Pac-Man's revenge: Old-school arcade games are making a comeback

Tomer Eisner left behind a tech career to construct nostalgia-driven consoles in his living room and sells them at $2,000 a pop

Yoghev Carmel 17:1231.10.20
What are arcade games?


“Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when the video game world was still in its early days, most of us didn’t have those games at home. We would go to an arcade that held large video game machines, that were operated by tokens, and each one only contained a single game.”


How are arcade games different from today’s offerings?


“Arcade games were much better. They weren’t violent and were much simpler, for example, a player needed to get from point A to point B and eat apples like in Pac-Man, or cross the street without getting run over like in Frogger. Today, there’s a constant competition over which games have better effects or higher level graphics, and it is too difficult for our brains to comprehend, it’s simply too fast.”


Tomer Eisner. Photo: Tommy Harpaz Tomer Eisner. Photo: Tommy Harpaz
So who’s buying arcade games in 2020?


“Mainly people over the age of 40, Gen-Xers, who purchase these games out of a sense of nostalgia. They reminisce about the games they would play when they were children. Those people want to hold onto something from their childhood, so they buy these games for their living rooms, or to tell their kids: ‘look what we used to play.’”


“Also, 100% of our customers are men. Women only reach out to me about purchasing arcade games if it’s for their boyfriends or husbands. There are also plenty of businesses that want to buy our machines. I have sold them to pubs and gotten many requests from children’s departments in hospitals. But most of our customers are male lawyers, who want to purchase an arcade game for their office just for fun or as a status symbol in the lobby.”


Do kids also enjoy these games?


“It’s an amazing thing. I was sure that kids wouldn't be interested, or that the low-quality graphics would drive them away, but they enjoy the fact that these games are short and simple, and can be played within 2 or 3 minutes. Kids can play in groups of 20 or more and take turns, and that’s definitely an advantage. Unlike games today, where a player needs to spend hours to advance inside a storyline, arcade games can be played right away. If you get bored after a few minutes, you can just stop.


How did you get into arcade games as a child?


“I grew up in the Israeli town of Hod Hasharon, and around age 15 or 16, my friends and I would borrow money from our parents and take the late bus on Saturday nights to Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center mall, where there was an arcade. We would buy tokens and spend two or three hours inside that world. That memory stayed with me for a long time, until I discovered that those machines had come back to life.”


What do you mean?


“One day I came across an arcade machine and wanted to teach my son how to use it. But you can’t really buy one brand new, so I figured that I probably needed to first buy an old-school machine and refurbish it. Then I said to myself, ‘Hey, maybe I can build one?’ I found an online blog that detailed how to construct and program such games, and bought a starter kit. I was very excited. I said to myself ‘okay, now I need to build a box around it.’ I sketched something simple on paper that looked like the arcade games from my youth. It was just a big box with a flat surface, a wide slanted screen, a speaker with buttons on it, and the name of the game on the side. I went to the nearest carpenter, and bought wooden panels, and put it all together on my living room floor. That was about a year ago.”


And then you opened your business?


“After the initial excitement faded, and with the outbreak of the coronavirus (Covid-19), the machine started gathering dust, mainly because my friends’ kids stopped coming over to play the game. I thought of selling it, so at least someone would enjoy it. I wrote a post on Facebook, and within a minute my phone started ringing off the hook. Within an hour, someone came to my house, and purchased the machine. I thought that was the end of it, but then I started to get requests from people that I build them arcade machines as well. It started with my running coach who was impressed with a picture of the machine I showed him, and then another friend who bought the same kit I did, but didn’t know what to do with it. Every machine I built made me feel wonderful, and I realized that I am giving people an experience, that I am sort of bringing back their childhood.”


“I work in high tech, am a developer by trade, and served as a VP of marketing in my last few positions. When the pandemic surged, my company decided to close its operations in Israel, and I found myself unemployed. When I thought of my options, my wife reminded me of the excitement I felt over building my first arcade machine. She said to me, ‘there’s something to that, more people probably want arcade machines too.’ I didn’t think anyone would want to buy one, but I tried. I posted something on LinkedIn and within a few days, I had 70,000-80,000 post views and hundreds of inquiries and emails. That’s when it hit me that I could make a business out of this.”


So you started your business from nothing?


“Yeah, I decided to just run with it. The orders started to flow in and I ordered kits to assemble more machines. I turned the storage room in my house into an equipment warehouse and started working on constructing the machines in my backyard. I brought in an industrial designer, who helped me create designs for different models, and we made sure that everything looked clean and professional. I realized that I needed a large number of wood panels, and went to the Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye where a factory cut the wood panels and prepared the prints I had designed for the external cladding. In order for the assembly to go smoothly, we needed an efficient production team, which has become me, my wife, and my daughter. We work in the living room. My wife and I paste the external cladding onto the wooden frame, with our daughter directing us to adjust it to the left or the right. It’s kind of like a production line, and so far we’ve built 40 arcade machines.”


How much does a machine cost?


“Anywhere between NIS 5,500-10,000.” ($1,600-$3,000)


So you assemble the electrical parts yourself?


“Yes, that’s most of the work. Each machine has a type of computer inside where cables stream from, and there are some 70 connection points that you need to assemble manually. In addition, you need to program the computer so that it will connect to the screen and the buttons.”


Do you have control over the games you program into these machines?


“I specifically chose a system that has 1,500 preprogrammed games that don’t have a copyright. Someone came to me and asked whether he could play XBOX games on the machine. The answer is yes, you can plug in your XBOX to the machine, but it will ruin the whole reason I created them in the first place, for the nostalgic aspect.”


So is your career in high tech over?


“That’s a difficult question. On one hand, I am still constantly applying for jobs in my sector, because the pay is high. On the other hand, last week I had an interview for a senior position and ended it after six minutes because I realized that it didn’t interest me. Now, I’m deep in the world of arcade games and want to fulfill their potential. I have a friend who opened up a game store in the Netherlands, and told me we should think about joining forces in the future and expanding the business to Europe. My greatest dream is to open a store in Soho, New York. I’ll get there one day.”