The Video Game Critic's
Arcade Game Reviews

7 Nov 2004

The appeal may be lost on some people, but for many who grew up in the "golden age" of arcade games, owning a vintage video game arcade machine is the ultimate. These machines used to be everywhere in the early 80's: the mall, bowling alleys, the local 7-11, sub shops, and even many restaurants. Although I dropped my share of quarters into them, I also spent a lot of time watching other players. I always noticed and admired the machines' colorful marquees and distinct artwork.

Twenty years later, these refurbished machines are actually affordable to own and really add character to any club room or finished basement. Depending on their condition, these machines usually range from a few hundred bucks to $3000 for a Dragon's Lair. Most refurbished machines fall in the $1000-$2000 range, with shipping running an extra $250 or so. The games tend to weigh in at around 300 lbs, but their saucer-shaped metal feet make them easy to slide around. I was able to transport one of mine down a set of stairs with the help of just one friend. If you're in the market, I purchased two of mine from Quarter Arcade in Pennsylvania, which I highly recommend. All of their machines are in tip-top shape. Tell them the Video Game Critic sent you.

On this page I rate the three arcade games I own and share some of the experiences I've had with them. I've reviewed them in the order I've aquired them. Part of the reason I purchased these three is that they all have unconventional controls, which make them hard to duplicate on a console or computer.

Centipede (1980)

centipede centipede centipede
Gameplay: A+
Cabinet: B+

My first arcade machine was Centipede, an all-time favorite of many people. Although perfectly emulated versions are readily available via arcade game compilations or the Internet, no controller could ever substitute for that mini-track ball. It allows for both lightning fast movement and precision control, both vital for a "twich" game like this. Not only do you have to deal with a Centipede that splits when shot, but there's an unpredictable spider can pounce on you at any time. Depending on his proximity, the spider is worth 300, 600, or 900 points. Dive-bombing fleas aren't hard to shoot for 200 points, but there's little room for error. Since they tend to accelerate towards the bottom of the screen, one slightly-off shot could mean instant death. Then there's the scorpion - the biggest prize in the whole game. At 1000 points, you'd be a fool not to take a shot at him whenever he enters the screen. Another reason to kill him is because he poisons mushrooms, and centipedes that touch those tainted 'shrooms will make a bee-line for the bottom of the screen. Centipede is incredibly additive and like every aspect of the game is perfectly balanced and tuned. It's also exceptionally hard, and game sessions rarely last for more than a few minutes.

This is one arcade game that strongly appeals to women, perhaps because it was designed by a woman. My wife doesn't like video games in general, but Centipede won her over in a big way. She played it non-stop the first week we got it, and she still plays it a few times a week. Needless to say, she has owned the top three screens (each over 60K) for some time now. For the record, her top score is 81,357, and that's in HARD mode!

The Centipede cabinet is very attractive with a monstrous centipede looming on each side. The screen is situated vertically. The control panel has one mini trak-ball, one fire button (which can be held down for constant fire), and two player-select buttons. It's cool how the red player select buttons flash when you drop a quarter or two in. Since this is an older machine, changes to the options must be done via dip-switches accessible from the back door of the cabinet. These switches let you adjust the difficulty (normal and hard), bonuses (every 12000 points recommended), lives per game (3 recommended), and of course, cost per game. You can also set it up in "free play" mode so you never need to insert any quarters. Like most Atari arcade games, the three top scores are retained when the machine is powered off.

In my experience, this is a very reliable, well-constructed machine. Everybody seems to love it, so it's great for when you have people over.
Look for Centipede arcade game on eBay, Amazon, YouTube

Tapper (1983)

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Gameplay: C+
Cabinet: A

I got a great deal on this Tapper from a local guy who repairs arcade games for a living. What's really great about this machine is that it's one of the original Budweiser themed Tappers. In 1983, many parents made a stink about their kids playing a game with alcoholic beverages in it. As a result, Tapper machines were relegated to bars, and many were retro-fitted as "Root Beer Tapper" machines. Talk about lame! Being an ardent beer drinker myself, I feel grateful to have salvaged one of the original versions. The game stars a mustached bartender who must tend to four rows of bars. Patrons approach from the left of each bar, and you need to slide glasses of beer to them to keep them at bay. Empty glasses are slowly slid back to the bartender, who must catch them before they fall off the end of the bar. There's a lot of funny little animations, like patrons that belch when they finish their beer. The first stage takes place in a normal bar, the second takes place at an outdoor sporting event (with kegs!), the next takes place in punk rock bar, and the final stage is set in an intergalactic space bar. Your bartender zips from one bar to the next, and can also run down the length each bar to grab empty glasses and snag tips. The controls include a joystick and two realistic, Budweiser-labeled beer "taps" used to pour beers. Between normal stages there's a cool bonus stage that plays like a shell game with shaken beer cans. Tapper's gameplay is fun and original but it does have a few flaws. For one thing, the patrons tend to overlap with each other, making it hard to see how many there are. Next, you can milk the easy first stage for quite a while in order to inflate your score. The game can run pretty long if you're good at it. Finally, the last stage is so hard to reach that I've never even seen it, and the guy I bought the game from has only seen it once!

I enjoy playing Tapper, but my favorite aspect of this game is the cabinet. The fake-wood sides, old-fashioned arwork, brass foot rail, and drink holders make it look classy and unique. The marquee looks like it's made of stained glass. The back and bottom edges of this machine were ragged when I bought it, but I've since covered them with a brown trim, and now the machine looks brand new. Tapper doesn't have any play options, so you can't set it to free play or adjust the difficulty. In my experience, Tapper is not constructed as well as my Atari machine. It takes a few seconds to "warm up" when you turn it on, and the speakers sometimes make faint "pop" noises when in the attract mode.

Tapper is a game that's enjoyed by many of my beer drinking friends. While not as addictive as a game like Centipede, it has a lot of character and a terrific sense of humor. Since it's a real collector's items, it's easy for me to overlook its flaws.
Look for Tapper arcade game on eBay, Amazon, YouTube

Crystal Castles (1983)

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Gameplay: B-
Cabinet: A

Most people have never even heard of this game, but I was a big fan of Crystal Castles back in the early 80's. Although the gameplay is basically derived from Pac-Man, I have always found Crystal Castle's psuedo-3D graphics very appealing. Gameplay involves controlling a gay-looking bear named Bentley using a large trak-ball. Each stage is an elaborate, multi-tiered "castle" with many pathways and open areas covered with gems. There are even a few "elevators". You can't actually enter any of the structures, but sometimes they have doorways that transport you to a different part of the screen. I don't know how many unique stages there are, but I love the imaginative designs and attractive color combinations. Your enemies include gem-eating "standing" centipede-like creatures, walking trees, skeletons, balls, a swarm of bees, and a witch on a broom. Bentley can defeat the centipedes for big points if he catches them in the act of eating a gem. He can also leap over his pursuers, but this is a tricky maneuver best left for emergency situations. A magic hat will make you invincible for a few seconds, and grabbing a honey pot awards you with bonus points. Some stages contain secret portals that let you skip to advanced stages of the game. My only issue with the gameplay is that the "swarm" becomes too hard to avoid in the later stages, behaving like a heat-seeking missile.

Crystal Castles is fast and fun, but it takes a while to get used to the sensitive trak-ball control. In terms of graphics, the scenery is pure eye candy, but Atari should have came up with a more appealing main character. The harmonized music is well orchestrated but somewhat annoying. Crystal Castles has one of the most attractive cabinets I've ever seen. The color scheme and artwork is terrific, especially in the black front section. The speakers under the marquee are tilted out in an unusual manner, and they look very distinctive. Best of all, the red trak-ball actually glows! It's not noticeable when you're playing, but it's awesome for display purposes. There are two jump buttons, which also double as player select buttons.

Since Crystal Castles was a "second generation" Atari machine, it has a convenient option menu that appears on the screen when you hit a test switch. From here, you can set the coin value, difficulty, starting lives, and extra lives. You can even view a detailed "accounting" screen that lets you know how many games have been played and provides a break-down of the scores. There's a free-play mode, but it has an unwanted side effect. In the normal "attract" mode, the machine cycles through the instruction screen, high score screen, and game demo. However, in free play mode it just stays on a single static screen. This doesn't look good and could potentially lead to monitor burn-in if left on for days on end. For that reason I usually keep this game in "quarter" mode. Also, despite the fact that the game records the top 300 or so high scores, only the top three are saved when it's powered off! I was hoping it would have saved the whole bank.

Although I still think the game is fun, I haven't seen many other people take much of an interest in it. I'd only recommend this machine to fans of the game.
Look for Crystal Castles arcade game on eBay, Amazon, YouTube

Maintenance Tips

Despite being somewhat expensive and taking up a lot of room, I have never regretted purchasing my three arcade games. However, I have come to learn that there are a few maintenance issues that come with owning machines that are over 20 years old. They do attract dust which can damage the machine, so you need to keep them clean. One time my Crystal Castles machine started acting funny (garbled video, reset scores), but I was able to fix this by removing the circuit board and "reseating" (firmly pushing in) each of the chips. Another time I had serious problems with static electricity, but was able to resolve this by purchasing round rubber "feet" which are designed for pinball tables. It's nice to have the owner's manual, which provides schematics, diagnostic information, and maintenance instructions. In general however, these machines are very reliable and built like tanks. They are designed to take a beating, so when you have kids around you don't need to worry about them pulling on the joysticks or pounding the buttons. I would however recommend powering the machines off when not in use, since they tend to suck up a lot of electricity.