In June 2017, Tastemakers CEO Scott Bachrach was at a meeting where he talked about a gap in the ever-expanding retro games market. In particular, there was no cheap and easy middle ground for a generation of classic arcade fans who wanted an authentic cabinet in their home.
“We looked and said there are ‘less than $100’ solutions, [but they] don’t really feel like a real arcade,” Bachrach began in a recent phone interview with Ars. “There are $3,000 solutions that feel like a real arcade, but they’re $3,000 and £300. How do we make something affordable to the masses, but gives you the same play as a real arcade?”
From that meeting, the Arcade1Up line was born. In early 2018, Tastemakers launched a series of 3/4 scale replica arcade cabinets, each with a handful of emulated games and priced from $300 to $400. The first batch focused on Bachrach’s personal wheelhouse: 1970s classics and 80 from companies like Namco (Pac-Man† Galaga), Halfway through (rampage, defender), and Atari (asteroids† Storm† But soon the line expanded in the 90s with Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombatthemed machines, a movement Bachrach called a “natural progression.”
“We looked and said, ‘What are the best-selling arcade games?'” Bachrach said. “Who had them? When did they come out? What audience did they go to?” And [we] made a strategic line on each of them.”
The early days of the Arcade1Up line encompassed a great deal of quality control challenges, as Bachrach is willing to acknowledge. The first stickers on the control panel quickly faded with basic use, and general questions about build quality and low-grade LCD screens regularly popped up online.
While certain Walmart locations eventually marked those first-generation units down to just $75, Bachrach claims it wasn’t a sales or quality issue. “We can’t dictate what a retailer will sell their product for. What I can tell you is that a retailer only has so much space…if they’re selling 98% of their inventory and they want to get rid of the last 2%…so they have space can make for a new title, they’re looking at what they can do to get rid of everything right away.”
In any case, Bachrach said the days of Arcade1Up with low-quality parts are over. “We have responded to that [complaints]’, he told Ars, noting that improvements have been made between the Arcade1Up’s original asteroids release and the new TMNT machine. “We use better controllers, we use better switches, we use better buttons,” he said. “We put more packaging material inside [of the box]† We’ve really stepped up our game as the community tells us what they don’t like and the problems they’ve experienced.”
Bachrach was also proud of the stronger materials and a new type of trackball on Arcade1Up’s version of gold teea game that has to be able to take a beating thanks to enthusiastic trackball spinning.
Based on a review copy of his Marvel Superheroes cabinet, things have definitely improved since those early cabinets. The new screens have much better contrast, the wood of the case feels both heavier and sturdier, and the control panels are now covered in hard plastic to prevent wear. Assembly is still relatively easy (apart from some small screws holding the LCD screen), and everything survived the delivery intact (except for a small glue-like substance on the side). The Marvel Superheroes cabinet is also the first legitimate home version for the punisher arcade game since a limited Sega Genesis port, and it seems to emulate quite well on Arcade1Up’s board.
Given these improvements, have Arcade1Up’s early adopters essentially served as beta testers for an inferior product?
“It’s like this,” Bachrach said. “Is your [current iPhone] the first phone you’ve had?… Every time they came out with a new iPhone, they tried to do something to upgrade the past. Does this mean the first one wasn’t good? Absolutely not. It was great for what it was at the time. To perfect your production, you have to constantly improve, otherwise your consumer will leave. I think we’re following the same pattern.”
Aside from the build quality, Arcade1Up’s latest cabinet is released, which contains both Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Turtles in time, came with its own unique challenges. While the four-player cabinet designs of those games worked fine in a real arcade, the smaller scale of an Arcade1Up machine is already cramped, even for two-player games.
The solution? Keep the TMNT body to the usual Arcade 1Up scale, but expand the control panel. “If you look at the housing of the machine itself, it hasn’t really changed in height or width,” explains Bachrach. “What we did were the extensions around the control deck, and the deck is set up to fit four players.”
The Arcade1Up release of the turtles arcade games couldn’t have come at a better time for fans wanting to play the arcade titles at home. Yes, the 1989 original was made available in 2007 through console download services, and a Ubisoft Turtles in time remake hit in 2009. But both were removed from digital storefronts in 2011 when an expiring license agreement made them unavailable for legitimate home play (with some obscure exceptions).
save arcade TMNT out of the digital death zone took about a year fighting through a contractual quagmire, Bachrach said. Although the character license is currently under the Nickelodeon banner, Konami still owns the original game code (which is run by a licensed custom emulator for the cabinets, Bachrach said). Occasional materials such as the art on the side of the case also had to be properly licensed, causing further headaches and delays.
With a firm foothold in the US market, Arcade1Up is now heading to Japan and collaborating with Taito on a Civil time cabinet for that region. And Bachrach said Tastemakers is always looking for more games, regardless of location.
Does this mean the company could follow suit? TMNT featuring Konami’s other popular fighters like The Simpsons or X-Men† Bachrach paused for a few seconds when we asked him about it, then he replied, “Um, we agree they’re very popular cabinets.”
He laughed. So those games take place too? “Maybe,” he said with another laugh. “I can’t confirm or deny that.”
For this year, however, the focus is on TMNT† Star Warsand miracle† And this one TMNT units, which are exclusive to Walmart for now, will only be available in limited quantities, Bachrach warned. But he was quick to add that this doesn’t mean Tastemakers are deliberately creating a shortage to drive demand and create the next Tickle Me Elmo.
“We wanted to have it centralized and be able to promote it in the right way and [let] consumers know where to go,” he said. “Walmart will have it. And no, we couldn’t make more… There are only so many cabinets we can build at the level of quality we want to maintain and improve.”
So no conspiracy, except trying to… X-Men and/or Simpsons loose on the way.