Posted August 7, 2014

A few weeks ago I checked out California Extreme with some new friends, a mostly retro arcade and pinball jamboree in Santa Clara, CA. Hundreds of games, set to free play, forty bucks — this should be their tagline. I had heard of this mythical event, and can now see why it draws such a huge crowd of West Coast oddballs. Having access to what feels like an infinite variety of arcade games nestled within a casually large hotel with a fully stocked bar down the hall and several hideaway pockets for other pharmaceutical shenanigans makes for two days of eye-blistering entertainment. The serious attendees book rooms and wear gloves, turning what for me was an extended Aladdin’s Castle redux into something more akin to Fear and Loathing in Vegas Vacation.

The first few hours I hopped from one machine to the next, sampling Atari prototypes, early ’60s pins and taking turns dying on Black Knight (which incidentally was always less busy than Black Knight 2000). Then lines started forming five deep; watching guys gather around Punch-Out!!, I returned to my fallbacks: Time Pilot, Tron, Robotron, Defender, Galaga ’88, Tempest. Look, Splatterhouse! The noise level, punched up from a back wall of sweaty DDR dramatics and a Street Fighter tournament, drowned out most games directly in front of you — “That’s Galactic Dancin’!

Next to a kids-friendly Pac-Man Battle Royale stood the one lone candy cab with a shmup no one knew. In classic game center tradition a few of us played one credit each, then watched others take their turns. The levels were long and dull and the game wasn’t so good. We’d die, stand up and get back in line. This became our end of the night beacon as we dutifully snaked through the cabs looking for that last unplayed game. Eight hours in and I was done, gorged on nostalgia. I returned to a row of cabarets, specifically a beautiful Robotron with buttery controls and a leaderboard I was starting to put my lowly scores on. After a few last runs the monitor went black while the audio continued. It smelled like burning and I went home.

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