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Inside the World's Largest Arcade
From Edge Magazine

Heading north out of Boston, Massachusetts towards New Hampshire, there’s not much along the highway capable of taking you by surprise. This is rural America, and there seems to be little here more than the occasional charming tourist town. But around the shoreline of the glacial Lake Winnipesaukee, the small village of Weirs Beach hides a secret: the world’s largest arcade, Funspot.

You’d be forgiven for driving past it, if not for a flamboyant sign next to the road that leads to the beach. Even then you might think you’d taken a wrong turn somewhere: there’s a large warehouse-like building with a roomy parking lot which, apart from the quiet hills that frame it, you could find anywhere. But then you enter the place, and all of that is forgotten as the inner child takes over.

The rows of flashing lights and bleeps stretch into the distance, from every coin-op from your youth to Skee-Ball machines and a bowling centre. There are three floors crammed with every colour, shape and size of arcade machine and entertainment device you can imagine. It’s easy to forget how ubiquitous lightgun ranges and physical entertainment machines were in early arcades, but then you pass a nine-hole indoor miniature golf course that looks and feels as well-maintained and polished as when it was first installed in the early ’50s.

To be more specific, it was 1952 when the 22-year-old Bob Lawton decided to abandon chemistry and found Funspot. A small loan from his grandmother, some craftsman skills and an idea about making lanes for miniature golf indoors probably didn’t make him seem like the next Howard Hughes. But Funspot was of its time, and not least as a part of the rise of popular culture in the US.

That’s something of that in Lawton’s ‘One Big Rule’ for running Funspot: “Keep looking for something new.” There’s a willingness to explore anything that might attract customers to an arcade, whether it’s as simple as the latest coin-op or, as was the case recently, a set of bowling lanes. That mixture of curiosity and business sense has been the backbone of Funspot, and the reason it has survived the bumpy times that have claimed others: the videogame boom of the early ’80s and the recession that followed broke the back of the arcade business worldwide, and certainly gave Lawton a bloody nose. But after the closure of five locations that had been acquired during the good years, Funspot’s operation returned to a focus on base camp and survived without ever coming close to financial trouble. The only mistake it made? It didn’t keep hold of all of the old cabinets.

 

Looking way back, Bob, how did you convince your grandmother to lend you $750 to get started in 1952?

Bob Lawton: She had plenty of money so I don’t think that amount was anything special to her – but I didn’t have any money, and $750 was enough to buy the lumber and get us off the ground. We opened on the fourth of July weekend in 1952, and we had lines of people waiting to get in at 35 cents a round for a nine-hole indoor golf course.

How did you experience the process of radical change from classic arcade attractions to videogames, almost 30 years after opening up Funspot?

BL: We had a large game operator, he used to come in here during the summer – we only opened during summer at the time. We had the usual old mechanical games like baseballs, pinballs and rifle galleries and I can remember him coming in and waving his arm and saying: “Let me get rid of this junk and put in some good machines.” I agreed, and he started putting games in. The first one was Tank: a one-or twoplayer game, for a quarter each. Each player had to pay a quarter! I was getting dimes for the games I’d had. But that one game took in more than everything else. It took me about one week to know that videogames was gonna be it. So we took out pool tables and kept adding videogames.

It was just the heyday, it was just an amazing situation. It unfortunately isn’t booming like it was any more. We had to diversify and put in bingo and all sorts of other attractions because you couldn’t depend on videogames forever. They died commercially for us in about 1990, so we had to act accordingly if we wanted to stay in business.

You have several attractions that are very old and traditional, like Skee-Ball. Is it important for you to retain the spirit that existed when you started out?

BL: Yeah, there is no question about it. One of the reasons is because we are so big here, we have so much floor space, that we’ve been able to retain a lot of the old classic games.

When videogames began to fade away from arcades at the end of the ’80s, you started to sell or junk most of the machines. Now, with the Classic Arcade Museum, you’ve got them back, right?

Gary Vincent: The old machines were scattered around [at Funspot]. It started with gathering all those games together in one area. And then slowly building from there.

BL: We bought some back from eBay, and a lot of people donated games. It’s a place to retain these games, to make sure they’re not junked any more. Often, we gotta start all over and renovate them.In the late ’90s, a long-serving employee named Gary Vincent had an idea. Funspot still had classic machines scattered around its premises: why not collect them together and try to give visiting audiences a new perspective? Retro chic wasn’t that big a part of the videogame landscape in 1998 – and neither was a dedication to preserving physical videogame history. This idea became the Classic Arcade Museum – a non-profit organization and collection of over 250 working video arcade machines from the early ’70s through to 1987, including the likes of Computer Space and Pong – which has become an international focal point for retrogaming and its followers.

This revival of old gaming hardware had a significant local impact: just a year after the Classic Arcade Museum was launched, the vintage videogame lovers appeared on the scene. Weirs Beach became the new Mecca of self-styled ‘old-school skill gamers’, the vast majority of whom were males in their late 30s who have known each other since the arcade’s heyday. Still breaking records today, gaming’s most notorious bad boy Billy Mitchell established himself as hero and villain of the newly emerging niche scene after his magnificent achievement of the ‘perfect game’ on Pac-Man in 1999. Of course, he did it on an original cabinet at the Classic Arcade Museum.

What seemed to have vanished with the arcades in the ’80s was now visible again: the first wave of professional retrogamers had finally found a home. One player even retired from his banking career to move to Weirs Beach and pursue high-scores fulltime. Funspot and its Classic Arcade Museum continue to push the old gaming cabinets beyond nostalgia with their yearly tournaments, and have recently been attracting wider attention. Some of the finer moments in the recent, brilliant gaming documentary The King of Kong bore fascinating witness to the level of obsession and compulsion that can be found here – and in the wake of that film’s success, several other filmmakers have made a similar pilgrimage. Funspot’s future and its place in the videogaming community seem secure, and we recently talked to Lawton and Vincent about how it’s got here – and where it’s going.

It can’t be easy to keep the old machines running all the time – how much time goes into their maintenance?

GV: It’s a problem we do run into. This year, for a tournament, we had several machines that we just could not get running for various reasons. A lot of time.

You say you have the biggest arcade in the world – how do you know that?

BL: Just this past tournament we had here, the Guinness Book of Records was here and they presented us with a certificate that says we are the largest arcade in the world by number of machines. Guinness of course checked on that to be sure. We have claimed it for some time now – nobody said any different – but Guinness has to check things out and they did, and they said, yes, you are the largest arcade in the world.

What’s the reaction like from people visiting the Classic Arcade Museum?

BL: They come in and see it and just go crazy because they played those games 15 years ago or something: “Wow, look at this, I used to play this!” And we find them showing their kids these titles because they’re different types of games. If you would have taken those over 250 games that we have up in the Classic Museum and open a place somewhere with just those games in it, you couldn’t make it. You could not exist as a business – you’ve got to have these other attractions. But the Classic Museum has real value in other ways – it’s a great way for us to gain publicity – and we are all proud of the fact that we are the largest arcade in the world, up here in Weirs Beach with a population of 16,500 people.

Does being responsible for the Classic Arcade Museum make you a technician, a historian, or just a gamer?

GV: I see my role more as… I guess, technician, restorationist – if there is such a word. And just trying to keep the history, the feeling, that vibe of the old arcade days alive so that, when people come in – like they have this year at the tournament – it was amazing to me how many just approached me and said: “I wanna shake your hand and thank you for this because… it’s amazing! I’ve had so much fun, this is fantastic.” I guess this elation you get when people say that, that it’s like “Wow!”, then I’m just happy that I was able to do something that gave these people a day or a weekend of fun.

Why did you set the cut off date as 1987?

GV: We set the cut off date as 1987 because that is pretty much about the time when we noticed that the videogame industry was starting to change. Instead of having fantasy-based games, puzzle-based, space shoot ’em up games or whatever, it seemed to switch over to more of what I call ‘kick-punch-shoot’ games. That’s why we picked 1987 as a cut off year.

 

Do you have rules about emulation?

GV: When it comes to emulation we prefer to stick to the original machines. We have three Laserdisc games in our collection – Asteron Belt, Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair – and although I do have the original hardware that goes in them they are so unreliable to run in a public setting that all three of those machines are running Daphne emulators. We have the original Laserdisc players and discs stored. All of us lived in that era when Laserdisc games came out and they were gonna be the savior of arcades. This is where the future was going: “Hurrah, Laserdiscs will save the day.” And after about two months, when all the Laserdisc players started to break down, it became like: “Uh… I think these games are gonna cost us a lot of money.” And they would be out of order for weeks because you’d have to ship the Laserdisc player back to the distributor where it would sit in a pile of probably 150 other broken Laserdisc players until somebody got around to fixing it. Then they’d send it back, and a month later it would break again. So rather than relive that experience again, we use emulators for just those games.

Since the Classic Arcade Museum’s launch, a big community of classic videogame players has formed around Funspot. Are you personally involved with that?

GV: I’ve noticed the big resurgence in classic game playing, but I don’t really get involved with the ins and outs of the gaming community because I’m so involved with what I do here for work. So I usually read about it on the internet or have casual conversations with the people that I do know. And there have been three films filmed here, which is just amazing to me. Everyone is probably familiar with The King of Kong that was filmed during the 2005 tournament. There was another documentary being filmed at the same time called Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade. The third one was shot this past March – it’s a film company out of New York and the movie is called Altar of the Unnamed. They designed a game and did the movie around the game because they noticed that in the past movies like The Last Starfighter or Tron were made about videogames that never existed. It was fascinating to watch. We actually had to close the museum for six straight days because they came in with a full production crew – they had two rental trucks filled with film equipment here, they were laying down dolly tracks up there to roll the cameras on, they had director, assistant director, producer, 20 production assistants, make-up artists. It was just an amazing thing.

Videogames have grown to become an important part of mainstream culture, but why do you think retrogaming has become such a big deal?

GV: I don’t know if there is really any one correct answer for that. I guess it’s maybe America’s fascination with fads. Things like the hula hoop – all of a sudden, it’s like everybody had to have a hula hoop. And then they just went by the wayside. But videogames caught on. There was this videogame culture anyway, and it exploded right after the era of Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pac-Man. With Pac-Man, of course, it really went through the roof because it was the first game that had a character that you could use for marketing and sell everything from Pac-Man underwear to Pac-Man lunchboxes, Pac-Man Halloween costumes, any sort of glassware that you could stick Pac-Man on. I remember when I first started here at Funspot, quite a lot of our prizes at the prize counter were Pac-Man things because that was just the rage.

Do you ever get videogame legends dropping by for a quick play on their favourite machines?

GV: No, we haven’t really attracted any of the Nolan Bushnells or Pete Kaufmans, who founded Exidy, or such because most of those people were based on the west coast – California or whatever. Some of them tend to show up at the west coast shows, but it’s not really convenient for them to fly cross-country. And either flying to Boston and driving two and a half hours here, or flying to Manchester, New Hampshire, and driving an hour and 15 minutes here…

But we would love to see people like that come here, especially during our tournament, which is the focal point for the year. We did have Ralph Baer at our tournament last year, the inventor of the home videogame. Ralph lives here in New Hampshire, so we sent a limousine down to his house last year, brought him up for the day and people were just thrilled to see him because he doesn’t go out often any more. Ralph is, I believe, 86 years old now – he doesn’t travel as much as he did in the past.

What is the next goal for the Classic Arcade Museum?

GV: Next goal for the Arcade Museum is that I’d like to start actively seeking out corporate sponsorship or private individual sponsorship to expand the museum. We still have at least 50 more games in storage that need complete restoration. And I have many ideas in my head that I won’t share at the moment but that I would love to implement – but of course it’s all based on funding to keep the museum expanding to the way that I envision it going.

And you get no money from the state?

GV: Oh, no. And the income that comes in from those old games is minimal at best.

Is Funspot what you imagined it would be when you founded it over 50 years ago?

BL: Well, I’m always looking ahead, as anybody will tell you. We have a five-acre lot to the north of us here that is beautiful and we want to put a hotel on that site. We’ve talked with some hotel people already. We don’t have the money to do it ourselves at this time but we’ve been looking at different investors and ways of how we might be able to do it. We are all convinced that is the next move that Funspot has to do because we would then call it the Funspot Resort, and a resort is somewhere that has a place to stay, a place to eat and a place to do something.

Do you ever contemplate retiring?

BL: No. I live right here on the property and I open this business seven days a week at eight o’clock in the morning. And I’m working over 60 hours a week now. I do it because I enjoy it. I play golf a lot after work and I go to Orlando for six weeks every year now, to a golf resort. I’m happy, I have no idea of retiring. In fact, the first day of my retirement, I’d be wondering what was I gonna do today – and I never have to worry about that. I mean, I got a list right here on the table of stuff that Gary and I gotta do that’ll take us a week. I like to be busy, I like to be working, I like to keep moving, I like to be thinking of new things all the time.

Reprinted from Edge™ Magazine