Back in June 2017, Tastemakers CEO Scott Bachrach was at a meeting discussing a hole in
the ever-expanding market for retro games. Specifically, there was no cheap and easy middle ground for a generation of classic arcade fans who wanted an authentic cabinet in their home.
“We looked and said there are ‘under $100’ solutions, [but they] don’t really feel like a real arcade,” Bachrach began in a recent phone interview with Ars. “There are $3,000 solutions that feel like a real arcade, but they’re $3,000 and 300 pounds. How do we make something that is affordable to the masses but gives you the same play as a real arcade?”
From that meeting, the Arcade1Up line was born. Beginning in 2018, Tastemakers launched a series of 3/4-scale replica arcade cabinets, each with a handful of emulated games and a $300 to $400 price tag. The initial batch focused on Bachrach’s personal wheelhouse: ’70s and ’80s classics from companies like Namco (Pac-Man, Galaga), Midway (Rampage, Defender), and Atari (Asteroids, Tempest). Soon though, the line expanded into the ’90s with Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat-themed machines, a move Bachrach called a “natural progression.”
“We looked and said, ‘What are the best-selling arcade games?'” Bachrach said. “‘Who had them? When did they come out? What audiences did they go after?’ And [we] made a strategic line on each one of them.”
The early days of the Arcade1Up line included its share of quality-control challenges, as Bachrach is willing to acknowledge. Early control panel stickers were rapidly fading from basic use, and general questions about build quality and low-grade LCD screens popped up regularly online.
While certain Walmart locations eventually marked those first-generation units down to as low as $75, Bachrach claims this wasn’t a sales issue or quality problem. “We can’t dictate what a retailer will sell their product for. What I can tell you is a retailer only has so much space… if they sell 98% of their inventory and they want to get rid of the last 2% so they can make space for a new title, they look at what they can do to an immediate effect to get rid of whatever is there.”
In any case, Bachrach said Arcade1Up’s days of low-quality parts are behind it. “We reacted to those [complaints],” he told Ars, noting the improvements have been made between the Arcade1Up’s original Asteroids release and the new TMNT machine. “We’re using better controllers, we’re using better switches, we’re using better buttons,” he said. “We put more packing material on the inside [of the box]. We have really stepped up our game as a result of the community telling us what they don’t like and what the problems are that they may have experienced.”
Bachrach also pointed proudly to the stronger materials and a new type of trackball on Arcade1Up’s version of Golden Tee, a game that needs to be able to take a beating thanks to enthusiastic trackball spinning.
Based on a review sample of its Marvel Super Heroes cabinet, things have definitely improved since those early cabinets. The new screens boast far better contrast, the cabinet’s wood feels both heavier and sturdier, and the control panels are now covered by hard plastic to prevent wear. Assembly is still relatively easy (aside from some tiny screws that hold the LCD screen), and everything survived delivery intact (except for a minor glue-like substance on the side art). The Marvel Super Heroes cabinet is also the first legitimate home release for The Punisher arcade game since a limited Sega Genesis port, and it seems to be emulated quite well on Arcade1Up’s board.
Given those improvements, did Arcade1Up’s early adopters essentially serve as beta testers for an inferior product?
“It’s like this,” Bachrach said. “Is your [current iPhone] the first phone you’ve had?… Every time they come out with a new iPhone, they’ve tried to do something to upgrade the past. Does that mean the first one was no good? Absolutely not. It was great for what it was at that time. To perfect your manufacturing, you have to consistently get better or your consumer goes away. I think we’re following that same pattern.”
Build quality aside, releasing Arcade1Up’s latest cabinet, which includes both Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Turtles in Time, came with its own unique challenges. While those games’ four-player cabinet designs worked fine in a real arcade, the smaller scale of an Arcade1Up machine is already cramped even for two-player games.
The solution? Keep the TMNT body to Arcade 1Up’s usual scale but expand the control panel. “If you look at the body of the machine itself, it didn’t really change in terms of height or width,” Bachrach explained. “What we did was the extensions around the control deck, and the deck is set up in a way that you can fit four players.”
The Arcade1Up release of the
Turtles arcade games couldn’t have come at a better time for fans looking to play the arcade titles at home. Yes, the 1989 original was made available on console download services in 2007, and a Ubisoft
Turtles in Time remake hit in 2009. But both were removed from digital storefronts in 2011 when an expiring licensing agreement made them unavailable for legitimate at-home play (with some obscure exceptions).
Rescuing arcade TMNT from the digital death zone took about a year of fighting through a contractual quagmire, Bachrach said. While the character license is currently under Nickelodeon’s banner, Konami still owns the original game code (which is run through a licensed custom emulator for the cabinets, Bachrach said). Incidental material like the art on the side of the cabinet had to be appropriately licensed, too, causing even more headaches and delays.
With a firm foothold in the US market, Arcade1Up is now taking to Japan and is working with Taito on a Burgertime cabinet for that region. And Bachrach said Tastemakers is always looking for more games, no matter the location.
Does that mean the company might follow TMNT with Konami’s other popular brawlers like The Simpsons or X-Men? Bachrach paused for a few seconds when we asked him, then he replied, “Uh, we agree with you that they are very popular cabinets.”
He laughed. So, are those games happening too? “Maybe,” he said with another laugh. “I cannot confirm or deny that.”
For this year, though, the focus is on TMNT, Star Wars, and Marvel. And those TMNT units, which are exclusive to Walmart for now, will only be available in limited quantities, Bachrach warned. But he was quick to add that this doesn’t mean Tastemakers is creating an intentional shortage to drive up demand and create the next Tickle Me Elmo.
“We wanted to have it centralized and be able to promote it the right way and [let] consumers know where to go,” he said. “Walmart will have it. And no, we couldn’t make more… There are only so many cabinets we can build at the level of quality we want to maintain and improve.”
No conspiracy then, other than trying to cover up the X-Men and/or Simpsons releases on the way.