A One-Man '80s Arcade Revival

Peter Hirschberg of Linden, Va., never made the leap with the video game industry to violent, complicated games. He's accumulated dozens of early '80s arcade classics in his basement.
Peter Hirschberg of Linden, Va., never made the leap with the video game industry to violent, complicated games. He's accumulated dozens of early '80s arcade classics in his basement. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)
By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, June 22, 2006

Peter Hirschberg caught Pac-Man fever a couple of decades ago and never fully recovered.

He also caught fevers related to Dig Dug, Asteroids, Frogger, Defender, Q-Bert -- and just about every quarter-eating game that used to occupy the afternoons of his childhood in the early '80s, the golden age of the arcade.

It's not unusual for aging Gen-Xers to work through some nostalgia for the old days by playing the occasional round of Pac-Man on their cellphone or Joust on the Xbox 360. The retro stuff has never really gone away; it just gets periodically repackaged on new gadgets or products such as the Atari Flashback, a game console designed to look like and to play games from the old Atari 2600.

But for Hirschberg, 40, who says he spent most of his childhood in arcades, that sort of experience isn't enough. No game-console controller could ever match the sensation of rolling that Missile Command trackball, for example. And that's why he's got an original copy of that Reagan-era arcade hit, along with a few dozen other vintage arcade games, fully restored and renovated and lined up in the meticulously maintained collection in his basement, which he calls Luna City Arcade.

"In my opinion, this is the arcade that should still be around," he said.

My friend Luke and I cruised out to Hirschberg's Linden, Va., home Friday to check out the collection and, dang, but the old games are still fun. By today's standards, of course, they are laughably simple: Where are the storylines, the Hollywood star voiceovers, the hip-hop soundtracks? And what, exactly, is that Dig Dug guy all about?

It's hard to believe that the video game industry, at one time, exclusively put out simple but fun games that didn't require long tutorials. And it's just as hard to believe that this whole collection of games could fit, these days, on a card that could slide into a cellphone or personal digital assistant. There's something elemental about these old games, produced in that cultural window between the pinball era and the advent of Grand Theft Auto, that's as timeless as a Chuck Berry song or an episode of the original "Star Trek."

Luna City Arcade is decorated with arcade-related board games, magazine covers and other such paraphernalia of the era. The arcade's carpet, in one room, glows with a sci-fi pattern of moons and stars, illuminated by overhead black lights. The soundtrack, behind the blips and pings of games including Joust and Q-Bert, is Hirschberg's Internet radio station, Retro Arcade Radio, which plays songs about video games as well as old-school Atari commercials.

Hirschberg says he was never the guy who made the high scores; he just loved the arcades. Sometimes he'll buy a game he doesn't even care for, just because it beeps out a certain soundtrack that he associates with '80s arcades.

The obsession reaches deep into the bonus levels: There's a store space in Winchester, Va., that Hirschberg fantasizes about buying. It was an arcade a long time ago, and Hirschberg would like to put the games back exactly where they once were. He would not open it to the public.

"I'm overly sentimental, in case you haven't noticed," he said.

The collection comes from all over -- some parts come from eBay, classified ads or online stores geared toward arcade-game collecting. For a while, Hirschberg worked for a local dealer, Coin-Op Warehouse, every Saturday; his only payment came in the form of the occasional classic game.

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