And in middle school I probrably spent my lunch money every day on the way home playing games at 7-11 and buying a slurpee. (Don’t tell my mom.) but I don’t think we will ever see a golden age of games like that again where literally ever restraunt and grocery store had an arcade game in the lobby. I mean what ever happened to normal restraints where they had coctail tables you could sit at. That was the best as a kid.

  13. Daniel Feit

    RYDEEN is the name I am always forgetting, thank you. Sad to say this is what’s become of it (and YMO) in Japan:

  14. econmara


    Old arcade games are my bag, baby.

  15. Space Rex

    Great episode Dudes. Spirit of the old show still lives. Love it, keep up the great work. This is why I listen to stuff. bam

  16. Rhett Lauffenburger

    Great discussion, this week, guys. I feel like all the links you made in this episode to other recent episodes is helping to establish a nice sense of context about this time period.

  17. Like a lot of the presenters in this episode, I was too young to really experience the Golden Age of Arcades. Most of my early arcade experience is with pizza parlors, Chucky Cheeses, movie theater lobbies and roller/ice skating rinks. Even then most of the time those places featured arcade games of the nineties. It was a rare sight when I found a place with a Galaga or Ms. Pac-Man machine.

    That said, I can confirm that arcade machines in doctor’s office is definitely a thing. My orthodontist actually had a Millipede and Ms. Pac-Man that you could play while you waited for them to look over your braces. I remember putting a lot of time into them, even though I wasn’t very good at them. (Technically he also had a CD-i, but that was only used as a multimedia device, not a game console).

    Props to Sam for all the technical details about arcades. It’s so easy to forget about how much the hardware of cabinets shapes the experience of the game in the age of home emulation. I’d love to get an arcade machine for my home at some point. Also, thanks for mentioning that one caveman pinball game with the video screen. As a kid, my dad taking us to an office party at someone’s house that had it, but I had mostly forgotten it. Though I just tried looking it up now and found that it’s actually called Caveman (though there’s an older Bally machine called Four Million BC that might have confused you).

    Speaking of pinball, there’s actually a documentary called “TILT: The Battle to Save Pinball” that goes over the rise and fall of Pinball 2000. I’ve seen it and it’s a pretty fascinating story. The real tragedy is it actually looked like they pulled it off when they released Revenge from Mars, but for their second title they decided to play it safe and go with a license that couldn’t possibly fail: Star Wars Episode 1. It’s not on Netflix, but it looks like it’s available for rental on Amazon Prime and iTunes if you have some time.

    One question though: if Nintendo isn’t willing to release the arcade version of Donkey Kong for that court settlement, then how was Rare able to include it in Donkey Kong 64?

    • Caveman is soooo good. I played it recently at the repair shop that handles arcade restoration tasks too great for me. It has a maze game and a playfield that are both much better than Baby Pac-Man — love the joystick sticking out the top of the flipper area!

  18. WorldlyBoar

    Yo Retronoauts! First time listener here. I am from California but have been living in Argentina for the last 5 yrs.

    Because modern consoles are far too expensive for the average wage earner, arcades are still popular all over South America. I hit up the one down the street from me for some Alex Kidd action and Daytona USA nostalgia!

    Might be worth a trip if you are into it!

  19. JohnLearned

    About the old arcade game endurance test, I once met the guy whom held the record for Tempest at one point at a Microsoft event a few years ago. He was playing through the game and had to hit the bathroom, so he intentionally died and had someone fiddle with the knob on the cabinet until he came back. Apparently, once you hit a certain level in the game, you can bail and as long as the knob is still moving, you can restart from the level you died on (or something to that effect, I’m still trying to remember). Not sure if other classics had similar tricks, but at least that explains this one.

    Seriously, though, I just thought that people would rack up enough extra lives that they could run and take a quick break while their count slowly dwindled

  20. ubersaurus

    I wasn’t born until just after the golden age of the arcade, but considering my earliest gaming memories were on Atari systems the design of games from that era has sort of stuck with me and made me a belated fan. Whenever I get the chance to play those old games, I kind of start grinning and get super giddy. In fact, I remember back when I was a kid in the very early 90s, I used to borrow a book all the time from the library from 1982, all about video games (Craig Kubey’s The Winners’ Book of Video Games). I pored over all the details on these arcade and console games, some of which I knew from home ports, and others I’d never heard of. It was pretty lovely.

    Thankfully two arcades are open around me that have a decent stock of classic golden age games between them – Pinball Pete’s in Ann Arbor, and The Arcade in Brighton, MI – so I can satiate my love of those old machines the way they were meant to be played. But part of me is always a little sad I’ll never have the experiences of playing these things when they were new.

    Fun aside: My friend Kinn (RIP) grew up in the 70s and 80s, so his prime gaming years were in the golden age. He used to work at an arcade in Detroit, and told me that his boss would give him some quarters and tell him to go to other arcades and see what they were doing so they could swipe some of their ideas! He also told me he used to walk a few miles with a friend down to a party store that had the only Rip Off cabinet in the area. Last time he and I ever hung out, we spent some time playing Rip Off on Vectrex, and I’ll tell you, 30 years on, he was still a beast at that game.

  21. Chris Sobieniak

    I’m about five years older than the oldest member of your podcast from the sound of it. I recall those Golden Age days well, not a whole lot though where I was there all the time (I was 4-5 years old in 1982), but enough to at least know what that experience was like from a young’uns perspective.

    It’s true there was an arcade before the days of video games, these basically were the kind that dealt more with simple crane games, skee-ball, pinball and other mechanical devices of the day. The very nature of arcade games themselves can be traced to the day someone stuck a coin mechanism in a bagatelle board (look that up on Wiki). The original namesake for this use to be “penny arcade” as it would cost you a penny to play them each. These places either resided in downtown commerce sections or as installments in amusement (theme) parks (say the boardwalk of Coney Island). There had been some animated cartoons that often themed themselves to these establishments I could link to…
    “Customers Wanted” (1939):
    “A Good Time for a Dime” (1941):
    “Of Mice and Menace” (1954):
    “Penny Pals” (1962):
    “Pink Arcade” (1978):

    Recall a moment in Ralph Bakshi’s film “Heavy Traffic” that had it’s titular character playing a pinball machine, losing at it and destroys the whole machine before walking out of an arcade at the end of the film.

    I suppose I was raised more on consoles than I was on arcades simply because of not being old enough to really have quite as much access as my older brother. I do remember the days when it seemed like any restaurant or convenience mart had to have the singular video game gracing a small space in the lobby or corner of said place. I remember the cocktail table version of Pac-Man at Pizza Hut mostly, as well as some titles like Taito’s Superman and Nintendo’s Punch Out at 7-Eleven myself (other places I remember best include a laundromat that use to had a row of video games and pinball machines I would go to a lot). That just seemed like such a normal thing looking back, never really seeing it as something people were trying to make money out of, though we never think of these things when we were 6. It was just nice getting to play them at all if your parents didn’t mind giving you that quarter, fifty cent piece or dollar. It was nice if you did go to a shopping mall and begged your mom to let you stay at the arcade a bit if time permitted. I usually don’t have much memories of what titles were there, often I think I only had a specific few games I ever liked or wanted to play and simply ignored the rest, which I see today was a failure on my part based on ignorance.

    The “Fun ‘n Pizza” thing wouldn’t be far from the truth, the sort of thing (pioneered by the likes of Chuck E. Cheese, Showbiz and the like) had been quite a familiar feature in most parts of the country and it was that sort of love/hate relationship shared by all (usually we saw it positively as kids while our grown-ups simply couldn’t get into the groove unless they served alcohol like one place we use to go to in town called “Major Magic’s All-Star Pizza Revue”). Those are memories I do cherish for playing many sorts of games I didn’t see quite as often at the mall like Pac-Mania or the full After Burner II cabinet you sat in and it moved as you played. Hearing of you guys talking about being worried over smoking in arcades, I have to say I don’t remember it as much at all, though since my parents were smokers, we always had to sit in those sections at every restaurant we went to that had ashtrays and such, I can’t remember how my mom felt when they stopped it, but it was rather hard for them to get use to the new laws and all. I suppose I always accepted it as a normal thing but I never ever thought of being a smoker myself.

    I faintly recall the laserdisc games like Dragon’s Lair but for some reason I was rather intimidated to play them for some reason, either they were too pricey or simply didn’t peak my interests at all, I recall one for “M.A.C.H. 3” you had to sit down in as well. As a kid I use to faintly watch a show on TV called “Starcade” that was a game show about playing arcade games. It was such a unique concept and the series lasted a couple years on TV. I’m sure though you guys probably already covered that on your podcasts.

    Incidentally, the Pac-Man cartoon show came on roughly a year before the Donkey Kong one did.

    Donkey Kong was one of several titles that were adapted into a show called “Saturday Supercade” in 1983. The show comprised of several cartoons like DK, Donkey Kong Jr., Q*bert, Frogger and Pitfall. A year later two other video games were adapted, Kangaroo and Space Ace. Dragon’s Lair itself even had a separate half-hour series as well in ’84. I never watched this show, but I see it’s out on DVD if you bother.

    The influences of the video arcade in the early 80’s was pretty large in the media, this YouTube playlist I put together I feel does a good job covering what that was like.

    Both Pac-Man and DK did see their share of merchandising of all sorts ranging from cereals to fast-food tie-ins and anywhere in between. Those were interesting times to want to get something with Pac-Man on it like a hat because you could. I sorta miss that.

    Of course by the time the 90’s rolled around I got to go to arcades more often though the lure the later games didn’t appear to me very much (having been more a puzzle/beat ’em up kind of guy myself). We never had any big name chain stores like Aladdin’s Castle around town though (mostly Ma & Pa operations with names like “Electronic Experience”), I recall seeing an Aladdin’s Castle though while out of town at a mall 20-30 miles north of town. One arcade I knew very well was the Red Baron Family Fun Center at the Franklin Park Mall here in Toledo, OH. Not sure when they first opened there, but they stuck around as long as they could until a “The Nature Company” next door wanted to expand to become a “Discovery Channel Store” in the early 2000’s and they had to close that up forever sadly. Here’s one photo I took of it.