Scott Bachrach makes and sells time machines.
Truthfully, they’re actually 3/4 scale arcade machines, but time travel — at least for as long as it takes to whoop Sagat as Guile on Street Fighter II — is what he’s really selling.
“I remember being 13 years old,” Bachrach, 52, told Digital Trends. “It was early ’81. I lived in Southern California. Skateboarder. Long Hair. The whole thing. We used to go to Westwood arcades on a Friday night and hang out with our friends and play video games. We had fun with the games themselves, but it was more than just that. It was the great music from that era. It was the great times. It was simpler, right? People use those words pretty loosely. But I really do believe that what we really do is, you know, we bring back memories.”
Bachrach, who traded in the snotty teenaged skateboarder vibe to become a licensing guy in the 1990s, is today the head of Tastemakers. Tastemakers is the parent company of Arcade1Up, a business that creates scaled-down, 4-foot-tall replica coin-op arcades of all your favorite arcade classics. Space Invaders. Dig Dug. Dragon’s Lair. Pac-Man. Final Fight. NBA Jam. Golden Axe. Mortal Kombat. The list goes on and on.
Each Arcade1Up arcade unit features authentic controls, front and side art, and, unlike the original arcade machines, multiple games per unit. The Mortal Kombat II unit, for instance, also includes 1992’s original Mortal Kombat and 1995’s Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3.
While they’ll cost you more than a quarter to play, the prices — which range from $299 to $499 — are approximately 10x less than the price you’d pay to pick up an original arcade unit. And, at under 60 pounds, a whole lot less floor-creakingly heavy, too.
“This started off as a passion project,” said Bachrach. “I remember looking at my team, and saying, ‘That’s an amazing product’ [when I saw] the first samples. We were, like, ‘if we sell 10,000 pieces, this would be unbelievable.’”
Today, sales have blown away those early estimates. According to Bachrach, an astonishing 2 million units have sold since the company’s first products, Rampage, Asteroids, Centipede, Galaga, and Street Fighter II, launched in August 2018. In some months during the pandemic, with people stuck home contemplating better times when we’d happily share joysticks with total strangers, sales grew an average of 96% week over week. “It’s amazing to see how many of our fans are starting to build their own arcade rooms,” he said. “And they do it at a pace that they’re comfortable with. They’re recreating their childhood dream, basically.”
Selling back fragmentary pieces of long-gone childhood to a largely middle-aged fanbase with disposable income isn’t a business model invented by Tastemakers, of course. Nor is dusting off retro games for another shot at the big time. Trendy bar chain Barcade has been successfully serving up classic coin-ops and craft beer to the erstwhile teenaged gamers-gone-to-seed (or, at least, to corporate 9-to-5 jobs) since 2004. There is also no shortage of older arcade games available for download. But not everyone is doing things to quite the same level of quality.
Bachrach said that, in 2016 when the idea was first being discussed internally, someone mentioned another company was making a plug-and-play arcade box for TVs. The $100 console contained an assortment of arcade classics, ranging from Pac-Man to Asteroids. “I remember I went to an Urban Outfitters, and I bought one of these products,” Bachrach recalled. “I spent a hundred bucks, and I brought it home and I plugged it in. My son, who was 16 years old, and I played it for five minutes — and we both looked at each other and said, ‘This is lame.’”
The next day he went into the office and tracked down a member of the product development team who had been particularly enthusiastic about the idea. “I don’t understand what happened,” Bachrach said to him. “I’ve got great memories of those games, but this was terrible.” His colleague told him, “You know why, right? It’s because you’re not using real ROMs.” Bachrach recalled looking at his colleague “like he had four heads.” He had no idea what the hell a ROM was.
His colleague suggested they go down the street and visit a local pizza restaurant, where there was an original Ms. Pac-Man coin-op installed. Bachrach popped in a quarter and, suddenly, found himself transported back to his misspent youth. A light went on in his head. If the team was able to capture that experience, but manufacture it in a way that it would be affordable, they could really be on to something, he thought. “That was the mission statement,” he said.
Although experts will spot the differences between the genuine article and Arcade1Up’s version (the heavy, but gorgeous old CRT monitors have been switched out for LCD screens for one thing), every effort has been made to ensure the experience rings true. For better or worse, you’ll feel successfully transported back to the heyday of the dimly lit, sticky-floored arcades in the cheaper end of the mall, in which your go at beating Rampage would be coolly appraised by gawky older teenagers waiting for their own turn.
There have been mistakes along the way, of course. The newer units are more solid than the initial ones, and care has been taken to listen to fan responses as they chip in on minutiae such as the precise feel of the joysticks. One early error, Bachrach said, was failing to ship with a plexiglass deck protector overlay. “We did not know that if you were an aggressive Street Fighter player or Mortal Kombat player, and you’re going to play this thing several hours a day, that natural oils on your hands are going to start to remove the paints,” he said. “It passed all our testing protocols [and we didn’t foresee this being a problem]. It’s been a learning curve for us.”
Perhaps the smartest thing about Arcade1Up is that, ultimately, it solves the big quandary that originally brought down the arcades. By giving you an accessible, affordable way to own and play one of these things at home, coin-ops are no longer locked quite so tightly in *ahem* mortal combat with home consoles.
Consoles were the biggest reason for the decline of the original arcade boom, which stretched from the 1970s through the first half of the 1990s. In 1980, the video game industry pulled in $2.8 billion in revenue, with virtually all of this coming from coin-ops. But by 1994, spending was neck-and-neck between home consoles and coin-ops. Shortly thereafter, the 32-bit era of gaming, most notably the Sony PlayStation, arrived, and the writing was on the wall. Why would you trek to a grimy arcade to spend a quarter for a few minutes of gaming action when you could sit on your couch at home and get a not-all-that-different experience for one fixed price?
By giving you a dose of nostalgia, a conversation piece for your living room, and not requiring you to leave you to head to the mall (the what?!), Arcade1Up has managed to update the arcade experience for the 2020s. Some of the company’s games, like NBA Jam, even offer online play, which would have been almost unfeasibly awful in 1993.
So what does 2021 have in store? At E3, where Arcade1Up was featured among Digital Trends’s Best Tech list, the company announced a 30th anniversary edition of Konami’s classic The Simpsons game, a 1991 side-scrolling brawler in which players could play as Homer, Marge, Bart, or Lisa as they scrapped through Springfield to rescue a kidnapped Maggie. Bachrach calls it “arguably one of the best arcade machines ever made.”
There’s also a “Big Blue” Street Fighter II arcade, containing not just the game-changing Street Fighter 2: Championship Edition, but a cavalcade of updates including (but not limited to) Street Fighter II Hyper Fighting, Street Fighter II Turbo, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. “If you’re a Street Fighter fan, ‘Big Blue’ is your machine, right?” said Bachrach.
Then there’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time and — somewhat revealingly — a Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga unit referred to as the “Class of ’81 Arcade Machine.” (Bachrach swears up and down this isn’t a reference to his 13-year-old arcade-playing heyday, but who could blame him if it was?)
But perhaps the most intriguing new offering is Arcade1Up’s Infinity Gaming Table, a digital gaming table that includes Hasbro’s Monopoly, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, Chutes and Ladders, assorted card games, and more. “That is, to me, one of the most exciting new products that we’re introducing [because it’s for a] completely new demographic of people,” Bachrach said.
He’s not kidding. While the Infinity Gaming Table may not tap the nostalgia keg in quite the same way that, say, Mortal Kombat II does, it builds on the same DNA that makes the company’s other products so successful: a mix of quality craftsmanship and well-known titles. The difference, as the Arcade1Up boss notes, is that this potentially has even more universal appeal — beyond the core audience of thirty to fifty-somethings who currently make up the bulk of its audience, and into full-on, all-ages family fare.
Having grown from a few prototype units to 2 million sales, and a staff of eight to more than 80 in just a few years, Arcade1Up is riding high. Whether its trajectory continues, or sputters out like the retro arcades it is based on, remains to be seen. For now, though, it’s a company that’s seemingly making all the right moves. Insert coins to play, indeed!
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