NBN-tendo: Night at the Musée Mécanique

    NBN-Tendo is a weekly column that explores interactive entertainment, industry trends, the latest news and the cultural impact of the video game. This week, we're taking a look at fighting games, the people who play them, and thoughts on the revival of the industry.

    As the medium continues to die out, arcade games like these will only be seen in museums. Photo by Wilhelm Joys Andersen on Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under Creative Commons.

    This summer while vacationing in San Francisco, I came across a wonderful little time machine called the Musée Mécanique. Located in Fisherman’s Wharf, the museum houses hundreds of mechanical toys and attractions, some more than 100 years old. However, in between the gypsy fortune tellers, player pianos and western dioramas are some more recent mechanical attractions. The museum also features arcade video games from classics like Ms. PAC-MAN to a light-gun game based on 2009’s Terminator Salvation. While it was fascinating to see the history of the coin-op attractions that would later become current video games laid in front of my eyes, I also thought "Is this all arcades are now? Fossils to be admired from afar?“

    "I think the only future is in maintaining these relics for those who come in to visit,” says Dan Zelinsky, who has been running the museum ever since its original operator, his father Ed Zelinsky, passed away several years ago.

    Zelinsky recalled how the games his father had been collecting since the 1920s filled the basement of his childhood home. And while the collection was initially compromised of older fare, arcade video games were added as soon as they started being released.

    “Anything new and fun to play with was what we wanted to add to the collection,” Zelinsky says.

    However, with consoles, smartphones, and computers as ubiquitous as they are now, few reasons remain for public gaming venues like arcades to stay around.

    Zelinsky agrees that their only future is in places like the Musée Mécanique. “I don’t think the industry is offering any sustainability for us to maintain our existence. The industry just doesn’t exist.”

    Zelinsky may be right that arcades themselves are on their last leg, but their influence lives on in modern gaming. Many classic franchises like Donkey Kong and developers like Capcom have strong, traceable arcade roots. For some, games like Space Invaders and Missile Command are still the definitions of what video games are. Lots of indie and mobile games too use classic arcade concepts as foundations from which to present new gameplay ideas. Aside from having less pixelated graphics, Angry Birds is nothing but an arcade, score-attack game. Plus, old arcade and pinball games are frequently seeing new life as cheap downloads for current consoles. And if the documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is any indication, there is still a thriving, tight-knit subculture of arcade gaming enthusiasts, albeit a subculture that’s a tad cutthroat and strange.

    Still, it is kind of depressing to think that if I ever wanted to show my little cousins, let alone my future children, what video games used to be like not all that long ago, I’ll have to take them to this museum with cool yet antiquated exhibits like a steam-powered motorcycle and a love tester. As the medium matures the price we pay is leaving a bit of its past behind. At least there are people like Zelinsky who preserve that past.

    It’s a big job but he’s not complaining. “I’ve worked here all of my life, and I’m having a good time still.”


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