For years, retro gaming primarily lurked in the game world’s seedy underbelly. Although some dedicated advocates of classic titles sought out original hardware, most players did not. After all, it was far easier to launch a videogame ROM or disk image on a PC, hacked handheld or smartphone than battle with increasingly rare, failure-prone consoles and computers of old.
There had been attempts at official retro products, but 2016’s NES Mini (or to use its full name, the Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System) was the first to fully capture the public’s imagination. With this tiny console, you no longer played games you had no rights to, on systems they weren’t designed for.
Nintendo instead offered authenticity by way of familiar controllers and officially licensed games housed inside a plastic shell that was the spit of an actual NES — albeit one that looked like it had gone through a hot wash.
The success of Nintendo’s diminutive gadget led to a flurry of copycats, from a tiny Commodore 64 to a miniaturised Sony PlayStation. Some were good; many were flawed, with the play experience only being surface deep. Fortunately, some companies wanted to go further than fashioning yet another miniature plug-and-play TV console.
One, the ZX Spectrum Next, brought into being a machine from an alternate universe in which Sinclair was never sold to Amstrad and instead built a computer to take on the might of the Amiga and Atari ST.
Two other companies headed further back into gaming’s past and set themselves an equally ambitious challenge: recreating the exciting, noisy, visually arresting classic cabinets you once found in arcades. “I always saw them as more than just a game, with their unique shapes, art, sounds and lights acting together to lure money from your pocket,” explains Matt Precious, managing partner at Quarter Arcades creators Numskull Designs. “I was disappointed you couldn’t purchase models of these machines during a time when physical items like LPs were booming in an increasingly sterile world of digital downloads.”
Quarter Arcades was subsequently born as a project “trying to capture a piece of gaming history” in quarter-scale cabinets. The machines are in exact scale, including the controls, and play the original arcade ROMs. But look closer and there’s an obsessive level of detail: the rough texture of the control panel art; mimicking an original cab’s acoustics by careful speaker positioning; recreating the Space Invaders ‘Pepper’s ghost’ illusion effect where graphics ‘float’ above an illuminated backdrop — all realised by dismantling and reverse-engineering original cabs.
“We are arcade history students, trying our best to capture the original machine’s soul in our products,” says New Wave Toys founder Shilo Prychak. New Wave’s RepliCade products follow a similar approach to Numskull’s, but at an even tinier 1:6 scale.
“Authenticity is our first priority and we achieve this by capturing as many layers of detail from the original machines as possible,” Prychak adds. He’s not kidding — the most recent RepliCade, Dragon’s Lair, is based on the iconic 1983 LaserDisc game, which featured Disney-style animation in place of raster or vector graphics. Suitably, it not only includes the original game’s cabinet art, control layout and secondary scoreboards, but also a replica LaserDisc player within a rear storage drawer, a replica LaserDisc to put inside it and an impossibly small replica remote.
These details are arguably peripheral and purely cosmetic, but they do showcase how these cabs are about capturing as much of the original experience as possible, rather than being a mere echo. As Numskull Designs creative director Karl Mizen puts it, these cabinets cannot “just be about playing retro games,” given that many popular old-school titles are readily available on a range of app stores and online marketplaces — to appeal and justify their existence, they must do more.
That said, without being able to play the games, these products would be ornaments. Plenty of effort therefore goes into making sure the play experience is solid. Mizen says there’s a misconception that the Quarter Arcades name came first and everything else followed; but the 1:4 scale was for his team a sweet spot, balancing aesthetics and playability: “The machines look impressive on display. The artwork’s big enough for you to appreciate all the details. But also, the joysticks and buttons are large enough to handle comfortably, and our 5in screens provide a clear view of the games.” He says that had the cabinets not been playable at this size, they would have grown, to keep everything in scale.
At 1:6 scale, RepliCade units take more liberties with their controls — for example, Tempest’s rotary dial is much larger than it would be if being strictly accurate. But the company has invested a lot of time in optimising a much more varied range of controls, including Centipede’s tiny trackball, Street Fighter II’s microswitch joystick and buttons, and a leaf spring-style joystick in the upcoming 1942.
Dragon’s Lair also marks a departure in having an eye on wider gaming contexts. “We learned from our Kickstarter campaign that the community mostly wants to play using on-board controls and the built-in screen, but appreciates other options,” says Prychak. “So we added USB controller support and HDMI connectivity. We’ll add similar features to upcoming games when it makes sense, to maximise functionality and create more value for collectors.”
Purists might gripe about non-authentic USB and HDMI ports around the back of a replica cabinet, but recreating old games is about balance. Any compromises regarding authenticity are in service to improving things for players, which is for Prychak what really matters. “Nothing is more important to people than playing original machines with their original experiences,” he says. “So we’ll continue to evolve our products to bring back those vibes and create additional accessories, like our in-scale backlight-reactive arcade carpets and a replica change machine that provides USB power to the cabs.”
Mizen says that rather than focusing solely on the past, retro-gaming at its best can also inform the future. “A whole generation of gamers missed out on this age of videogames,” he says. “By recreating arcade cabinets in a faithful way, we like to think we’ve preserved these fantastic games in their entirety, for everyone to experience.”
More great stories from WIRED
💡 2020 has been bleak but these 32 innovators are building a better future for us all
💬 All the ways Microsoft Teams tracks you and how to stop it
👟 Step out of the city with our pick of the best trail running shoes
🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn