A boxed Barbie doll balances on each step of the stairs just inside the Long Island, N.Y., home of Mike Ghiraldi and Joanne Schultz. Stacked against the wall of an adjoining room are about 15 small boxes, each containing the scale model of a race car, an extension of Ghiraldi's drag racing hobby.
Besides the Barbies, Schultz also has an assortment of snow globes. And each holiday season she puts out her collection of dozens of miniature ceramic villagers and their tiny homes, creating a wintry setting in the couple's dining room. The usual joke, Ghiraldi says, is that the set-up "looks like an elf exploded."
If that's the case, then their living room looks like Pac-Man popped.
Classic arcade video games -- those refrigerator-sized quarter-hoarders that beeped, blipped and blasted onto the scene in the 1970s -- ring the room and form an island in the center. There are 16 video games in the room, from Asteroids to Zaxxon (with a few pinball machines thrown into the mix). Whether you prefer big bugs or Dig Dug, Darth Vader or Space Invaders, Ghiraldi's got it covered. There are so many video games, the only things missing from the mega-mall experience are the cardboard-like pizza and a change machine.
They may seem more appropriate as props from "That '80s Show," but these castoffs from an erstwhile electronic era are finding new lives in collectors' homes. Sure, the Sony PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Gamecube have more power, flashier graphics and grab more headlines, but a hulking 6-foot Frogger machine offers what those other systems don't: the kind of nostalgia you can get your arms around, not to mention an entertaining way to liven up a room.
Doug Stoffa always envied the arcade games Ricky Schroder's character had in his house on the '80s sitcom "Silver Spoons"; now he has his own machines. Ian Murray manages to squeeze two machines into a bedroom already crowded with current video-game technology. And Natt Chomsky keeps a half-dozen arcade video games in his basement.
For Ghiraldi, 31, the games take him back to his childhood in Franklin Square, N.Y., and weekends with his family at the bowling alley. The alley's arcade room usually sported three to five games, but Ghiraldi couldn't get enough of Donkey Kong Junior. He sacrificed countless quarters trying to help the small ape rescue his father from Mario the plumber until one day the game was replaced with Joust. Ghiraldi hated Joust. But because each game evoked such strong emotions, both titles are part of his collection (he even learned to like Joust).
Among friends his age, talk of arcade games always strikes a chord, Ghiraldi says. So it was no surprise to Ghiraldi that when he had 70 people over for a party last summer, 40 were outside while 30 were in the game room, where Ghiraldi keeps all his games on free play.
The inventor of what is widely considered the first video game also had others in mind. In 1958, Brookhaven National Laboratory physicist Willy Higinbotham rigged an oscilloscope so that the public could play a tennis-like game on the 5-inch screen during visitors day at the Long Island lab. Although Higinbotham, who died in 1994 at the age of 84, never earned a cent from his effort, many video game historians consider this the industry's Big Bang.
In 1971, Nolan Bushnell -- inspired by a game called Spacewar!, which was designed nearly a decade earlier for play on a giant mainframe computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- programmed a machine so that it worked on a television set, creating the first arcade video game. He called it Computer Space, and though 1,500 were made, it never caught on. The next year, Bushnell formed Atari, which produced Pong, a tennis-like game that didn't require an oscilloscope to play. It was the genre's first hit.
Arcade games enjoyed their heyday in the late '70s and early '80s, until machines such as the Atari 2600 and Intellivision brought the video game experience to people's living rooms.
Now the classic coin-operated contraptions are collectors' items, chiefly because those who were most fond of them grew up, got jobs and starting making enough money to buy them for themselves, says Tim Ferrante, editor and publisher of Keyport, N.J.-based GameRoom Magazine, a trade publication dedicated to all types of arcade games. The cost of games varies widely: Fully restored models can cost thousands of dollars, while some collectors have paid less than $100 for games that need major repairs.
Ferrante says he first noticed the collecting trend in 1996, when newsgroups and auction sites helped collectors dig up Dig Dug and bag Galaga for their homes. The Web site of the Video Arcade Preservation Society, a list of arcade video game collectors that began around 1990, claims almost 1,500 members worldwide.
Ghiraldi got into the hobby five or six years ago when he began playing with two games Schultz happened to own. Typically, he and others buy games at auctions, from other collectors or through vendors who are looking to unload older machines.
A few years ago one of the games broke down, so he called a repairman, who promised that it'd take only a week or two to fix. He got the game back three months later, with a Donkey Kong-sized bill to boot.
So Ghiraldi, who sells car racing engines, vowed to learn how to fix them himself, and he admits he enjoys restoring and rebuilding machines more than playing them. By that logic, his real arcade is his garage, where there are half a dozen games in stages of restoration.
Searching for an obscure part for Missile Command or Sea Wolf used to mean calling around to arcade video game machine vendors, an often tedious process. Now the Internet gives collectors an easy way to find "that stupid little part that you need that you just can't find," he says.
Repair manuals for many games can also be found online, offered by collectors who scan in the original guides. This network of collectors helps Ghiraldi keep down his costs; instead of buying parts, he trades for them.
In fact, the first arcade game that Natt Chomsky of Westhampton Beach, N.Y., bought was a Centipede that Ghiraldi restored in 1999. Chomsky's basement houses about 20 machines, including a half-dozen arcade video games. Although his first love is pinball, he added classic video games and penny arcade games to his collection to make his game room more "well-rounded," he says.
Chomsky, 48, started collecting two decades ago. When he got an apartment in New York City, the games went into storage, emerging only when he and his wife, Ilona, found the house in Westhampton Beach (he splits time between both residences).
Stoffa, 30, remembers how he envied the games Schroder's "Silver Spoons" character had at home. Stoffa had to play at a local pizza joint, where he'd get his fix of Sinistar.
Six or seven years ago, when Stoffa was a graduate student at Cooper Union in Manhattan, one of his fraternity brothers introduced him to collecting arcade video games. The friend asked Stoffa if there was any game he'd want, and Stoffa told him about Sinistar.
A short time later, the friend was at his uncle's house in Connecticut, where a nearby mom-and-pop arcade was going out of business. The place happened to have Sinistar -- for $40, no less -- so Stoffa had his friend buy it. It collected dust in the uncle's garage for three years until the friend said he was moving some stuff to Brooklyn and offered to take the Sinistar with him.
He didn't realize how much he had missed it. "I didn't see one in 12 years, but once I had it and had it in my house and (started) playing it, it was a whole different ball game. I was plunking quarters in it like mad." Of course, he has the lockbox key.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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