The Arcade Lovers Keeping the 80s Alive
All photos: Liam Hart
Life

Meet the Arcade Lovers Keeping Retro Gaming Alive in the UK

Arcade Club is Europe's largest venue for vintage games like "Pac-Man" and "Asteroid".
Nana Baah
London, GB
October 13, 2021, 8:15am

David Lyne wouldn’t call himself one of England’s best arcade players, but a world record and a series of leaderboards with his name at the top tell a different story. 

After 18 months of practice, in 2016, Lyne secured the world record for Galaxian, a fixed shooter game from the late 70s, scoring over two million points. “I’d never really thought about world records,” Lyne explains, fingers tapping quickly and eyes fixed on the Donkey Kong game he’s playing as he talks. “But I picked Galaxian because it was the first game I saw when I was, like, nine years old.” 

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Gaming has always been an important part of Lyne’s life. When he visited Blackpool during his two week summer holiday there, he would visit the arcade. As soon as he was old enough, he visited them on his own, no matter what it took. “I used to spend my bus money [at the arcade] – the last 10 pence – and then walk home in the rain,” he says. 

Now in his forties, not much has changed. He visits his local arcade, Arcade Club, once a week. His world record couldn’t have happened without the place, he says. “I was playing [Galaxian] for a few months and then I got to 600-and-something thousand and I thought, ‘I’m getting quite good at this. My score was good enough for third place. I was going to submit that,” he explains. “But [Arcade Club owner] Andy said ‘No, you don’t want that, you want first place’.”

David Lyne, Galaxian World Record Holder at Arcade Club.

David Lyne, Galaxian World Record Holder at Arcade Club.

Lyne first met Andy Palmer in 2014, when the latter started running Arcade Club as a side business, tucked away in the back of his family-run computer shop in Rossendale, northwest England. Palmer, an avid gamer and vintage games collector, charged people like Lyne £10 for refreshments and four hours of free play on his collection of around 30 pinball machines and arcade cabinets. 

Six years later and now, Arcade Club sprawls across three floors of an old leather mill in Bury, Greater Manchester. Palmer’s 30 machine collection has grown to over 1,500, including more pinball machines and arcade cabinets, and has earned him the title of Europe’s Largest Arcade.

“It gave me a second lease of life,” he says. “When I hit my forties, computer shops started to taper off because of iPads and things like that and this has really given me an injection to keep me going. Everybody was like, ‘This won’t work’ and now they’re all like, ‘Shit. It’s incredible.’” 

The inside of Arcade Club in Bury, Greater Manchester.

Arcade Club in Bury, Greater Manchester.

Thursdays at Arcade Club can get busy, but arriving before 6PM means you just might get to see the place in all its glory. The stairwells have video game characters painted on the walls, lit up by UV lights. On the ground floor, there’s a mix of family-friendly games, Xbox consoles and computers. It’s home to their most expensive game to date – a £25,000 four-player Mission Impossible game, one of only two in England. The second floor has a host of Japanese rhythm games, fighting games and a wall of pinball machines.

But the third floor is Palmer’s pride and joy, modelled on his trips to the arcade in the 80s. He walks through rows and rows of vintage arcade games – Asteroid, Ms. Pac-Man and Star Wars – screens glowing with players' scores and pauses. “Can you smell that?” he asks. It smells just like sitting too close to one of those old televisions with a huge back. Apparently, it’s coming off the machines. “That’s ozone in the air, the electricity from the CRT [cathode ray tubes]. They don’t make them like that anymore.” 

Andy Palmer, Arcade Club's founder.

Andy Palmer, Arcade Club's founder.

England’s arcades are different now. Although 30 percent of the population visit them year on year, they’ve decreased in number over the years due to a number of factors, says John White, CEO of Bacta, the trade body which represents the interests of Britain’s amusements and high street gaming manufacturers and operators. “[Factors] such as lack of investment in seaside towns, which before the pandemic saw fewer people visiting the coast,” he explains.

He says the pandemic was “devastating” for the industry. “Those who supply the arcade sector were unable to sell anything during the entire period and also got no support from [the] government. It’s really amazing more businesses didn’t go under.” Places like London Southbank’s Namco Funscape didn’t survive the pandemic. Instead, they’ve been replaced by newer iterations of the arcade, brimming with new technology – a far cry from the seaside’s penny pushers. 

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One of these is Gravity in Wandsworth. It features a floor of arcade games like Mario Kart, a giant Monopoly game where you spin the wheel for prizes, and a few rhythm games. But its main pulls are e-karting, the bowling alley, the crazy golf course and the Electric Gamebox, an immersive gaming experience where groups can play with interactive projections on the walls. Everything is contactless: Players upload money onto rechargeable player cards – a pound gets you around ten credits – that can also accumulate tickets for prizes.

Players at Arcade Club.

Players at Arcade Club.

“Our arcade machines have elements of the traditional experience, but are super-charged with online redemption integrations with Amazon and the like,” says Michael Harrison, Gravity Leisure’s CEO. At Gravity, I collect 1,145 tickets – enough to redeem either a PopSocket for my iPhone or a self-help book from Audible. 

Harrison, who grew up on his family’s seaside arcade, says that he still understands the pull of the more traditional arcade. “[It] still has its place,” he says. “I've spent over 30 years working in and around traditional leisure and arcades but with the new technology, customer experience and expectations are evolving. Customers young and old are embracing these new technologies.” 

Inside Arcade Club

Inside Arcade Club.

People of all ages travel from miles around to visit Arcade Club. When I arrive in Bury, the cab driver doesn’t bat an eyelid when I say I travelled from London specifically for this visit. There are parents looking to get their kids into gaming, arcade obsessives and, Palmer says, a large number of people in their sixties and seventies. “They call and ask if we have Space Invaders. They aren’t interested in new games, they want what they played in their twenties,” he says. “You can tell when people haven’t stepped into an arcade in years. They’re walking around in a daze with tears in their eyes.” 

It’s clear that nostalgia is what drives Palmer, from when he talks about visiting the arcade with his brother Paul or wonders out loud whether some of his customers are “seeing their child selves” staring back at them in the reflection of the games’ screens.

It’s what’s kept Lyne coming back all these years. “I can remember walking in for the first time and Galaxian was the first game that hit me. I’d not seen it for like 20 odd years. It felt pretty amazing. I’d played it on the emulators but actually seeing it physically for the first time. No one else could play Galaxian for a year,” he jokes.  

Inside Arcade Club's workshop

Inside Arcade Club's workshop

Running Arcade Club is a labour of love for Palmer. Despite its growth, he’s always been in charge of manning the phone lines, but he says he couldn’t do it without his staff of over 50 people. They close from Monday to Wednesday for maintenance, mainly to make sure the old machines are still in good use. The workshop in the bowels of the old mill are filled with parts – cabinets imported from Japan ready to be refurbished, stacks on stacks of new cathode ray tubes that were hauled back from Luton – and machines that are waiting to be fixed. With over 500 in one building, it takes a whole team to keep them running smoothly. 

Tracey Gleave, Volunteer Tester at Arcade Club

Tracey Gleave, Volunteer Tester at Arcade Club.

Tracey Gleave is an unofficial part of that team, as Arcade Club’s volunteer tester. “Every machine in this room gets tested weekly by me,” she says, showing me how the rotate option on a Tetris machine doesn’t work. “I was in four days a week anyway, so one of the managers approached me and said, ‘Fancy doing some testing?’ It feels good that I can help.” 

Gleave has loved gaming since she was five, starting out with Pac-Man on her dad’s Acorn BBC Microcomputer. She’s here so often that she’s bought herself fingerless anti-arthritis gloves. “I’m currently trying to learn Defender [an 80s scrolling shooter game] and so far, I’ve actually rolled two games. So if a machine has a six-figure score, you’ve got to get a seven figure score to roll it back,” she says pointing to her initials TAG flashing from the leaderboard. “One of them took about five and a half hours.”

As I listen to Palmer and Lyne discuss a world record scandal with the gravity you’d reserve for something like Watergate, it’s clear that it’s not just the games that keeps people coming back to Arcade Club. It’s the community. Gleave has refused to use her membership discount throughout the pandemic, opting to pay full price as her way of helping the business through tough times. Palmer’s main goal is to stay in control of his labour of love, rejecting outside investment so that he can keep prices down and make sure that everyone can enjoy his creation.

And for Lyne, coming to the arcade isn’t about the leaderboards, the nostalgia or the world records. It’s about the people – like Palmer and Gleave – that he now calls friends.  “Everyone from all walks of life can come,” he says. “You leave your troubles at the door and just play.”

@nanasbaah / @liam.hart