(Photo credit: Alfred Hutter)Once a fixture of just about every town in America, the video game arcade isn't what it used to be. Beaten down by the popularity of high-tech consoles, the rise of longer, more complex games, and the general shift of childhood entertainment from streets and malls to homes and living rooms, arcades are mostly just a memory these days.
But with a little ingenuity, a little free space and a little spare change, it's a memory you can relive in the comfort of your own home. Depending on your funds -- and sheer desire to revive the glory days of your youth -- there are a few ways to go.
Option 1: Build your own cabinet
Tempting though it is to just type your favorite arcade machine's name into eBay, that approach may not yield the best results. Old arcade machines are common, but they're not exactly small, and they're not exactly multitaskers. Buy a Ms. Pac-Man coin-op, and you're going to be playing Ms. Pac-Man...and that's it. If you like a little variety in your arcade gaming, you're going to need a lot of machines, and that'll likely turn out prohibitively expensive.
Fortunately, there's an alternative, and it's free. Thanks to a well-worn piece of software called MAME -- the "Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator" -- any old computer can easily be turned into a machine capable of pixel-perfect recreations of thousands upon thousands of classic arcade games. This means all you need is an old PC, a suitable display, an arcade-style controller, and a nice stand-up case to put it all in, and you'll have a multi-purpose arcade "jukebox" that can play just about any classic hit under the sun.
Sound difficult? It's not, although you will need to do some planning. If you have access to a woodshop and possess a few basic skills, designing and building an arcade-style fiberboard cabinet is neither tricky nor expensive. If not, build kits are widely available, both flat-packed and pre-assembled -- or you could even repurpose some Ikea furniture into one.
For the innards, see if you can scrounge up an old PC and monitor. You don't need new tech to run old arcade machines -- there are people out there playing quite happily on cabinets concealing nothing more exotic than an old $200 netbook. Consider sinking what you save on the PC into a quality joystick, however. Nice arcade-style controllers aren't cheap, and you'll want something that can take some abuse and looks the part.
Dreamcade KegeratorOption 2: Buy a pre-built cabinet -- with or without beer
However you do it, designing and assembling your own cabinet is inevitably going to require time, tools, and know-how. If that's not your thing, pre-built MAME cabinets are available, too.
We like Dream Arcade's selection, which starts around $1799 and comes with everything you need to get playing. Our favorite? The absurdly awesome Dreamcade Kegerator, which comes with a 29" screen, a lightgun, and a hidden kegerator with three taps. It's even got two built-in cup holders. Yours for $3,995, beer sold separately.
Get some games
All that's left is software. MAME itself is free, easy, and only needs a basic operating system install to be up and running. As for the games themselves -- or "ROMs," as they're termed -- well, there things get a little sticky. Most MAME players get their ROMs for free via all sorts of peer-to-peer programs, usually in packs of hundreds or even thousands of games.
Isn't that a bit shady? Yes and no. Obtaining and transferring ROMs for arcade games you don't legitimately own is likely to be a violation of copyright regulations. Having said that, many arcade games are old enough that the rights holder is out of business, forgotten in the mists of time, or otherwise off the scene -- and we've never heard of anyone getting in legal hot water over ROM downloading. MAME itself is perfectly legal and above board, but you should know that kitting it out with ROMs carries a small but non-zero risk of landing you in hot water.
iCade (ThinkGeek)Option 3: iCade
If that's enough to put you off -- or the cost of a custom-made MAME cabinet is raising your eyebrows -- never fear. If you happen to own an iPad, check out this offering from top nerd retailer Thinkgeek. Originally conceived as an April Fool's joke, the iCade is an arcade-style cabinet that your iPad slides into, which turned out to be such a popular idea, they started making them for real. Thanks to a partnership with arcade stalwarts Atari, over 100 legal, iCade-compatible classics are available through the App Store -- and an ever-growing slate of iOS originals are shipping with iCade support, too.
What's an arcade without ambience? Recreating your ideal arcade is a highly personal affair, but you'll find no end of ideas online. Fluorescent carpeting? Blacklights? Neon lettering? Vending machines? Vintage signs? Game-themed vinyl wall graphics? You name it, it's bound to be out there -- and combing eBay, Craigslist, and your local garage sales for your perfect fixtures and fittings has the potential to be one of the most rewarding parts of the whole experience. Enjoy it.