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James Matson fills his pockets with quarters and embarks on an epic journey across the United States in search of amazing video arcade experiences.  He returns with empty pockets…

If political pundits and military analysts are to be believed, the United States of America is a superpower that’s starting to seem a little less ‘super’. The land of high fructose corn syrup and an extra-dimensional retail tax system is a hegemon many argue is in gradual decline and has been for some time.

For lovers of arcade games however, the USA is still considered an unmitigated powerhouse and – alongside Japan – a true definition of gaming Nirvana. Few other places in the world offer an array of arcade cabinets from the 1970s, 80s and 90s in working condition and populating video arcades around the country.

Australia has a fantastic community of retro gamers (just ask us! -Ed) and privately owned arcade machines (sourced locally or freighted here at great expense) but as far as video arcades are concerned, the landscape has sadly fallen away to the odd Timezone or ‘here now, gone tomorrow’ barcade, a far cry from the USA which has not only some amazing arcades, but ones populated with the great machines of our time.

So what can a responsible, community leading retro gaming website like Retro Domination do about this troubling state of disparity between the US and Australian retro arcade experience? Well we did crunch the numbers on having an RD funded mass purchase of old arcade cabs from the US and shipping them to Australia to distribute among our fans, but short of selling Tim, Suz, Daz, Mark, James and Matt’s kidneys on the black market, we simply didn’t have enough cash for the endeavour.

(We also discovered that Daz had in fact already sold a kidney in return for his Raiden II cab)

Pinball Hall of Fame

The next idea in line was that if we can’t bring the machines to you, we’d bring you a cracking report on three of the most unique and retro-packed video arcades in the USA, so that’s just what we did. A long haul flight and a probing security check later, we’d hit the first location on our journey – the Pinball Hall of Fame in that most sinful of cities, Las Vegas.

On the outside, the Pinball Hall of Fame (PHOF) is to architecture what McDonalds is to fine cuisine. A great big brick slab a few kilometres from the Vegas strip, the building has little signage, fanfare or even windows on the outside to indicate the beauty within. Fortunately, exteriors aren’t what an arcade is all about, it’s what’s inside that counts.

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And boy, does it count here.  PHOF is stacked with rows and rows of some of the best, oldest and most unique pinball machines and arcade cabs around. Neatly lined up along the floor space, the 150+ pinball machines versus only 50 or so arcade cabs clearly shows where the owners’ hearts are. Here is a haven for those who find a thrill in shooting small metal balls through chaotic landscapes of lights and pressure plates.

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From a pinball perspective, there’s something here for everyone. The PHOF is as much museum as it is arcade, so houses some fantastic examples of pinball from the 1950s, 60s and 70s (yes, that’s right – 50s!) from manufacturers like Gottlieb, Bally and Midway.  These older ‘woodrail’ machines are in a playable state, and for 2 quarters you can test your skills on Flip-a-Card, Op-Pop-Pop and Fireball among others.

For the modern enthusiast there are 90s greats like Terminator 2, Star Trek: The Next Generation and even one of only two known prototypes of a vertical pinball machine ‘The Pinball Circus’.  Our favorite pick of the 90s? The Gottlieb Street Fighter 2. There’s nothing like mixing pinball with the rallying cry of a Dragon Punch.

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If you need an arcade fix, PHOF still delivers in style. We invested some serious time playing Tron, Donkey Kong, Battlezone, Space Invaders and Missile Command – all original cabs and all in stellar condition. There are even some serious golden oldies on the floor, mechanical beasts like Arctic Gun (a 1968 shooting game by Williams which features an actual Remington 514 rifle modified for use on the cabinet)

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The crowning achievement of the PHOF however, is not its pinball machines nor arcade cabs, but its business model.

In short, there isn’t one.

PHOF is completely non-profit, and takes the earnings from the quarters sunk into its games and uses them for either upkeep and maintenance, or donation to charities such as the Salvation Army.  This fact alone adds a sort of selfless ‘goodness’ to the atmosphere of the place. You’re playing some of histories great games and you’re not doing it to make someone rich, but rather to keep these machines in order for the next person to play, or to help those less fortunate than yourself.  It’s a noble aim that juxtaposes perfectly the surrounding Las Vegas landscape and its one slot machine for every six residents.  Candy and drink machines are interspersed throughout the hall to help the revenue flow in, but other than that, it is wall to wall gaming.

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If we had one criticism about PHOF, it was the lack of staff on site. While we were there we didn’t spot a single employee, it would have been great to stop and chew the retro fat a little with someone who obviously has such a passion for the industry.

If you’re in Vegas then don’t restrict yourself to the strip – grab a bus or cab out to the Pinball Hall of Fame and bring a pocket full of quarters because if you’re anything like us, you’ll be staying a while.

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Musee Mecanique

After living it large and glamorous in Vegas, we traded it for the most sedate pace of San Francisco’s European styling’s and waterfront living. It was here – along Fisherman’s Wharf – that we were fortunate enough to visit the enigmatic and thoroughly impressive Musee Mecanique (MechanicalMuseum).

Located at Pier 45, Musee Mecanique is owned and operated by Edward Zelinsky, a devoted collector of vintage games and toys who can often be found wandering around his own arcade (on roller-skates no less) ensuring that visitors aren’t troubled by stuck quarters, or scratching their heads about how to play or use one of his vintage games, and they are oh so vintage. Hell, the machines at Musee Mecanique go beyond vintage, beyond cocktail cabs and pinnies, and into the realm of true antiques.

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There are arcade and pinball machines, make no mistake. You can save the galaxy on an absolutely mint condition vector-based upright Star Wars, or test your twitch reflexes on Sprint 2 by Atari. Hell, there’s even an original Pong machine there, fully operational and ready to bring you spiritually closer to Alan Alcorn.  Mixed in with these fan favourites are Neo Geo cabs with their multi-title goodness and more recent 3D motorbike and car racing games.

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But these are just the sprinkles on top of a vintage fairy bread of awesome. They’re not the drawcard. That comes in the form of carnival and gaming machines created before any of us were even conceived. You see, the Musee Mecanique is home to entertainment wonders that predate the dawn of video games as we know them.  Such marvels as the Cail-O-Scope, a coin operated and hand cranked animated picture machine invented in 1904. Put your money in, start cranking and you’ll be treated to what can be considered one of the earliest forms of animated entertainment as still pictures are flicked through at a speed which creates the illusion of animation.

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Mechanical Dioramas from the turn of the century – lovingly restored – amaze and delight as they re-create scenes from the early 20th century such as ballroom dances.  Fortune Telling machines from the famous ‘Zoltar’ to the 1930s era ‘Gypsy’ are just waiting for you to sacrifice some quarters to get a neat little cardboard fortune filled with vague nonsense and positivity.  Wind up music boxes, 100% mechanical driving games and skill testers from so many decades ago all combine to take you on an unbelievable journey through the birth of machines as entertainment, rather than simply tools.

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The carnival atmosphere at Musee Mecanique – one enhanced by the owner/operator flying around the place on roller-skates helping folks out – is something you’re unlikely to see created anywhere else.  The arcade cabs and other post 1980s stuff are neat to see (particularly Star Wars) but the antique pieces truly steal the show. A must see in San Fran for any retro lover who wants not only to play some great pinnies and cabs, but also to get a glimpse into entertainment before the digital age was even conceived.

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Galloping Ghost Arcade

With our hearts full of nostalgia and our hands full of meaningless fortune teller cards, we made the long trek from California to Chicago, Illinios and to what can only be described as the most amazing arcade experience to be had. Ever.

After a taxi ride out of Chicago downtown to the more suburban area of Brookefield, we came across the unassuming exterior of Galloping Ghost arcade.  Like the Pinball Hall of Fame, Galloping Ghost isn’t much to look at from the outside, just another brick building in a street full of brick buildings, but once you step inside you’re hit in the face with an overpowering reality.

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You’ve just crossed the threshold into greatness, and the biggest damn retro video arcade you’ve likely ever seen.

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Boasting over 400 machines, Galloping Ghost is a sheer delight just to walk around. We spent time just wandering from aisle to aisle, room to room, and were graced with the sounds and sights of some absolutely fantastic cabs, including Star Wars, Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Bubble Bobble, Choplifter, Dig Dug, Double Dragon, Galaxian, Galaga, Frogger, Golden Axe – the list goes on! There are sections of fighting games, shooting games, flight games (think After Burner) and sit-down driving cabs.

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A visit to Galloping Ghost is overwhelming in the best possible way. You have to surrender yourself to the almost constant feeling of surprise and excitement.

No sooner have you stumbled upon a Ghosts & Goblins cab than you’ve spotted Mortal Kombat out of the corner of your eye. Rushing over, you realise that MK is flanked by MK2, 3 and 4! You suddenly have no idea what you want to play first. Turning around to gather your thoughts for a moment, you realise you’re standing a few feet away from an R-Type cab. And they’re all originals. Original artwork, original glorious boards and screens.  Galloping Ghost is a true feast for the senses, and you’d struggle to find a machine of your dreams that they don’t have, up and running and ready for game play.

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The cost? Well, rather than having to sink quarters into machine after machine, you pay a $15 entry charge for the day and every machine is set on free play. That’s right, $15 and you can send yourself completely loopy playing as many games as you want as often as you want.  Does it get any better than that? Well, actually it does. You see, the games may be a star of the show, but so too are the staff.

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We got greeted by Gerry Cantu – owner of Galloping Ghost – and his passion was immediately infectious. From behind a small bar area serving all kinds of corn syrupy treats, soft drinks and gaming merchandise for visitors to Galloping Ghost, Gerry talked at length about his love for locating and restoring these arcade greats. He was all too willing to take us through some of the personal stories of his arcade machine pickups, and even opened up an extra building next door – housing their pinball area – so we could take a bit of a look.

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Gerry is the driving force behind a mandate for Galloping Ghost – to become the premiere arcade in the USA not just in size and range of machines, but in branding as well. While ‘Funspot’ arcade in New Hampshire is a household name for many people who are only peripherally associated with retro gaming at all thanks to the Donkey Kong/Wiebe/Mitchell/Twin Galaxies phenomenon, Gerry is looking for the same recognition for Galloping Ghost, and with the array of machines on offer and the gaming love that literally radiates from the walls, we have little doubt he’s going to get there.

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And with that, we wrap up our epic trek from one side of the USA to the other. With thumbs sore from joystick waggling and pockets that feel substantially lighter thanks to an absence of quarters, we’ve laid bare some of the greatest vintage gaming institutions America has to offer. So, when you’re looking for your next trip abroad and have that itch that only pinnies and arcade games can scratch, don’t forget to look up the Pinball Hall of Fame, Musee Mecanique and Galloping Ghost.

You won’t be disappointed.