EuropeIn a rural industrial estate five miles outside Honiton, down the flight path from the nearby airport, sits a rather unassuming warehouse. It has only one characteristic: the front is a cemetery of stripped arcade cabinets, slowly rotting away in the cold and damp.
I’m here to visit Play Leisure, a company that restores and sells old arcade games. It has a notable TikTok account where it shares new discoveries — a recent post showcases the Deadstorm Pirates machine with its massive built-in cabinets and giant movie monitors. I dragged my friend and arcade fanatic Joao Sanches along, and now I feel nervous and responsible because, walking to the unmarked entrance, I don’t know if they’ll have any fun stock to drive after our 90 minutes.
But peering inside, I spotted it right away, sitting in a cramped reception area amidst a pile of cardboard boxes: an original 1992 Street Fighter II machine, the backboard showing a crazy illustration of Ryu kicking Ken, every feature on the field marked with Famous name named Street Fighter Attack. I almost gasped.
Matt Conridge, owner of Play Leisure, has always been interested in arcades. “Like a lot of us in our 30s and 40s, it came from when I was a kid,” he explained as he greeted us. “I used to visit arcades in seaside resorts – places like Dawlish and Lynmouth.”
Conrich was running a video games pub in Biddeford, north Devon, three years ago when Covid hit. Faced with disaster, he decided to close down and leverage his connections in the arcade world to pivot to a new project: Restoration. He rented a warehouse, hired a small team of professional engineers, and began buying every old slot machine he could get his hands on. The plan is to restore them after the pandemic and sell them to private collectors and retro-themed bars.
“Back then, we bought them in small quantities, so usually from collectors. Now we use them on an industrial scale,” Conridge said. “Currently, with the economy going on, malls are cutting costs and getting rid of some of the poorer machines that cost more to run than they make. We get licenses from arcades, game centers, trampoline parks…”
Another problem is that older coin machines require professional engineers to maintain them. “A lot of the people who built and serviced these machines are retired,” Conridge said. “That knowledge is dying.”
Matt took us through the main warehouse space and we were again stunned. A space the size of a tennis court is packed with more than 200 consoles spanning the entire history of the game. The first thing I discovered was a two-cabinet version of Sega’s excellent 1995 racing game, Manx TT Super Bike, in which players sat on replica motorcycles and raced against each other on narrow country roads. Nearby is Konami’s exciting Silent Scope 2: Fatal Judgement, complete with real sniper rifle controllers, and behind this electronic maze is the double cab of Final Furlong, a crazy Namco horse racing game where you can sit Jump up and down on plastic horses.
I recall my first visit to Japan in 2000 for the Tokyo Game Show. I walked into an arcade in Akihabara and saw lunchtime salarymen, dozens lined up to play the game, grimacing hard in the dark.
The machines came in huge shipping containers, and Conridge was never sure what games he’d find or what state they’d be in. “The problem is, arcade operators aren’t going to make more money by keeping the inside of their machines clean,” he said. “If you open it up and start cleaning the inside, you can end up causing problems. We opened them up and found Coins, tools… We once found a porn magazine in the back of a machine. We just bought one from Blackpool, a crane that dispenses candy – it’s been sitting there for a few years and the candy falls in it It rotted, and then the flies flew in there…uh.”
Will they clean that up? “No,” Conrich said with a smile. “We’ll sell it and let someone else handle it.”
However, Conridge is wary of who he sells his fragile old machines to. “There are some vintage machines that we advise people not to buy unless they are technically minded,” he said. “There’s a pinball machine, a 1966 electromechanical model that we’re about to release, and we’re going to refuse to sell it to the nine out of ten people who contact us because we know it’s not for them. These machines are like vintage cars: they Is professional equipment and requires constant maintenance. If I sell it to someone who just wants a working machine, they’ll have enough of it in five minutes – we have to choose the right customer for it. Someone who can tinker.
It’s not just ancient pinball machines that have problems. The big arcade games of the 1990s—the technological pinnacle of the industry—often used proprietary hardware that couldn’t be replaced or copied. “The Sega Model arcade motherboard uses a custom Lockheed Martin chip that you won’t find anywhere else,” explains lead engineer Chris. “We had to decide whether to harvest parts from less interesting games and use them to complement classics like Sega Rally.” On the perimeter of the warehouse space, some shelves groaned under the weight of esoteric parts, stacked haphazardly Or collect in a box.
What adds to the value of these machines now is that arcades have historically discarded old equipment when they stopped making a profit. “Ten to 15 years ago, companies simply did not foresee any interest from collectors,” Conridge said. “We’ve just sold an Addams Family pinball machine for £10,000 – this would have been thrown away 15 years ago. People didn’t think anyone would want them.”
This is especially true for big professional machines, like rhythm action games, with their bulky floor mats and complicated controllers, and driving games with their realistic racing cabinets. Not only do they take up valuable floor space, but they are also expensive to maintain. They’re increasingly rare, which is an interesting challenge for Play Leisure, as titles like Dance Mania and Guitar Hero are the machines for a new age of retro gaming pubs – such as chain NQ64, which has just secured £2m in funding – — Looking for: Not only are they fun to play in a bar setting, but they’re also fun to watch. “Dance Mania is now a £3,000 machine,” says Conridge.
When the cabinets arrive, their condition is assessed. For Conridge, there’s a delicate balance between restoration and preservation. He showed me a Point Blank machine that had just hit the market: Namco’s fun light-gun shooter, also popular on the PlayStation, is currently very popular with buyers. His goal is to fix these machines, no matter what state they’re in—even if the guns themselves, with their sophisticated recoil mechanisms, are often damaged beyond repair (“they literally got smashed by kids in the arcade”).
On this cabinet, the gorgeous illustrated decals on the sides are peeling off: did they change the artwork to a modern reproduction? “If we did that, it would look better, but it wouldn’t be original,” Conridge said. “It was a challenge. We don’t tend to sell perfect-looking machines. When we went to arcades as kids and the machines got burned by cigarettes—that’s how you remember them. There’s a certain charm to it.”
Some arcade cabinets are not economically viable to repair, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be sold. “We sold a lot of project machines,” he said. “For collectors who work in garages, it’s good. We received a Star Wars 1982 Atari machine about 14 months ago. We put it on TikTok and Facebook – someone rang and they were very eager It was a pleasure to save this pristine machine from scrapping.”
If it couldn’t be repaired, parts were removed: circuit boards, cathode ray monitors, joysticks, motors. Almost none of these are made anymore, so they’ve all been preserved. Even completely stripped cabinets can have value: people often use them as enclosures for their own arcade machines, use PCs and LED monitors. “Our clients are really creative,” Conridge said. “We’ve had people turn them into cocktail cabinets, representing DVD players and game consoles. That’s good because they don’t end up in a landfill—they’re getting another life.”
Conridge estimates half of his machines go to retro bars and modern arcades. The rest were purchased by private collectors. There is a highly active arcade collecting community, based on Discord servers and forums such as UKVAC, and Covid has brought in many new clients who started setting up gaming dens during the lockdown.
In addition to retro pinball machines and popular games from the 1990s, big sellers also have movie or TV licenses. Play Leisure is selling three Star Wars Battle Pods for £10,000 each, a truly massive immersive machine. An Aerosmith-branded arcade game called Revolution X costs £1,500 and an X-Files pinball machine costs £3,500. Old-fashioned coin pushers also have an odd market, thanks in large part to the growing popularity of the TV quiz show Tipping Point and TikTok accounts dedicated to live coin pushing.
Joao and I have spent the whole day here, winding our way between the machines and peering into their bare interiors. We film everything. Long ago, we worked together at Edge, a video game magazine, and often covered arcade shows—these now-obsolete machines were the latest, hottest tech when we started our careers.
Before that, as a kid, I hung out in arcades in the 1980s. Donkey Kong, Defender, Space Harrier, Out Run; a pocket full of 10p coins and a whole day wasted. It’s bittersweet to see the machines here, with their CRT monitors cracked or missing, and light holsters frayed and split.
It’s a good thing to save these things. For many of us, these aren’t just one-off commercial products: they’re works of art that embody the experience of thousands of players, including my own.