…arcade machine. Mine was Donkey Kong.
Many people ask arcade machine collectors, “how do you even get these things?” And usually the answer is well, you kind of get into the ranks of fellow collectors, form networks, buy from other collectors, ask the owners of bars/restaurants that have machines if they’ll sell them, inquire at local amusement devices distributors and operators…it’s never really a straight answer, because that’s how collecting arcade games really is.
But you have to start somewhere. I scored my Donkey Kong machine way back in 1999. And I literally found it in the classifieds section of the paper.
“ARCADE VIDEO GAMES FOR SALE: Donkey Kong and Tron. $200 each.” I called the guy who placed the ad and he still had it. So I told him I’d come look at it right away, and so I headed over there with my SUV and a buddy.
The Tron was being loaded up into a pickup truck by another dude when I got there, who was saying “ah, my kids will have fun with it,” which I knew full well translated to “I loved this game when I was a teenager and my wife is gonna kill me for bringing this thing into the house.” The seller also had a Space Zap that he tried to push off on me, but I passed.
But the Donkey Kong was in pretty great condition, and it was running beautifully. It was a no-brainer. 200 bucks later (I know, that price is totally bonkers these days), I was driving home with this behemoth in my truck, fulfilling my childhood fantasy of owning an actual arcade game. Just like that.
I had given little thought to the fact that I was living in the upper level of a 100-year-old house, and I had to schlep this thing up some winding stairs. Somehow, with some struggling and a reality check about the weight and unwieldiness of arcade cabinets, we made it happen.
There it was, in my apartment. My very own Donkey Kong, a game that I saw for the first time at Baxter’s Pizza in Appleton, Wisconsin when I was 6 years old, and have loved ever since. A game that never really got an arcade-perfect home port, from the good-enough-for-me Atari 2600 version and the utterly godawful Intellivision version, to the respectable ColecoVision system pack-in and the 75%-accurate NES version (which looked and sounded great, but was of course retrofitted into a horizontal aspect ratio and inexplicably excluded the cement factory level). The novelty of playing an arcade game for free whenever I wanted was amazing (and never really wears off, by the way).
While the machine functioned perfectly and the monitor looked bright and clear (the seller had owned it himself since the ’80s), there were some cosmetic issues that eventually began to bother me. The hard plastic control panel overlay had some cigarette burns above the player 1 and 2 buttons (from way back in the day when you could smoke inside whatever building it came out of, be it a bar or arcade), the instruction stickers on the control panel and bezel and the insert coin sticker were all torn, wrinkled, and faded, and some of the wooden supports inside the cabinet were cracked. The T-molding was dirty, stiff, and decaying a bit. There was also no side art on it — although it looked like there may never have been any in the first place, as there were no torn remnants nor adhesive residue on the cabinet.
So a year or so after buying it (and after actually moving to the lower floor of the same house), I decided to try my hand at a little restoration work on my Donkey Kong. I had zero experience with such a project, so I was thankful that it was all cosmetic and not electronic. But this was when companies that made nice, accurate, reproduction arcade parts were beginning to spring up, and I got a fresh new control panel overlay that really looked identical to the original, as well as brand new T-molding, white and clean. Being proficient in Photoshop and knowledgeable of printing standards (I have a degree in printing and publishing), I found high-res scans of the instruction stickers and coin sticker online, cleaned them up (and actually mostly re-drew them) in Photoshop with painstaking accuracy (no seriously, they’re REALLY good), and printed my own on glossy adhesive stock.
I had never actually disassembled the machine before, so it was a little daunting to remove the bezel and control panel so I could access the broken wooden pieces inside, and actually dust and clean up the monitor and the interior.
Some wood glue and clamps fixed the broken pieces inside.
Cleaning up the screen made the game look even better than it already did, as I hadn’t realized that there was 15 years of dust coating the monitor way back there behind the vertical plastic bezel. The control panel had to be totally disassembled to replace the CPO, so I quickly learned how to take apart and reassemble the leaf-switch buttons and the joystick.
After only a couple days of work, I put the whole mess back together and had what looked like a fresh, new Donkey Kong in my house.
The only thing I didn’t do was order and install reproduction side art. I still haven’t done it –it’s just something I’ve never gotten around to. I’m also a little scared to try to put those giant, expensive stickers on the cabinet and hope I don’t get them crooked, wrinkled, or bubbly.
I got my second arcade machine in 2002, and from there on the collection snowballed, eventually topping out at 14 machines and a bin full of JAMMA PCBs by 2009. Eventually I decided to mostly get out of the arcade part of the videogame collecting hobby, and sold off over half of my machines, paring the collection down to my current six essentials. Even if I should decide to sell off any more at some point, I’m always going to hang onto that Donkey Kong. And now that I have fewer machines to worry about, I can focus on restoring the ones I have, and maybe someday I’ll add that Donkey Kong side art.
I do know one thing though — I’m never gonna find another one for 200 bucks.
(NOTE: Apologies for the quality of some of the old pictures. It was 2000 and I had a one-megapixel camera that saved pictures to floppy disk.)