Joysticks, trackballs and the appeal of old-school video games

A basement in Mount Rainier houses more than a dozen classic arcade games, from Ms. Pac-Man to Donkey Kong. Joe Brewer discusses his love for old-school consoles (John Kelly and Sandi Moynihan/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist August 14, 2013

Ms. Pac-Man never scared me the way Centipede did. There was something lovably cartoonish about her, a voracious yellow orb, happily chomping away at those little white dots.

Centipede, on the other hand, was like a nightmare: a lurid green insect sinuously slithering ever closer and metastasizing with every successful laser shot. Bugs! Everywhere, bugs!

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Recently I felt my pulse quickening as I spun a Centipede trackball for the first time in more than 30 years. Beeps, buzzes and little flourishes of manic music assaulted my ears. I could have been at a Putt-Putt or a Shakey’s, circa 1981. Instead, I was in Joe Brewer’s Mount Rainier basement, home to 20 old-school arcade games that Joe has lovingly restored, along with four cool pinball machines.

He calls it Brewer’s Arcade, and everything’s set up so you don’t need quarters to play. Which Joe doesn’t actually do that often.

“By the time I’m done restoring and fixing them, I might only turn them on four or five times during the year,” Joe said.


Joe Brewer, a 33-year-old from Mount Rainier who collects old arcade games. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

What Joe likes is the process of making these relics look brand-new. His obsession started in 2008, when he was driving through Hyattsville with his brother-in-law. They saw a decrepit Ms. Pac-Man game on the sidewalk in front of a Laundromat. It had entertained its last bored patron waiting for his clothes to dry. Broken, its owner was tossing it.

“I just kind of mentioned, ‘Hey, we should go back and grab that,’ ” Joe said. So they did.

The Laundromat owner was glad to be rid of it, warning Joe that it was full of roaches. (Bugs!)

After Joe got it home he set off a few roach bombs inside. Over the following weeks, he replaced the monitor and control panel, inspected the wiring, rebuilt the joystick, and repainted the wooden exterior in its distinctive blue, pink and yellow livery.

“I learned how to solder because of this hobby,” said Joe, whose day job is being a business license inspector for the city of Hyattsville. (He also plays guitar in a rock band.)

Since then Joe has added to his collection: Galaga, Pole Position, Centipede, Asteroids, Dig Dug, Robotron, Joust.

In 2011, Joe donated a pristine Space Invaders Deluxe machine to the International Video Game Hall of Fame in Ottumwa, Iowa. On Monday he was recognized for his “important contributions to video game culture.” A plaque was bestowed by Walter Day, the head of gaming clearinghouse Twin Galaxies, who was featured in that captivating 2007 documentary “The King of Kong.”

Joe’s house — well, his basement — has become a stop on Hyattsville’s annual Gateway Arts District tour.

“The Mount Rainier council said I should be part of it. They said, ‘You’re bringing historic pieces back to life.’ I said sure. . . . Obviously, it’s not the normal style of art.”

Well, Picasso may never have played Frogger, but the video arcade was certainly a hot spot of youth culture in the 1980s.

“It’s where you hung out, where you met your buddies,” Joe said. “I was a little too young for that. I was born in 1980, so I missed the real intense times, but I didn’t miss all of it.”

When Joe was growing up, his mom worked at a Texaco in Greenbelt, across from the Golden Dome arcade. She would give him a roll of quarters and send him on his way to find joy in a joystick.

Joe says his machines aren’t particularly valuable. He buys them for a couple hundred bucks on eBay and Craigslist, fixes them, and either keeps them or flips them. He said he’s ahead, moneywise.

Nowadays, you can play quite sophisticated video games — and even versions of the classics — on your phone. But that microscopic experience can only pale once you’ve bellied up to a big, honking console.

“It’s different standing in front of a machine that’s as big as you are,” Joe said. “When I was a kid, they really seemed larger than life. I think you get more out of it than you do sitting on your couch.”

It almost goes without saying that Joe’s wife, Stephanie, is understanding. I pointed out that their sons – Sam, 5, and Lucas, 2 – must think Dad is pretty cool.

“They’re both big fans of the arcade games, too,” Joe said. “They have no idea what Xbox is, or PlayStation or Wii. And I’m trying to keep it that way as long as possible.”

For previous columns and a video tour of Joe’s basement, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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