Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Arcades - The Scene ain't dead

Back in January 2013 a friend and I were discussing what would it take for arcades to be revived in the UK. 

We agreed there would need to be two fundamental differences from the arcades we remember. The first requirement was that the Coin-Op system has to go. I’d love to know how many pound coins I burnt through as a kid, constantly nagging my parents for another go on Time Crisis 2 and never making it past the first stage. The other requirement was the venue having a sense of community, a hangout spot in which patrons feel involved in the venue’s future. 

Little did I know that shortly afterwards The Heart of Gaming would open and surpass those expectations. It’s located in North Acton, half an hour’s tube ride from central London and 10 minutes to walk there. 

All the machines are set to free play: you pay a flat rate on the door and can game to your heart’s content, a different experience from the arcades of yesteryear. This obviously suits hardcore gamers down to the ground; there was a time I couldn’t tell a shoryuken from a shuriken, but now after some day long sessions and meeting people there I’m a pixelated murder machine. That’s one of the amazing things about The Heart of Gaming, there’s plenty of scope for people to chill out and meet other gamers: shared passions are a roundhouse kick to the face of social inhibition. The same is true of any hobby, but it’s pretty damn cool to know there’s a place where who or what I am doesn’t matter, who I am is how much ass I kick at Ikaruga.

Immediately upon entering the venue you’re greeted by the sight of 6 Versus City Arcade Cabs. These are the Japanese style, with the game’s video replicated on two back to back monitors, the players unable to see each other while sitting, which is a pretty rare set up in the UK. 

This is the arcade room, with Sega Naomi cabs lining the walls, House of the Dead, Fighting Mania, the racing game Daytona USA and a couple of custom retro cabs that cycle between the likes of Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, 1942 and Pacman. Time Crisis 2 has made an appearance too, so I can finally avenge my parent’s wallets. Many of these cabs were rescued from London’s dying arcade scene, places like the Trocadero and Casino Arcade after they closed their doors. For shooters, Naomi titles like Border Down and Shikigami no Shiro 2 hold sway. A great thing about this room is there’s usually some obscure game I’ve never heard of before, like Money Puzzle Exchanger or Xexex. Visitors don’t need to worry spending their money on an unfamiliar machine, as they’ve already paid to get in and can try the games for free. In fact I’d recommend trying everything you see.

Moving onward there’s two little rooms, the first of which is dedicated to a dance machine. After that is a lounge area packed with retro consoles: Super Nintendo, Sega Megadrive, N64 and Playstation with games you can get from the front desk. The last area the HoG has to offer is the console room. There’s roughly 20 flat-screens with as many consoles set up here set up here for PS3 and 360 Gamers as well as a Wii U and some couches to make up a chill space in the middle of the room. Little crowds of gamers are usually in here huddled around their platform of choice, usually doing rotation for a fighting game. The corner has a couple of desks and monitors ready to provide live streams of any tournaments the HoG is running online at These are usually a wild assortment of fighters but sometimes it’s a dance game.

Tournaments are a huge part of the HoG, the sense of involvement and reward you get from offline competition, whether friendly or for higher stakes is something that was lost in translation when multiplayer gaming shifted to online play. The venue’s roots are in the fighter scene and it’s through these tournaments that community involvement is fostered. There’s always a big turnout for Street Fighter and Tekken showdowns, but an arcade makes for a much needed break from gamerdom’s obsession with new.

As such, there are older games developing large competitive scenes, like Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and Super Smash Bros Melee; games which are over 10 years old. Upwards of 200 people have been known to turn up for Smash tourneys and the whole place is both transformed by that energy, and physically transformed when HoG staff set up loads of CRT displays to accommodate the demand for more smash setups.
A favourite of mine is seeing the Dance games community show up in force. They arrive equipped with towels, bottled water, crates of coke and order pizza in bulk once they’ve worked up an appetite. Those guys ‘n’ gals move their feet faster than I thought humanly possible and get unbelievable scores.

The HoG’s strength lies in its versatility. The front reception now doubles as a trade-in shop, offering fairer prices than you’ll see in high street stores, as well as some pretty rare finds. A Rock Band and projector setup appears in a spare corner from time to time, and there are plans to introduce PC setups and a bar.

The Heart of Gaming provides people who missed out on the golden age of arcades to experience a similar atmosphere, or for veterans looking for that nostalgia factor it’s a welcome throwback to the good old days. At the same time offering a base for modern game scenes to have their meets and tournaments is a way to remain in the present too. Places like these are timeless, I love the HoG and with enough support it should be here for a long time. 

HoG manz since day 1
By Ben “Blinge” Cataldo - guest reviewer and blogger for

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