My Trip To The Musee Mechanique
When I took my trip to San Francisco last month to guest on Retronauts (and see some friends), I knew I had to make a stop at Musee Mechanique, an arcade located down at the Fisherman’s Wharf.
The Musee Mechanique is not your typical arcade, instead of focusing on what’s new and hot (fighting games and crane machines, sadly), it’s more of a museum where vintage, hard-to-find and historically important arcade games are put on display for visitors to view and play, some of which are probably over 100 years old. It’s a one-of-a-kind place, with plenty of items that you’ll probably never see elsewhere.
With over 300 machines and games in the massive warehouse space, I couldn’t interact and document them all, but I thought I’d share with you some of the more memorable and interesting items I ran across. I apologize for the mediocre picture quality on some of these pics, I only had my iPhone camera with me the day I went.
This is NOT a pinball machine, although I could see how one could make that mistake. This is a game called Upper Deck, a very early arcade baseball game. Balls are “pitched” at you, and you hit the button to swing the bat. On the back of the playing field is a ramp, and the targets behind it determine the success of your hit, ranging from “foul” to “home run.” It’s very simple, but addictive, although its addictive nature might have had something to do with the fact that I racked up a huge score on my first play, and sucked royally on every subsequent play. Never try to chase that beginner’s luck high!
I have no idea when this first was released, but I’m guessing it’s close to a hundred years old. Like a good chunk of the machines at the arcade, it’s not really a game per say, but more of a display. You put a quarter in and watch the robot man ride his robot horse…and that’s it. But I bet that was enough to blow people’s minds back in the day. I love the aesthetic of this thing, it’s like proto-steampunk.
This is a massive display, one that would be impossible to capture in a single picture. When someone puts a quarter in it, the whole thing comes to life, the rides move, little wooden figures run around, bells ring, it’s pretty intense. I can’t imagine the manpower that went into building this thing – or what a nightmare it must be moving it from place to place. I bet that this thing is pretty ancient, I wonder what voodoo keeps it running so well.
Of course, there’s some newer stuff too. But why The Terminator? I have no clue
This is not an official Pong cabinet, but one of countless knock-offs that came out in the wake of the original’s success. The novelty with this unit was that it supported team play, allowing two teams of two to go at it in a game of doubles Pong. I imagine getting four people to huddle around that tiny machine must be tough.
This is Laughing Sal. I don’t know what she does, but I saw her move once and it was fucking terrifying. You can’t see the scale with this picture, but she’s like six feet tall. Creepy as hell. If Chucky from Child’s Play had a mom, she would be it.
Probably one of the oldest “games” in the Musee Mechanique, this is National K.O. Fighter. As you can probably guess, it’s a super-early version of Rockem Sockem Robots, where two players compete to “KO” the opposing boxer. Unlike a lot of the other vintage gear, it really didn’t work all that great, but you got the idea. I think the robot on the right looks like Ultraman.
A lot of older pinball games have very crowded playing fields like this one, making them a bit hard to play as the ball becomes pretty unpredictable fairly fast. And check out the massive chasm between the flippers. Sure, it’s split in two with a tiny bumper in the middle, but it’s incredibly easy to go four and out on this machine within minutes.
And take note of that crazy sticker on the bottom right corner of the machine. That’s no joke, pinball had a bad rep for most of the 20th century, and was commonly associated with criminals, gambling and drug use, so in many places kids were forbidden from using them Heck, in some places they were downright illegal for everyone. If you’re interested in the story behind that insanity then check out the pinball documentary Special When Lit, it’s really fascinating.
The back corner of the arcade had newer machines, including this awesome edition of San Francisco Rush Alcatraz Edition– which makes sense since you could practically see the island prison from where that game was. This part of the arcade also housed basketball games, skeet ball and a lot other machines that children of the 80s should recognize. As such, I spent a lot of time there. Although that Indiana Jones pinball game is a real evil bastard.
A vintage arm wrestling game from I-don’t-even-know-when. This dude was no joke. I beat it on the lowest setting, but it wasn’t easy. I went up two settings for my next try and I gave up almost immediately under fear that he might break my arm. For real.
I remember these! Seeing this brought back some pretty intense flashbacks of arcade hockey duels between me and my brother. I thought this was an original model, but then I noticed those odd URLs. Maybe it was refurbished and those were added on later, or maybe they actually still make these things? Regardless, I want one in my house. My brother always beat me at this and I know I could school his ass now.
This one has a simple concept, but it’s addictive as hell. You drive the car down a swerving road, you have no enemies or obstacles, but if you want a high score you have to keep the care down the center line at all times. Deviate even a millimeter and you won’t get the points. I played this thing three times and the highest I could get was that score you see there – so I suck. I kind of wanted to try it drunk, but it was only 11:00 AM and even I have some standards.
Death Race! The real find of this place, at least from the perspective of someone who is more interested in “modern” gaming and not mechanical toys. Death Race is an interesting footnote in gaming history as it marked the first controversy surrounding video game violence, since the game has you driving a car and running over pedestrians for points. Although the game developers claimed the victims were “gremlins” and you were really the good guy, nothing in the game signaled as such, and the pretty gruesome cabinet art paints an obviously different picture of your role in the carnage. Alas, the game’s history and legacy is far more interesting than the game itself – it’s pretty crummy.
That was all just a small taste of what the Musee Mechanique has to offer! So if you’re ever in the San Francisco area and want to soak in a bit of video game history, be sure to check the place out! Head over to their site for all the info.