Pac-Man is back: collecting vintage arcade games

Ready to take on Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and a Cherry Burst’s one-armed bandit again? Simon de Burton on the vintage games pushing collectors’ buttons

Kate Pierson of the B-52s plays Atari’s 1980 hit game Centipede
Kate Pierson of the B-52s plays Atari’s 1980 hit game Centipede

I don’t often have a bad day, but when I do, I head for one of my pinball machines,” says Richard Mille, founder of the eponymous watch brand, insatiable collector of automobiles and a keen fan of the challenging arcade game. “They offer a great way to calm the nerves,” he adds of the three examples in the “man cave” above which he stores his classic cars.

“I’m mad about mechanical objects and I love the design aesthetic,” adds Mille. “My favourite is a Corvette racing model. If you play the right shot, it makes the sound of a V8 engine and starts a drag race between two miniature Corvettes.” 

1978 Taito Space Invaders, £4,250. 1941 Bally Undersea Raider, £16,000, both from the Games Room Company
1978 Taito Space Invaders, £4,250. 1941 Bally Undersea Raider, £16,000, both from the Games Room Company

Pinball machines, slot machines and early electronic games have become increasingly sought after in recent years as buyers seek to relive the fun they had at fairgrounds and in amusement arcades. Two distinct types of collector have emerged: those who favour the electro-mechanical, analogue-display models made in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s; and fans of the solid-state digital machines that emerged in the early years of electronic gaming.

Alexander Walder-Smith, proprietor of the Games Room Company in Surrey, is especially passionate about pre-1970s examples. “My father set up the company in 1962 to supply arcade games to businesses,” he says. “As a result, he knew where all the interesting games were located, especially the American models at US Air Force bases.” Seeing a growing enthusiasm for retro games, Walder-Smith junior decided to flip the business focus to sourcing and renovating vintage models.

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Now the Games Room Company is the go-to source for vintage arcade games, from an art-deco Cherry Burst one-armed bandit by Chicago manufacturer Mills (£2,750) to a 1950s Ten Strike bowling-alley game with a cool Americana aesthetic (£18,500). Most are sourced in the US and restored by an in-house team of cabinetmakers, painters and engineers. 

Walder-Smith’s favourite recent find is a rare Baby Jay helicopter game in which the player controls a miniature helicopter sealed in an acrylic sphere. The piece, discovered in a dilapidated state at an Illinois trade show, is one of 20 such machines that were made to complement a full-sized version displayed at the 1964 World’s Fair. It is now fully restored (the dome alone needed 120 hours of hand polishing) and priced at £22,000.

c1937 Mills Cherry Burst one-armed bandit, £2,750 from the Games Room Company
c1937 Mills Cherry Burst one-armed bandit, £2,750 from the Games Room Company

Such mechanical marvels are, however, of less interest to a younger generation brought up with the first electronic games. Andy Beresford is among them, and so enjoyed playing Space Invaders, Asteroids and the like as a youth that he set up Home Leisure Direct 12 years ago to sell restored machines from his base near Bristol.

“I grew up visiting the arcades of Paignton and Torquay,” says Beresford. “For people in their 30s, 40s and 50s old arcade games take them back to their youth – but there’s also a fascination for the younger generation, which has discovered them through apps based on classics such as Pac‑Man, Frogger and Donkey Kong.

1982 Nintendo Donkey Kong Jr, £2,497, from Home Leisure Direct, and 1986 Sega OutRun, a rare find prized by collectors
1982 Nintendo Donkey Kong Jr, £2,497, from Home Leisure Direct, and 1986 Sega OutRun, a rare find prized by collectors

“The originals are difficult to find in the UK because many were thrown away when arcades moved on to more modern games,” he adds. “In America, however, many have survived. We have a team over there who find interesting examples that we import and renovate for home use. Many of our buyers like the fact that they are so much simpler and less time-consuming to play than today’s highly sophisticated games.”

At time of writing, Home Leisure is offering a Defender arcade game for £3,297, Frogger for £2,297, Tempest for £3,797 and Donkey Kong Jr at £2,497. Occasionally, the firm also offers rarities such as OutRun, Paperboy and Robotron: 2084, which can cost £5,000 apiece.

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The wave of 1980s nostalgia sparked by TV hits such as Stranger Things – the Hawkins arcade featured ’80s classics Dragon’s Lair, Galaga and Dig Dug – is buoying the market too. As is, says California-based dealer Gene Lewin – who set up Vintage Arcade Superstore in 1995 – the increasing number of arcade bars. 

The trend was kickstarted in 2004 when four friends opened Barcade, a Brooklyn bar filled with vintage arcade machines, inspired by now-CEO Paul Kermizian’s loft full of 1980s finds. “I started collecting them in 2001, probably for nostalgic reasons, and had about 40 games by the time we opened the first Barcade,” says Kermizian, who oversees eight bars across the US, with a ninth opening in Detroit later this year. “We’d buy them from collectors and on eBay. We still do.” Kermizian still has 15 games at home, with his favourite being his first ever purchase: 1983 release Mappy by Namco, the Japanese creator of Pac-Man

“Collectability of retro arcade games has never been higher,” says Lewin. “In the past three years gaming bars have really taken off, upping demand for everything from more common Space Invaders and Pac-Man units to rarities such as Atari’s Major Havoc from 1983, a good-condition example of which can command $10,000.” The most covetable game Lewin currently has on his books is an Atari Pong from 1972 ($9,995). The first successful arcade video game, it is featured in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian, adding cultural significance to retro cool – and resulting in a new high score.

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