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A One-Man '80s Arcade Revival

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.

These days, he buys the games. The average machine costs him about $500, he estimates, though he could pay a few times that figure if he weren't willing to do the restoration work himself.

To keep the collection safe, the arcade is rigged with a webcam, equipped with audio, so he can monitor it from afar. There's also an alarm, with moisture detectors concealed around the room in case there's a problem with the water heater.

There are a couple of things you may be wondering about Hirschberg by now.

First of all: Yes -- he has a sense of humor about all of this. "Psychotic" is his description for his hobby, which, he says, just went "exponentially out of control" at some point.

And second: Yes -- he is married, with kids, and his wife, Julie, is more than cool with his collecting.

Peter gave Julie a vintage Tempest machine for their first anniversary, and, she said in an e-mail this week, she still considers that to be the best present ever; her initials top the game's high-score list. She's even a fan of the idea that Peter build a separate building to house the collection, which has by now filled up their basement and taken over the kids' former playroom. The structure they have in mind could fit up to 100 games.

The Hirschberg children, meanwhile, will occasionally humor Dad by spending some time in the arcade, but they'd really just rather play Pokemon or Harry Potter on their Nintendo GameCube. Kids.

You could say Hirschberg misses the '80s, but that sort of misses the point. "People tell me I'm reliving my childhood," he said. "I never left; everybody else just moved on." Most new video games, he says, are too violent.

Hirschberg has never seen an episode of "American Idol" or "Survivor" and doesn't know what "The Sopranos" is about. Don't bring up the new "Battlestar Galactica" series with him; he doesn't want to hear about it. He didn't like the VH1 show "I Love the '80s" because it was too snarky; his affection for the era is, most emphatically, not ironic.

And, really, he loves only about half of the '80s, anyway. There is a stopping point in his collection that he is reluctant to cross. The golden age of the arcade came to an end, after all, and for him, the end was around 1984, when the arcades started to fill up with shooter and fighting games.

"After 1984, there was nothing that interested me," he said. "I kept going back, but the old ones were gone."

His next project is restoring a copy of I, Robot, a hard-to-find game designed by Dave Theurer -- the same guy who once upon a time wrote the programming for Missile Command and Tempest.

Theurer, in a phone interview yesterday, said he agrees with Hirschberg's take on when the golden era of games ended. "I enjoyed the puzzle and strategy games, not the beat-the-other-guy-down ones," he said. "When the kick-punch-type games came along, it sort of lost the thrill for me."

After the thrill was gone, Theurer eventually left the video game industry. He now works for Citrix Systems Inc., developing the user interface for the company's Web conferencing product.

The latest jewel in the Luna City Arcade is Tron, a tie-in with the 1982 Disney movie in which Jeff Bridges plays a programming and arcade-game-playing whiz who, basically, gets sucked into a computer game. And yes, it seems fitting that such a game would be in Hirschberg's collection.

Getting all the pieces for this job and putting them together was a six-year process; at some point, the Tron cabinet had been converted into another game, called Choplifter. Restoring the game to its original pizza-parlor glory involved buying pieces off eBay, replacing a joystick controller and even getting the game cabinet painted at an auto body shop.

My friend Luke and I ended up playing games at Hirschberg's place for about five hours. After a while, our wrists had to take a break. Over potato chips, Peter Hirschberg had a question for the world: If you know you like something, why move on? Why, for example, is disco everywhere one day and then universally ignored or even hated the next?

"I never understood that mentality," he said. "You love something -- then it's a pariah. For me, it's like: 'Wait, slow down. I still like that.' "

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