Preston McNeil (Photo: Supplied/Design: Tina Tiller)
Preston McNeil (Photo: Supplied/Design: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureSeptember 13, 2023

My life in video arcade games: ‘There was always a shop with a spacies machine’

Preston McNeil (Photo: Supplied/Design: Tina Tiller)
Preston McNeil (Photo: Supplied/Design: Tina Tiller)

Preston McNeil fell in love with video arcade games at a small town parlour, and has been obsessed ever since – first as a player and now as a builder of machines. Some of those machines are now on display at new Wellington exhibition, Arca.

I first encountered arcade machines when my older brother and sister took me to a small arcade parlour in Ngongotahā, where we grew up. I must have been about four or five years old and I couldn’t see the screen and could barely reach the joysticks, but I remember playing a sit-down Star Wars game. That’s where it all began. 

Even in our small village on the north side of Lake Rotorua, there was always an arcade parlour or at least a fish and chip shop with a spacies machine. Any pocket money I got, I would be down there to play the classics: Double Dragon, Time Pilot, Scramble, and Galaga. 

In my teenage years, I spent most of my time at New Image Arcade in Rotorua. Every time we went to a new town, I would head to the takeaway joint on the corner for some chips and a few games of Rastan. It was all about finding new games and playing against other people and trying to beat my high score.

My most played game of all time has got to be Street Fighter, in particular Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting. Out of all of the versions, I really enjoyed this one mostly due to the style of the game, there was just something about it. It was also the first arcade machine I ever bought. I didn’t really play Street Fighter II: World Warrior when that came out, it was slower and I was a fan of the fast paced hyper version. 

I was part of a small cohort of dudes in high school who always hung around the New Image Arcade Parlour challenging each other – it got really competitive. 

My favourite arcade developer is Capcom. They always have a consistent quality of animation, their sprite animation is still some of the best and they had great design sensibilities, memorable music tracks and sound effects. It’s those little things that turn a great arcade game into a classic.

An Arca Arcade machine with art design from Gina Kiel (Photo: Supplied)

Arcade machines are special because they take us back to a time when we had three TV channels and they didn’t go past 10pm. These games offered a new, interactive format, with a whole heap of new design and experimentation that we had never seen before.

It was and still is the pinnacle to play these games on the original hardware with a CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor. The machines would have custom bezel graphics and an illuminated marquee graphic depicting the game. There is something fantastic about the entire aesthetic.

I started building machines because I liked having an arcade machine in my house, but it was bulky and hard to service the old hardware. When I replaced the monitor in my large cabinet, it sparked my interest in designing something smaller. I’ve been tinkering with arcade cabinets over the span of 15 years, modifying and refurbishing them. I got a good idea of how they worked and it gave me the confidence to build something from scratch.

An Arca Arcade Machine with art design from Flox (Photo: Supplied)

The goal of this project was to to design something that was compact and elegant while still adhering to some of the ergonomics of typical stand-up arcade machines. I wanted to stay true to the format, I went all-in on the detail, down to the point where I am using 16:10 monitors, rather than 16:9, just to squeeze out a few more vertical pixels and use as much of the screen real estate as possible. 

I wanted to keep the experience super minimalistic so I designed a simple user interface that incorporates the artwork from the physical cabinet onto the screen. I wanted the artwork and the games to be the hero, not the UI (user interface).

I was inspired to create the exhibition because I wanted to share my re-imagining of how we can experience the golden age of gaming and push the idea of how the cabinets are artworks in themselves. 

Working with the artists was an interesting challenge because it was not a 2D canvas, but having to work around the contours of the machine and thinking about how to best integrate the artwork across the whole piece while trying to add specific elements that make that piece of art unique to that machine.

I’m particularly stoked with how the Tākaro cabinets have come out with the carved side panels and especially for the work done by Joe Sheehan with the Pounamu ball tops, I think that’s really special and it has to be a world first.

Pounamu ball joystick tops on a machine designed with Joe Sheehan. (Photo: Supplied)

After playing arcade machines for 40 years I think they still create a phenomenal gaming experience. I watch my kids and their friends having a blast and that’s the kick for me now. 

There’s a huge global community of people who cherish these old games and dedicate massive chunks of their lives to archiving games to make sure that they are there for generations to come.  

One of the most rewarding things about putting on this exhibition has been seeing other people come down and experience the arcade, and having a kōrero around their nostalgia and recollections of playing these old games.

– As told to Joel MacManus

Arca is running at Te Auaha Gallery in Wellington until September 16, featuring Preston McNeil’s custom-built playable arcade cabinets, with designs from New Zealand artists Gina Kiel, Flox, Otis Frizell, Joe Sheehan, and Otis Chamberlain. You can see more photos here

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