Interview: Help Save High Scores Arcade

Hello, dear readers, and welcome to a special bit of reporting from Nintendojo. As Editor-in-Chief of the site, I interact with a ton of different people in the video game industry, particularly because I’m located in the Bay Area in California. There’s a local, small chain of retro arcades known as High Scores Arcade owned by power couple Shawn and Meg Livernoche that I would like to bring to your attention.

Shawn is a lifelong recording artist and former teacher with the Trenton Public Schools in New Jersey. Meg had a career in pharmaceutical program management that brought the duo to the West coast initially in December of 2012. While they both worked full time, they built their collection just for their own amusement. Shawn saw an early screener of the documentary The King of Kong and one day while Meg was at work, he went and bought a Donkey Kong arcade machine. Their second machine was Donkey Kong Jr, which they drove home in a 2-door VW Golf down the Pennsylvania Turnpike! Once they had a “his and hers” setup, it snowballed. They started going to auctions and buying 5 games at a time for their apartment. Eventually, this passion spilled into High Scores Arcade.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing shutdown of countless industries and businesses around the United States, Meg and Shawn suddenly found themselves in the unenviable position of having to close the arcades down. The ensuing months have been incredibly arduous and taxing, with the couple fighting to keep High Scores Arcade from shuttering permanently. Below is an interview with Shawn and Meg where we talk their arcades, their love of games, and more. Sprinkled throughout are some videos taking you through High Scores, and there is a link at the bottom if you’d like to help donate. Without further ado, let’s get to the interview!

Nintendojo (ND): For those who don’t know, would you please fill in our readers as to what High Scores Arcade is all about?

Shawn & Meg of High Scores Arcade (HS): High Scores is a collection of 150+ pristinely restored vintage and often rare, and one-of-a-kind ’80s and ’90s arcade games. Owned by Shawn and Meg Livernoche, our collection is one of the largest private collections in California. We maintain two retail storefronts in Alameda and Hayward, California where people can come and play unlimited (with the purchase of a wristband) on the games which are all set to freeplay. In business since 2010 (2020 is our 10th year of business, what a decade ender!), we are completely dedicated to the preservation of arcade games from the golden era (~1978-1992).

ND: Gamers of a certain age can fondly recall the allure of arcades, but what did you think would be the reaction from younger video game fans who might not be familiar with them?

HS: Real arcades with real classic games and an authentic ’80s environment is a cool place to be and everybody knows it. The atmosphere of the arcade quickly convinces most children to try the classic games they’ve only heard stories about, and they soon find out that the gameplay and how it grabs you is universal. We’ve seen some funny lost in translation moves – like kids trying to touch the screens to control them, or ask how they can pause – but even a skeptical kid who thinks all the cool things live inside their smart phone can be turned by introduction of the right game, or the energy of the arcade. Certain games that were brutally hard, of course, like Defender, don’t always bridge generations as easily as something more accessible like Spy Hunter, Frogger, or Centipede.

ND: Video game preservation is something we here at Nintendojo are really passionate about. What does preserving the history of this medium mean to High Scores? What do you see as High Scores’ role within that effort?

HS: Arcade games, the physical cabinets are becoming fewer every year, so preservation is our highest calling. Opening our public arcades began in 2010 as a means of financing the restoration and housing of as many of the antique electronic games we love, which are rapidly disappearing, being trashed, getting lost. Playing the video games coming out today, in the form they are released, is a drastically altered experience from what the original products of passion first offered in the ’70s. In our minds, the elaborately artistic and organically adventurous and joyful characteristics that made the early arcade games so beloved has been lost in many ways across today’s gaming options – even the ones that attempt to rehash the past. We accepted a responsibility to ensure the best arcade games from the golden era would survive, two copies of each if possible. Like Noah. Ha!

We bought our first cabinet, a Donkey Kong as soon as we could afford to start our collection. Then DK Jr, and then a Centipede, then a Burger Time, then a Tron. We eventually had 15 in our one bedroom apartment before we bought a place (in New Jersey) with more space. We see firsthand the wave of nostalgia and joy that comes across people’s faces when they see the first Punch-Out!! they have seen in 25 years. We are proud of those moments when our labor of love brings people’s hearts back to a more optimistic time. These games were foundational for a huge industry and have an important part of our cultural history. They also haven’t always been seen as such; thousands of cabinets left to rot in barns or swim in basements and we see ourselves as stewards of our collection to keep them safe from that potential future.

ND: Some of your cabinets are unique, including the excellent Super Smash Bros. Melee machine that you all have. What’s the inspiration behind cabinets like that?

HS: We like to imagine or re-imagine games that were never designed for the arcade, our personal favorite medium. How amazing to have a gold The Legend of Zelda arcade cabinet just like the cartridge? What if you didn’t have to play Smash on your buddies beat up CRT and you could play it in a hot pink cabinet with custom artwork and a 27-inch screen in your favorite arcade? To date, we’ve made a custom Nights into Dreams Sega Saturn cabinet, a Shenmue cabinet with the flexibility to play all Dreamcast games, a ridiculously detailed hand-built Oregon Trail cabinet, a shiny sparkling golden Zelda NES cabinet, a “History of Sega” machine, and the breathtaking Super Smash Bros. Melee cabinets. We go to great lengths to make sure they look amazing and play just right, down to original GameCube controllers on the Melee cabinet and an original IBM model M keyboard on the Oregon Trail.

ND: What is it about arcade cabinets that makes them so appealing to play games on?

HS: So much! The physical cabinet of so many games was designed to be an encompassing experience. Playing Atari’s 1984 Star Wars inside the actual cockpit like George Lucas approved back then is a much different experience than playing it on MAME from your PC at home. Controlling Donkey Kong with the appropriate buttons that Nintendo designed it for, that can produce the right reaction time and spring back, is just plain a different game. Give the game the respect of playing it the way it was designed. And of course in the case of games like Paper Boy, 720, Spy Hunter, Star Wars, they can’t be appropriately played without the original cabinet.

Of course there’s the camaraderie and social element of playing in an arcade as well. The common experience, the live-action competition, the music, the lighting – it’s all part of an overall experience. Even the smell of the wood on a machine and the feel of the exact right joystick ball in your hand. It’s more than a memory etched in C.

ND: How does upkeep of these machines work? Some folks might not realize a lot of elbow grease goes into keeping arcade cabinets up and running, to say nothing of how much it costs to keep them powered!

HS: We have a really high bar for ourselves, and we don’t allow a game to be broken or on the floor for more than 24 hours before we either fix it or remove it. We do most of our own repairs in house with our team and one “next level up” technician that we call in for super nuanced repairs. As the huge majority of our collection are all original cabinets, it is difficult to source certain parts – when someone broke the flight stick in half from our Tron machine, it cost us $225 and a month to find a replacement. CRT monitors, original to most machines, aren’t made any more and we literally stop and pick up televisions from people’s trash piles just in case. When we move our games, we move them ourselves – most recently breaking Meg’s foot in three places after dropping a Space Ace machine on it. We can’t just run out to the store to get the parts that we need to keep our games running.

ND: What’s the oldest machine in your collection? Any interesting tidbits or stories about it or any other machine(s) in High Scores?

HS: The oldest in our collection is a very unique Atari cabinet- 1978’s Subs, which we actually purchased completely brand new, still in the shipping box it was sent out in from Atari. It was part of an inventory that got shipped to Canada but was never rolled out, and then eventually sent back down to Sunnyvale, bought by a collector and kept safe since then.

In some cases, we have the only one of a title or only one of a small few. Last year we picked up a prototype Beat Head machine from a former Atari employee who worked on its development. It was the first rhythm based game, unveiled for market testing at Golfland in Sunnyvale, the same week as Street Fighter 2! Ultimately it didn’t make the cut. But it’s crazy fun! We went and rescued it from the basement and it took its place in our collection.

ND: There are two High Scores locations here in the Bay Area: one in Alameda and one in Hayward. What’s special about each spot?

HS: Well, Alameda was our first California location (we first opened in August 2010 in Burlington, New Jersey before taking a 6 month break to move across the country and reopen). We try to keep the two locations pretty on par with each other in terms of variety and quality. Hayward sometimes sees more rare and technical games, like our vector collection, because it has our workshop in the back and repair issues can be more quickly addressed. We have the most sought-after titles like our custom cabinets, the Pac-Man family, the DK family – the top 20 or so classics everybody knows and loves in both locations!

ND: COVID-19 has laid waste to countless businesses and High Scores isn’t immune to the ravages of the pandemic and its ensuing quarantine orders. How is High Scores fighting to stay open? What can fans do to help?

HS: We’ve been mandated-closed since March 15. We never would have expected that the closure would be this long – and we also didn’t know in the beginning that family entertainment centers like we’re considered would be slated for reopening in the very last phase. From the very beginning, we went to work applying for every private and government grant that we seemed qualified for – but out of all of them, we’ve received just one $5,000 grant from the city of Hayward (which we are thankful for!). It has been a total wasteland in terms of lines of support and it’s incredibly frustrating to not really have command over your own business’ future. We have received donations via our Donorbox and GoFundMe accounts and these are being used 100% to help us keep a roof over the games and position our collection for whatever is next. We’ve got a hard road ahead, and there doesn’t seem to be much in place to support small businesses like ours. We’re housing over 70 arcade titles that aren’t even in the arcades as an act of preservation. So when our income drops to zero out of the blue and stays there for many months, we can’t pay our commercial rent, or to house the additional rare titles.

We really aren’t taking a position on when it’s safe to open. We aren’t doctors. But we do feel if a mandatory closure of our business helps our public health we are in support of it. We just don’t want to lose everything. The areas we operate in talk a lot about developing the respective business districts. Here we are, a business which provides a wholesome and unique family entertainment draw to each city we operate in, and there is almost nothing in place to support our survival during a forced closure. It’s disappointing, as we watch the money that gets poured into many fruitless affairs. We’ve paid our rent 2 weeks early at both locations since Day 1, we support our towns, we support surrounding schools, and it’s tough to watch much wealthier operations be bailed out left and right while everything you’ve worked for disintegrates before your own eyes.

ND: If High Scores can keep the lights on, what’s next for you all once the danger of the pandemic eases and businesses are able to properly open up once more?

HS: Honestly, the future is super hard to see right now. BUT, every year we make a kick ass custom cabinet and this year, our rad ideas had to take a backseat to trying to save the arcade itself. But best believe we have fun up our sleeves if we see a future where we might be able to share it with the public again. These arcades don’t only show off our powerful collection of classic games, it offers everyone, including us, a moment to step back into the past and breath. We promise to prioritize keeping the arcades alive, where they are. But even if we can’t, we ain’t quitting. Too many people have expressed joy at something we created, nurtured and built together. Too many kids have walked away with a childhood experience we had to step back in time in order to provide. You don’t give up on that. Even if we have to squeeze a Tetris o-block where the i-block is supposed to go. Give us a sliver of opportunity and we’ll make it fit. With help from our supporters, we’ll be back!

Nintendojo again wants to thank Shawn and Meg for taking the time to reach out and allow us to highlight their efforts as video game preservationists. If you’d like to help donate to High Scores Arcade, please click on this link. If you’d like to help but can’t donate, then please share this story on social media and get the word out.

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