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At Low-Tech Fullerton Arcade, Nostalgia Costs Just a Quarter

Times Staff Writer

For the two red-faced, nimble-fingered thirtysomething men playing the Track & Field video game, the other night was a throwback to third grade.

“Go! Go! Go!” screamed Fullerton construction worker Steve Malloy, slamming the buttons to make his character run faster in the 100-meter race. His friend, Anaheim Web designer Anthony Lee, groaned and threw up his hands as he lost.

The pair first played it at a 7-Eleven when they became friends more than two decades ago. The thrill is the same, but the venue has changed: Now they play at all-'80s video game arcade Reagan Years in downtown Fullerton.

“This brings me back,” said Malloy, 32, breathing heavily.

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“Yeah, way back,” said Lee, 32. Smiling fondly at the game, he raised his voice over the beeps and toots of 50 other machines. “Back to when all you worried about was having enough money for the arcade.”

Although many arcades feature a handful of the classic games -- Magic Mountain and Disneyland each have about a dozen -- those such as Reagan Years that have only 1980s machines are unusual. It boasts one of the country’s largest public collections of games from that era, although a Laconia, N.H., center has nearly 200.

Reagan Years opened five years ago after owner Sean Francis, 31, had a business brainstorm when he poured $10 into a Ms. Pac-Man tabletop game during a snowless ski trip to Mt. Baldy. Each day, the arcade draws a mix of passersby nostalgic for Galaga or Tron and die-hard video-game lovers.

Community college student Tommy Meston, 19, loves the games’ simplicity. He often comes in after class while waiting for his bus to spend a few dollars on Ms. Pac-Man or Galaga.

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“It’s such a great way to escape from thinking when you’re playing these low-tech games,” he said. “Newer games are all about taking your money while you try to kill and destroy people. These games are about skill and just purely having fun.”

Quieter players like Meston ignore the more flamboyant ones, like Paul Nguyen, 31, a hyper, stocky man howling at the Space Invaders machine. A regular, he’s been dubbed “Captain Paul” by management.

“Stop! Stay right there! Nooo!” Nguyen bawled at one point, staring morosely as another of his green spaceships died. Still, he left ecstatic after an hour -- and many dollars of quarters -- because he had managed to win the machine’s highest-score position.

For Francis, the arcade is a labor of love, not money. About 1,000 games are played there daily, bringing about $250 in quarters into the token machine.

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Although the quarters, and money he makes selling about three machines a month, now sustain Reagan Years, he realized recently he needs another source of arcade income to subsidize the older games. The alternative, raising the price at Reagan Years -- say to 50 cents -- would probably spur a customer revolt, he said.

So two months ago, he opened another game center next door, the Rocket Arcade. It has about 30 games released in the last couple of years and an air hockey table; the cost for each is either 75 cents or a dollar.

Francis enjoys the newer games, but his favorites are those in Reagan Years, despite the $1,200 a month he spends on repairs because customers kick, shove and rock the aging machines while playing them.

Even with his fixes, some machines have small glitches that reveal their age: The Ms. Pac-Man screen has a constant wave running through it, and the little Dig Dug dude drills through dirt a little more slowly than he did a couple of decades ago.

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The arcade was recently renovated -- there’s new paint, black lights glow from the ceiling, and the dozens of ‘80s movie posters that normally plaster the walls have been temporarily removed. Plate-glass windows in front feature a stylized logo -- designed by “Simpsons” illustrator and former No Doubt band keyboardist Eric Stefani -- of Ronald Reagan playing a Star Wars arcade game.

Every so often, Francis says, a guy from Bakersfield drives down to play Crazy Climber, in which one scales buildings while avoiding a variety of falling objects, including flowerpots, dumbbells and bird droppings.

Francis’ favorite, a game called Tapper in which one plays a bartender pouring Budweiser beer for patrons before they get to the kegs, is being repaired. So on nights when he drops by the arcade, he plays other games.

The other night, he picked Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker, in which the singer rescues kidnapped children, using dancing skills to create magic energy and kill evil henchmen who cross his path. The grainy soundtrack features “Bad,” “Smooth Criminal” and “Beat It.”

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As Francis’ character boogied through the levels, he spun and spun to try to get the little Michael to perform a special move: throw open his jacket and thrust his pelvis. When he finally succeeded, Francis grinned with little-boy triumph.

“Look! Look!” he said happily. “I did it.”

That kind of gleeful innocence is what many of the customers are after, whether they’re assembling hamburgers in BurgerTime, wandering through a tall building to collect secret documents in Elevator Action, or swallowing dots and ghosts in the hallowed Ms. Pac-Man.

“They’re all a lot more peaceful than the games out now,” said Isabel Magdaleno, 22, a Newport Beach research assistant.

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“These are the games we grew up with,” said her friend Joanna Ornelas. “It’s exciting to pretend we’re back at that age, even if it’s only until we run out of quarters.”


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