As the singer and guitarist for Droids Attack, Brad Van is well-acquainted with robots. While the robot future of our fantasies has yet to transpire, however, their electronic brethren in the form of video games have been a reality for three decades. Van is at the center of a growing effort to preserve video games' past, and has been building a collection of vintage arcade games for more than ten years.
In 2000, Van offered use of his collection to the public when he opened the Aftershock Retrogames arcade. After operating for several years on the north and near-east sides of Madison, he closed the arcades and returned them to seclusion. The public is going to get another chance to plug quarters in his games when "The Joy of Sticks" exhibit opens at the Wisconsin Historical Museum on Capitol Square this Friday. Featuring 25 of Van's favorite games, classic titles like Q-Bert, Donkey Kong and Frogger, the exhibit will actually function as a working arcade, with all proceeds serving as donations for the State Historical Society.
Van is introducing "The Joy of Sticks" with a presentation at the museum on Saturday, Mar. 10 (at 1 p.m.), when he will share some of the stories behind a variety of better- and lesser-known titles in his collection. He announced the exhibit and his talk several weeks ago in TDPF, and previews the arcade:
At the exhibit there will be everyone's typical favorite classics, but I will also be showcasing a few lesser-known games that have more historical significance. Games that were never on location at my old shop, and probably haven't accepted any quarters commercially for the last couple of decades.
Van, 30, has lived in Madison for just over 25 years and is the assistant regional manager at Sooper Dooper. He has been writing and performing rock music for the last 17 years. An email Q&A with him about the exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Museum below.
The Daily Page: How did you get into collecting and preserving arcade machines?
Van: It was kind of by accident, although I had always dreamed of owning my own arcade machine since I was a kid.
Back in the summer of '96, I happened upon a Pac-Man machine sitting in the lobby of a gyro restaurant. Pac-Man was one of my all-time favorite games, so I was drawn to it immediately. It was broken down and had been neglected for quite some time, so I made a bargain with the restaurant to buy it off of them as is. I bought it, got it repaired, and shortly after that I was hooked and the inspiration kicked in.
I started looking through papers trying to find some other machines, and I ended up buying another favorite from my youth called Rolling Thunder from a guy named Al McCormick. He subsequently became a good friend, and is actually assisting me with the exhibit to make sure that all the games run smoothly.
For people who are unfamiliar with your work, what was Aftershock?
Aftershock Retrogames was the name of my arcade. I opened it to the public in the fall of 2000 on the north side of Madison. I spent a couple of years at that location and grew steadily until I had an opportunity to move downtown and partner up with a business called Ping-Time. That went pretty well for awhile, until Ping-Time decided to close up. After that, I relocated to again to a space behind a thrift store on Williamson Street. At the time, my wife was going through school and I was a stay at home daddy for our son, so the thrift store folks would watch the game room for me. Once they went out of business, I decided to just put everything in storage until the time was right to reopen properly. I'm still working on it.
How do you maintain your machines in working order?
Maintaining them is difficult. Spare parts are out there, but at times can be very hard to come by -- even on the Internet. Also, a lot of times when you find parts that you need, it's usually pretty expensive. Sometimes with what you pay to repair one game you could just go out and buy another one instead.
How was this exhibit set up with the Wisconsin Historical Society?
The Historical Society tracked me down and asked me if I would be willing to set it up for them. Originally they only wanted ten machines to display. I was like, "Sure, no problem." Then about a couple months later they asked me to increase that and bring fifteen instead. Then about two months or so before the exhibit they asked me to bring in twenty-five. I was glad that they were so excited about it, so I went for it. I have been scrambling to get these games ready ever since doing as many art restorations and repairs as Al and I can manage.
What are some of the games people can look forward to at the exhibit?
I'm going to mix it up and include a lot of the definitive classic arcade games like Pac-Man, Galaga, Donkey Kong, and Space Invaders, as well as some games that most average gamers won't remember, but have more historical significance to the gaming industry and the advancement of technology in general.
I'm hoping to use the format of the museum to shed some light on the subject for some folks who are interested in learning a little bit, but for the most part I just want people to have some fun.
You say some of the games to be included at the exhibit are lesser known but have more historical importance. Why is that?
What makes a video game significant for historical reasons varies. Some of these machines that will be featured are landmarks in technological advancements, while others are more known for how "popular" they were, or how much money they made. Others represent a point in American history.
For example, Exidy's Death Race was the first video game to ever cause a controversy over violence in the medium shortly after it was released back in 1976. It's a black and white game where you drive a blocky-looking car around a play field where you try and run over as many stick figures as you can before a timer runs out. It is laughable in comparison to what kids are playing these days.
Another game that we're hoping to have on display is Battlezone, which was released by Atari in 1980. Someone in the U.S. military took notice of it, and they actually commissioned Atari to make a more realistic version of the game to help train soldiers for battle. Battlezone was pretty popular, but Death Race is pretty scarce. Only 500 were ever made, and less then ten are known to exist today.
Which three are your personal favorites, and why?
My top two are definitely Joust and Pac-Man.
I favor Joust because the play control and concept behind it are so unique. It's so simplistic, yet it sucks you in and keeps your adrenaline pumping while you're constantly tapping the "Flap" button to stay afloat.
Pac-Man is another because it's an exciting game to play, but more so for the fact that he was the first interactive cartoon character that I was exposed to as a child. I loved Pac-man, and I guess I still do. Very much.
My third favorite? I really don't know. I love all these games. Right now I'd have to say Dig Dug because after several years of searching I finally found one. I've been playing it pretty steady.
Can you give a brief preview of what you plan for your talk on Saturday?
It's going to be pretty informal. I'm pretty much just planning to take a group with me around the area where the games are set up and make some brief statements about the history behind each machine.
What can people learn from the exhibit, particularly where these games fit into popular culture and entertainment over the last 30 years?
They'll see some of the landmark games that they didn't know tied into the technology they use in everyday life. I'm not going to have this game at the exhibit, but did you know that Steve Jobs from Apple helped program Atari's arcade hit Break Out? I just blew your mind.
You say this exhibit featuring your vintage games "adds a great legitimacy" to your preservation efforts over the last decade. Can you elaborate upon this?
Well, I think some people could look at what I've been doing over the years and consider it just a hobby or something. I've never really considered it that. It's always been more of a preservation effort. Not just for the games, but for the experience of playing these games in a legitimate arcade setting.
I feel that people deserve to feel the way it felt to walk into a classic arcade. It wasn't like walking into some dinky little game room in a bowling alley, or like the kiddie ticket dispensing monstrosities that the mall arcades have become. They deserve to be a part of the atmosphere, and among a bunch of fellow gamers all focused and intent on dominating the machines. It's an exciting and entire form of entertainment all to itself.
Madison is not broadly known as a center of video game culture and industry, yet it is increasingly becoming so through the work of everything from Raven Software to the epistemic games work at the UW-Madison. What would you like to see develop in the future with regards to gaming in the city?
Well, I'd like to see my place open to the public and running again, so I guess I hope folks will come to see Madison as a place that recognizes gaming in a historical light. It's awesome that Raven and Human Head Studios are around these parts. I'm still grateful to the folks at Human Head for giving my band a nod in their Xbox 360 game Prey. It's very cool to have my band officially tied in to the world of gaming.
"The Joy of Sticks" officially opens at the Wisconsin Historical Museum on Friday, Mar. 9, will feature 25 classic titles, and runs through Sunday, Mar. 18. The arcade will be open daily -- Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. -- all available for playing at the retro price of 25 cents per game.