Arcade games might seem like a thing of the past, especially with the technological advances in gaming today, but a group of pinball enthusiasts believed the outdated game machines were still worth sharing with the community.
And so California Extreme was born.
Founded in 1997, the annual “Classic Arcade Games Show” celebrates all things arcade with over 400-600 playable machines, guest speakers and more. This year’s celebration took place at the Hyatt Regency in Santa Clara from July 28-29.
In the early 1990s, Ken Chaney met and befriended a group of like-minded people at a local pinball league. A few of them had already been collecting a couple of machines, and they thought it would be fun if more people could enjoy them.
So Chaney and the others found an abandoned bookstore in the old Town & Country Village in San Jose (now Santana Row), brought their own games, enlisted famous pinball designer, Steve Ritchie, as a guest speaker and opened the show to the public.
“It was the middle of summer and there was no air conditioning at all, so it was a little toasty, but we made things work,” Chaney said. “And people seemed to like it. The next year, we did it again.”
Since then, the show has upgraded its space from the bookstore to the Hyatt, increased access to a huge collection of games — including rare prototypes never released to the public — and is now celebrating its 22nd anniversary.
Most arcade machines run on a coin-operated model, but California Extreme doesn’t operate that way. With admission, attendees can play as many games as they want — no quarters required. This also removes problems like coins being jammed, stolen, etc.
“I don’t want anyone to not try a game because they don’t think it’s worth investing a quarter in,” Chaney said. “But if it’s free, it liberates people to have an experience discovering lots of new things, which is a very important purpose to the show. One of our main values that we provide to the community is the ability for people to discover games they wouldn’t have a chance to play anywhere else.”
Chaney said he hopes the show will “bring more love to the community and help people understand what’s available out there and how fun it can be.”
“I remember one of my favorite moments was watching an older game get played by a father and a son,” Chaney said. “When I was his age, I didn’t want to necessarily spend a lot of time with dad. It’s not until later that you realize how fun that can be. But they were having a good time bonding and playing this old game I’m sure they’ve never seen before.”
Over the 8-bit sounds of the machines, Dan Amrich’s voice can be heard giving the announcements. Amrich started volunteering as the show’s announcer 10 years ago. His first gaming experiences were in the arcade in the late 1970s.
“Whenever people ask me what is my favorite game, I always say an arcade machine because you can’t do better than a 400-pound piece of plywood that’s dedicated and built to play one game better than anything else in the world,” Amrich said. “So for me, it’s partly nostalgia, but there’s a purity of gameplay here.”
Despite growing up with arcade machines, he finds them more easily accessible than home gaming system nowadays.
“Anybody can walk up to any of the classic arcade games and figure out what they need to do,” Amrich said. “Maybe there’s three buttons, but usually there’s just a joystick and one button, and it’s very welcoming in an era where a lot of modern games are a lot more complex… You can walk up, see a joystick and one button and go, ‘I can figure that out.’ And although it’s a short experience, it’s also a very rewarding one.”
Because of the simple gameplay, California Extreme has brought people of all ages to the show, including Don Rouse. He’s been attending the show for the past couple of years. He may come for the games, but he appreciates the culture displayed at the show, too.
“I just really love the atmosphere where there’s the machines are like totally different, but they’re all next to each other so you’re just with like-minded people playing games,” Rouse said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of games. It’s just the atmosphere of old arcade dialed up a bit, but it’s still not something you get a lot.”
It’s clear that these machines are outdated and people are opting for more advanced gameplay, especially in the comforts of their home, so there aren’t many arcades left.
“The passion for arcade games is real — it still exists,” Rouse said. “But the hobby could die out in 20 to 30 years because of how old these machines are and how there aren’t as many of them being made. So if people understand there’s still a passion for this, maybe they can keep this going for another 100 years of technology.”