A look at some of the rarities from this year’s show
“So what’s California Extreme?” I hear you asking. Simply put, it’s a yearly convention where arcade cabinet and pinball collectors converge in San Jose to show off their favorite machines. Enthusiasts bring their perfectly maintained arcade cabs from all over the state, then set them to freeplay for the weekend for everyone to examine and enjoy. I like to think of it as something like a classic car show, except there are arcade rarities on display rather than vehicles.
The best part is, even if you don’t have any arcade games of your own to display, you can still play all you want for a flat fee. While retro games are the focus, the show’s also become known as a great place for showing off new or upcoming pinball tables. Hundreds of different games are represented, and with so many options there’s hardly ever a long wait to play your favorites or try out something bizarre.
I’ve attended every convention since 2015, and although there are several games that make appearances every year, the roster changes constantly. You never know what you’re going to see until you walk through the doors. In no particular order, here are a few of the standouts I got to try out at this year’s show.
Baby Pac-Man (Bally Midway, 1982)
This is a good one to start with because it combines both the pinball and arcade elements of California Extreme. A sort of sequel to Ms. Pac-Man, Baby Pac-Man is a hybrid game which combines a video display on the top screen with a simple pinball game below. It’s extremely rare to find a working cabinet because a lot of the parts were custom-tooled for this machine, and the complicated design makes it terribly difficult to maintain.
The player starts on the top screen and plays as the title character, eating dots and making their way through a maze while dodging enemies. However, the maze doesn’t initially contain any energizers, so it’s impossible for Baby to turn the tables on the ghosts. Players might notice there are more escape tunnels than usual on this particular Pac-Man maze, and that’s where this game’s greatest innovation kicks in.
Whenever Baby leaves the maze via the lower tunnels, the pinball section of the machine will activate and the player will get a chance to earn some powerups for the upper video section by shooting ramps and targets below. Fruit bonuses and energizers must be earned in the pinball section, and play returns to the top screen whenever the player loses a ball. Fortunately, the maze section goes dormant while you’re doing this so you don’t have to split your attention between the two screens.
Unfortunately, these two great tastes don’t necessarily taste great together. The pinball section is too simple to be much fun, and the arcade maze is too hard to play without ducking into the pinball section first. Playing Pac-Man and playing pinball are two very different skills, and switching between the two is a little too complicated to be enjoyable. It’s been speculated that unauthorized games like this one may have been responsible for Namco yanking Midway’s Pac-Man license in the U.S.
Flapping Bird (Custom build, TubeTime, 2019)
Flappy Bird may have only existed since 2013, but it’s probably been ported to at least as many platforms as DOOM by now. This unique tabletop machine isn’t remarkable so much for the game as how it’s played. The unit utilizes vector graphics, a precursor to both pixels and polygons, and it’s built from an old military cathode ray tube originally used as a RADAR display during World War II. The very first commercial arcade game, Computer Space, was built using similar limitations. If you’re interested in learning more about the machine and how it was built, you can find the creator at Tubetime.us or on Twitter.
The Grid (Midway, 2001)
This one’s a little more modern than most of the machines you’ll see at California Extreme, and even though it’s been available at every show I’ve been to it’s still one I like to seek out and play a round or two. There probably aren’t too many places left in the world where you can find six of the cabinets linked up as you can see in the picture above. The cabinets themselves have a triangular footprint and were designed so they could be installed in multiple configurations, including side-by-side or as a circular column of six with screens facing in every direction.
The Grid was created by Midway and holds the distinction of being the company’s last arcade release. It’s a third-person deathmatch shooter, and seems to take inspiration from Unreal Tournament, Smash T.V. and The Running Man. Despite some cameos from popular Mortal Kombat characters, these machines didn’t sell very well, too unwieldy and expensive for most arcade operators. It’s a shame, because in an era before reliable internet or split-screen multiplayer, The Grid was one of the best ways to frag your friends (and it’s still pretty entertaining launching man-sized cannonballs across an arena to slam your buddy into a wall). I wouldn’t mind seeing a modern update: maybe someone can patch in 94 other players and turn it into a Battle Royale game.
Criss Cross Pop-Up (Chicago Coin, 1964)
This one has nothing to do with making a video. Part bowling, part Skee-ball, Criss Cross Pop-Up sort of defies description, as it’s more of an electro-mechanical amusement than a true pinball table. It’s not exactly difficult since there’s only one button to press, but there’s still some skill required to get the high score. That said, it’s a lot simpler in execution than most pinball tables and there’s more of an element of randomness.
Pop-Up challenges you to arrange four balls on a 3×3 grid by aiming a single pinball on the lower playfield, which will affect the upper display. The upper playfield actually sits below the pinball section, but it’s reflected via a mirror built into the backglass so the player can see what’s going on. Getting three balls in a row will earn you some points, and getting more difficult arrangements (such as one ball in each corner, or a diamond shape) will earn more than simpler configurations. You can choose which balls will be launched by waiting for the arrow to point at the proper row and launching the pinball at the target, but you’re still up to the mercy of gravity and circumstance as far as where the balls will land. Part of the strategy is deciding how many of your ten shots you want to use to adjust and try for a more valuable grouping, or whether it might be more productive to leave well enough alone if they’re already in position.
I was surprised at how much fun this one was, and my friend and I enjoyed trying to beat each other’s high scores. It’s never going to happen at this point, but a digital version would be a great fit for the 3DS. That said, it wouldn’t be able to emulate the feel of the machine as the pinball hits the backboard, or the rattle as the balls drop into place.
Teeter Torture (Prototype by Exidy, 1982)
Of all the games displayed at California Extreme, this has to be one of the rarest. Teeter Torture was never put into production, and the cabinet above is the only dedicated machine known to exist. Fortunately the ROM has been made freely available, but California Extreme offers a rare chance to play on something pretty close to the original hardware.
The gameplay looks to be inspired by Space Invaders, as enemies slowly fall from the top of the screen and you can shoot them before they reach the bottom. Simple, right? Well… maybe not. You can only have one bullet on screen at a time and you control the gun’s movement with a spinner built into the cabinet, both of which add to the difficulty. Additionally, your gun is balanced on a see-saw, and underneath both sides of the platform there are plungers connected to a barrel full of dynamite. If either side has too much weight on it for too long, the dynamite explodes and it’s game over. To complicate matters, if you miss any of the approaching enemies they’ll attach to whichever side of the teeter-totter they land on, shifting the weight and making it more difficult to balance.
Teeter Torture relies on a fairly simple concept, but it might have been a little too complicated for arcade-goers in 1982. It probably wouldn’t have drawn in a lot of quarters compared to contemporaries like Donkey Kong Jr., Q*Bert, Dig Dug or Joust. But it’s still entertaining and challenging, and I’m glad the owner is willing to share it with the world.
The Goonies (1986, Konami)
Sorry for the poor picture quality on this one.
California Extreme features lots of Pinball and arcade machines, but there’s a console freeplay area as well. This isn’t technically an arcade game, although it did appear on Nintendo Vs. Systems and PlayChoice-10 machines in the U.S. so there’s a chance you might have seen it at your local minigolf facility or bowling alley. It’s far more likely you’re familiar with the sequel, though, since The Goonies II received a worldwide release and was available on the Nintendo Entertainment System
If you’ve ever played The Goonies II you probably have an idea what to expect from its predecessor: unusually large mice who drop bombs which can be used to open safes, Fratelli brothers to avoid, and some decent platform action. You might be surprised to find that the item collection and adventure game elements aren’t present in the first Goonies game, and it’s a rather straightforward platformer rather than a confusing exploration game. In my humble opinion, the earlier title is a lot more fun.
This one’s hard to find in the U.S. since PlayChoice machines were usually fairly well locked down by Nintendo and few made their way into the hands of private collectors. The Japanese Famicom version plays great though, and someone was nice enough to bring an adapted, late-model NES to play it on.
Black Knight: Sword of Rage (Stern Pinball, 2019)
Black Knight is considered one of the premier pinball tables among aficionados, and its sequel Black Knight 2000 is at least as well regarded. The original 1980 Black Knight was the first table to debut a two-level playfield and an electromagnetic save, both features quickly embraced by the rest of the industry. Its 1989 sequel Black Knight 2000 was one of the last pinball machines programmed by Ed Boon, better known for his work on the Mortal Kombat franchise.
The newest table at the show, Black Knight: Sword of Rage features a physical black knight on the playfield who’ll try to block some of your shots with a whirling flail in his right hand and a shield in his left. Sword of Rage also features a full color HD screen inserted below the backglass, something that wasn’t possible 30 years ago. Having waited my turn to play myself I can attest that A.) this table is a lot of fun, and B.) I still suck at pinball.
With this machine, Black Knight becomes one of only a few pinball franchises to complete a trilogy of themed games. All three Black Knight machines were designed by Steve Ritchie, a legend among pinball enthusiasts who’s known for the smooth flow of his tables. I’m not an expert but in my opinion it’s an excellent machine, and it was pretty cool to be able to see all three Black Knight tables side by side.
Pac Man and Chomp Chomp (Namco, 1983)
This one’s almost as rare as Teeter Torture, but not quite. It’s better known by its Japanese name, Pac & Pal, and it was never widely released outside of Japan. The game switches up normal Pac-Man gameplay by adding a rival character who steals point bonuses and drags them back to the ghosts’ home before Pac-Man can collect them. Namco considered exporting the game to the U.S. under the name Pac-Man & Chomp Chomp, but the plans were scrapped, most likely because this was right around the time the company decided to pull Bally Midway’s distribution rights. A few test units made their way overseas, but for many years this game remained a Japanese arcade exclusive.
The machine seen above is a homebrew project, sort of a physical answer to the hypothetical question “What if Namco had released this game in the U.S.?” The owner, Brendon Parker, meticulously restored a damaged Ms. Pac-Man cabinet, and created custom artwork based on the concept art and the old Pac-Man Saturday morning cartoon show. He also customized the game’s programming, using a modified ROM which changes the sprite from the green monster seen in Pac & Pal to Pac-Man’s dog, Chomp Chomp.
Both Baby Pac-Man and Pac-Man & Chomp Chomp share the same problem; Pac-Man is a damn near perfect arcade game, and adding new mechanics to it doesn’t make it any more fun. Still, Parker did a fantastic job creating this machine, and it’s fascinating to try it out and think about what might have been. If you’d like to know more about Pac & Pal, there’s a great retrospective from a few years back at USGamer.
Crazy Otto (General Computer Corporation, 1981)
Another custom machine by Brendon Parker, this one’s better known as the precursor to Ms. Pac-Man. It should be clear by now that Namco and Midway were willing to try almost anything to follow up on the success of Pac-Man, but very few of their ideas were working. Changing the fundamental simplicity of Pac-Man just made things worse, but arcade denizens who’d mastered the mazes were hungry for a follow-up.
A small group of technical students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had recently formed an arcade corporation called General Computer Corporation (GCC). They specialized in “enhancement kits,” early ROM hacks which could extend the life of existing arcade machines. (If you’ve ever played a “Rainbow Edition” of Street Fighter II, you’ve seen this sort of thing.) Since Pac-Man was THE arcade hit of 1981, it only made sense that GCC would tinker with the boards and try to improve what they could.
The result was something GCC called Crazy Otto, a vastly improved version of Pac-Man which added new mazes, monster behavior, and other enhancements. GCC showed their project to Bally Midway, who offered to buy the project and release it as an official follow-up to Pac-Man. Less than a year later, Ms. Pac-Man cabinets running a modified version of GCC’s game could be found in arcades coast-to-coast. But very few people have ever heard of Crazy Otto, and Namco aims to keep it that way.
Fast-forward to 2012. Brendon Parker has been fascinated by Pac-Man ever since the circular hero was the focus of Google’s daily doodle back in 2010. He attends California Extreme as an 11-year-old and is blown away by the display of an original Crazy Otto circuit board by a member of GCC. (Even today the original Crazy Otto code is difficult to come by, thanks to a royalty deal between GCC and Pac-Man‘s parent company Namco.) Parker decides to learn how to reverse-engineer a Ms. Pac-Man machine and teaches himself how to hack the game’s data, turning operations on and off one by one until he knows the game inside and out. He also learns how to redraw the game’s sprites, changing the ghosts into furry monsters with antennae and the main character into a blue-eyed, long-legged creature which looks more like the cabinet designs. As a final touch he creates new cabinet art, emulating the style of the artwork on the original display.
Now 18 years old, Parker has brought a new, Pac-Man themed restoration to California Extreme every year since 2015. He’s started a business providing custom graphics for others who share his interest. He was nice enough to pose for the picture above and speak with me for a few minutes during the show, explaining his passion for Pac-Man and the work he’s put into preserving some of the lesser-known games in the franchise. If you’d like to know more, there are detailed writeups on each of his projects on his website, Pacificarcades.com.
There were tons more neat arcade machines on display, including a four-player standup cabinet for Super Slam Dunk Touchdown, a brand-new pinball table based on Deadpool, and even a copy of Sega’s bizarre live-action hologram game Time Traveller. This list is barely scratching the surface; you can read about some of the other rare games I’ve seen at the show by clicking here or here.
If you’re ever in the bay area during the last weekend of July, it’s well worth a trip to the Santa Clara convention center to visit the show. And even if you’re not, there’s a chance you might be able to find a local version, such as Free Play Florida, ReplayFX in Pittsburgh, or the monthly events held by Ground Kontrol in Portland. If you do make it out, let me know! There’s a good chance you’ll find something even weirder and cooler if you poke around a little.