Thursday, August 12, 2010

THE ARCADE FIRE: Droids Attack Frontman Brad Van on the Art of Retro-Gaming

Story by Ron Hart

I might not know shit from shinola when it comes to all these new fangled video games all the kids are playing on their Xbox 360s, PS3s and Wiis. However, I am a total geek when it comes to vintage arcade classics. If it was made anywhere between 1977 and 1989, I’m all over it, from Space Invaders to Pac-man to Moon Patrol to Elevator Action to Paperboy to Xybots to Outrun to Contra to Double Dragon. And apparently Brad Van, the enigmatic frontman for the sci-fi minded Madison, Wisconsin-based stoner rock group Droids Attack, is on the same page as I am. Only thing is, he has taken his obsession with all things 8-, 16- and 32-bit to the next level by opening up a full blown old school game room in his town. IRT took a moment to electronically chat with Mr. Van about how to maintain such a cool small business in the torrential storms of this troubled economy. Droids Attack’s latest album, Must Destroy, is out now on Crustacean Records. For more information, visit the band at

IRT: How did you come up with the idea of opening up a vintage arcade?
Brad Van: I was at an impressionable age when the 80's arcade craze hit. Arcade machines were everywhere. You couldn't go anywhere that didn't have a game or two. Convenience stores, department stores, restaurants, just everywhere. It was unavoidable. Then after a few years when the market shifted to the home consoles things really thinned out and it was a lot rarer you'd see them in places other than at the mall arcades. Another thing that I think hurt the industry is that games got a lot more redundant as conversion games became popular with operators. Everything was either a fighting game, or a side scrolling action game, or a driving game, and they'd just yank the guts out of the cabinets and replace it with the next game in line that had the same theme. It also seemed as time went on a lot of the newer games concentrated more on pushing the graphics then they did on making a worthwhile game. You could say the same thing about console video games today really, but I digress. It just seemed to me that the industry was not really in tune with what made arcade games so exciting popular in the first place. All the trends were beaten to death and everything just died. I felt like someone needed to bring back the games that stood the test of time and make an effort to try and preserve the legacy of what an honest arcade was back when they mattered. It just seemed like a good idea so I took it upon myself to make it happen.

IRT: What was the response like initially to the arcade when you first opened up shop?
It was very positive. It seems a lot of people felt the same way that I did, and the folks that showed up really enjoyed seeing their favorite games they hadn't seen in about 20-30 years.

IRT: Given the success of your store as a gauge, how do you feel vintage arcades could do in other areas of the country?
Like anything it depends greatly on where it's located and how it's managed. Like any entertainment venue these days it takes some marketing savvy and some creativity to keep the place running smooth.

IRT: What was the first video game you ever played?
One of my first memories as a child was seeing a Pac-man arcade game at a bowling alley. I must've been three years old. That was the game that got me hooked for sure. The first game I remember playing was Space Invaders on the Atari 2600.

IRT: What is the hardest thing about maintaining these old arcade games? Is it a delicate operation? Why or why not?

Brad: It's a big challenge. A lot of my machines are 20+ years old, and for the most part they weren't built to last that long. Spare parts can be difficult to find, and sometimes when you find them they can be very expensive. For example games like Asteroids and Tempest use vector monitors, and no one makes or services those anymore and they are pretty hard to get at a reasonable price. If you don't know how to fix the stuff yourself, it's crucial that you find some reliable and talented help. That can be a huge hurdle to overcome these days when it's cheaper to just replace broken equipment then it is to hire people to repair it.

IRT: Do you get a lot of young people coming into your arcade? Why or why not?
Yes, but I'd say it's more so older than younger folks. I think the younger folks I get through the door are the more hardcore gamers of their generation, or just general curious types who get a kick out of checking the old stuff out. I feel bad for the kids who experience these games for the first time as some crappy port on some cell phone, or on an emulator using their keyboard instead of a proper joystick. I can see how a first impression with a classic game in that fashion could introduce it as more of a novelty then as something worthwhile.

IRT: What do you think the appeal is of vintage games in the age of the X-Box and such involved games like Call of Duty and whatever else?
For me a lot of those games involve a huge investment in time to experience them in full. I play some modern games like Grand Theft Auto, and a few others every now and again, but I typically enjoy games that can be played in quick bursts and require little to no learning curve. I don't have the time to invest like I used to.

IRT: What is the hardest-to-find console in your arcade and how did you track it down?
I have a game called Death Race, which is the first arcade game to ever cause a major controversy over video game violence. It's a two player driving game where you try and run over as many people as you can in a limited amount of time. It's actually very fun. I believe they only made like 500 of them before a witch hunt segment on 60 Minutes jumped all over it. As a result people boycotted the game. I even heard some protesters went so far as to destroy a few of them. Ultimately most of them were pulled from routes and dismantled. There are very few of the complete games known to exist today. Maybe even less than 10. I found it by chance in a warehouse full of old arcade games when I was purchasing a Robotron machine. The guy offered to sweeten the deal by throwing it in for an extra $100.

IRT: What console have you yet to find that you are dying to acquire and why?
I'd like to get an original Computer Space some time from more of a collector's standpoint. It was the first arcade machine ever manufactured.

IRT: When push comes to shove, your opinion sir: Jungle King vs. Jungle Hunt?
While I do appreciate the story and controversy behind Jungle King being a Tarzan ripoff, I actually prefer the safari guy with the little hat. I just wish he still did the yell.

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