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Heaven in His '80s Arcade

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, February 3, 2008

Well, he did it.

Last time I wrote about Peter Hirschberg, a guy with a passion for restoring vintage, '80s-era arcade games, he was toying with the notion of building a full-blown arcade next to his Linden home to store his growing collection.

And here it is. Finally, after a couple of years, a pile of money, and a struggle or two with contractors and local building regulations, Luna City Arcade is complete.

Missile Command, Space Invaders, Defender, Asteroids, Q*bert -- all the old pizza parlor favorites are here, chirping away with the same old sounds and waiting for a quarter. Luna City, as he calls it, is Hirschberg's personal time capsule: The walls of the 60- by 40-foot building are lined with posters for "Star Wars," "Tron" and "Battlestar Galactica" (the original series, not the recent remake). The collection is up to 65 games at the moment, and another three are on the way.

"This is what heaven looks like," said Hirschberg, as he welcomed a small group of my friends and me to his recent unofficial grand opening, where about 50 of his friends and co-workers, and their kids, showed up to play.

Collecting arcade machines isn't a huge hobbyist scene, as maintaining these big old systems can be labor intensive. Hirschberg, whose arcade is one of the biggest private collections in the country, sometimes has to cannibalize several different systems to get the right parts for additions. He's had the occasional machine burst into flames.

I made the trek out to Linden, Va., the other day with local board game designer Dominic Crapuchettes of North Star Games of Greenbelt. Crapuchettes, another child of the '80s, went out partly for the nostalgia. He grew up hitting the arcades regularly and remembers playing board games with his family every night instead of watching TV. He played Hirschberg's collection in chronological order, starting with Space Invaders, and racked up a fair number of high scores in the process.

With his latest board game, Crapuchettes is looking backward and forward at the same time: He is trying to fix something that annoyed him from that earlier era. He always hated the slow-moving game Trivial Pursuit, so he created a faster-moving trivia title called Wits & Wagers. It "was my attempt to make a version [of Trivial Pursuit] that I could stand," he said.

Now Wits & Wagers is making the leap from the old-world board game universe and getting digitized. North Star has sold the rights for a video game version of Wits & Wagers, to be shown off in New York at the American International Toy Fair next month.

Hirschberg works for AOL as his day job, but in his spare time designed the computer animation for a 2007 documentary about the old days of the arcade, called "Chasing Ghosts." Another unrelated documentary about arcades released last year, called "The King of Kong," followed an ongoing rivalry to hold the world's highest recorded score for Donkey Kong, the 1981 game that introduced Nintendo's Mario character to the world.

Those '80s classics that launched the video game era never really go away, they just get regularly re-released on whatever cellphone or game console is popular in a given year. Pac-Man is still a regular bestseller on cellphones and Atari 2600 games live on, most recently, in a collection for the PlayStation Portable that was released in December.

For Hirschberg, the arcade is a labor of love, not a business. There are change machines on either end of the arcade that freely spit out quarters at the touch of a button -- Hirschberg doesn't ask his guests to spend their own money to play. The arcade is illuminated with blacklights, all the better to light up the space-themed carpet. To complete the scene, his personal soundtrack of 1980-era rock tunes by Foreigner and Journey play on the stereo.

Luna City exists because Hirschberg had a dream when he was a kid that he would grow up to manage a video arcade. The classic mall arcade died out a decade or two ago, but the dream didn't. The average machine costs about $500, though that figure would be higher if he didn't do a lot of the restoration work himself.

By the way, please don't show up on Hirschberg's doorstep with a hankering for some Zaxxon, as this is a private collection and not open to the public. But, if you have a similar longing for the golden age of the arcade, look him up at his Web site, http://www.peterhirschberg.com, and drop him a line.

Last time I visited, Hirschberg's collection was shoehorned into a couple of basement rooms with 800 square feet of floor space. The new two-floor arcade building has 2,400 square feet to work with. It's the size of a house.

The original plan for the arcade was an even bigger building that would have a separate room for his pinball collection and a home entertainment theater. He'd also toyed with the idea of getting some space in a local mall to meticulously rebuild the same arcade he remembered from his childhood.

At the grand opening party for the new arcade, some guests showed they still have the skills. My friend Luke, listening to a private soundtrack of Rush tunes on his iPod, managed to get high scores that knocked Hirschberg off the number-one slot in Joust and Star Wars, among others.

Hirschberg still has a few more projects he wants to complete in the new arcade, though he's feeling a bit broke at the moment. He wants to build shelves to show of some game-related items in his collection. He wants to upgrade the stereo.

Fortunately, his wife, Julie, likes having an arcade, and it doesn't sound like she's anywhere near losing her patience with her husband's pet project. "It's just cool to have an arcade," she said. "When I was a kid, I'd go to the arcade every day -- it was the thing to do in the '80s."

As I talked to Hirschberg about his new arcade, in the dining area of his home next door, his kids took a break from playing Pong and swung back to the house to dig up some game controllers. They were tired of the '80s. They wanted to play some Wii.

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