Video games have radically changed over the last few decades — online multiplayer, realistic graphics, vast worlds, and complex programming are all taken for granted today. But in the 1980s they weren’t even fathomed as an option. Today, instead of running to the arcade to play with friends, gamers can log into their home console and play with strangers from around the world.
Many don’t know that video games came from humble, albeit fun, beginnings. Those that do know, may be aware of Pacman, Galaga, or Mario, but haven’t heard of the thousands of other games available at the time.
Nathan Block has made it his mission finding these arcade consoles, traveling far distances in the process, and letting others enjoy them at his Hidden Treasures Arcade. He has so many arcade consoles that he’s run out of room to house them, until recently. He’s found a prime location in Champlin, MN that can house the arcade systems he owns with room to expand. However, in order to purchase this property, he needs to put down a large down payment, and has reached out to arcade patrons and supporters to help him in his Kickstarter campaign.
I had the opportunity to talk to Nathan about his love of video games, his high scores, his Kickstarter campaign, and his vision for Hidden Treasures Arcade.
Minnesota Connected: What’s your favorite arcade game that you own?
Nathan Block: Oh man, there’s sort of a difference between what my favorite game is and out of the one’s that I own. I’m really proud of Qbert and Gorf. I’ve loved those games for years and I was fortunate enough to have them. Honestly, If I had to pick my favorite arcade game… That’s really tough. Gauntlet. Dragon’s Lair. There’s a whole bunch I dumped tons and tons of money into at the time. I’d probably have to sit and give that some thought.
Minnesota Connected: Is there a game that you really want to add to the arcade?
Nathan Block: There’s a whole ton of them that I’d love to add, but I think the one that I’d really like to add, that I think would be a real attention-getter, would be Dragon’s Lair. Like if I could find a working Dragon’s Lair that would be something else. But they’re pretty difficult to find in working order because those laser disc players can’t handle all that use. If I could find one of those, believe me, I’d jump on it.
Minnesota Connected: Any high scores that you’re really proud of?
Nathan Block: Oh boy, that’s a good one. I’m not really sure what my score would have been but the Mercs came out in the early 90s and I can get through that on one quarter. So I guess it would probably be that one. I’m pretty proud of that. I’ve scored over a million on the Star Wars Trilogy game. I can get through that on one quarter also, or I guess you could say one credit.
(Laughs) Let’s see. I’ll pull up my high score file. Yeah, I’m that much of a nerd I have an actual file. I’ve score 362,750 on Mr. Do, which I’m pretty proud of. Over 100,000 on Millipede. I got 112,000 on Donkey Kong once. I know that’s not anywhere near the record, but that’s still pretty darn good. (Laughter).
Minnesota Connected: Yeah, Donkey Kong is really hard.
Nathan Block: Yeah, it is. It absolutely is.
Minnesota Connected: How did you start collecting all your arcade systems?
Nathan Block: Well it sort of fell into my lap. I had a buddy who used to clean foreclosed houses and he found a Gauntlet II in the basement of one of them that was in four inches of water. So he pulled it out of the basement and gave it to me, and of course the thing didn’t work. I actually own a couple of movie theaters, that’s what I do for a living. And I got a vending company that puts video games in them and I talked to the owner, and he and I are on really good terms, and I talked to him about it and he said, “Oh, bring it down here, and we’ll fix it up for you.” And so I did and they got it looking brand new. They cleaned off all the mold. They fixed the monitor and the side panels, and you can see it prominently in the Kickstarter video. I do my interview right next to it. It’s the first game I ever got and I’m very proud of it. Then, I hadn’t had any aspirations of getting anymore, and then I saw Karate Champ on Craigslist and that’s one of those specialty games that the controls are pretty specialized and it’s difficult to mimic it on MAME. So I bought that and the guy that had it had a couple others, and so the next thing I know I had three games, and the next thing I know I’m on Craigslist again and all this stuff starts popping up. Next thing I know I’m renting a truck and going to Des Moines, Iowa, to get sixteen games from that trip. Then I got a storage locker and it becomes an addiction, really, really quick. But it’s so much fun. And there’s nothing quite like finding that game you played thirty years ago and suddenly you own it.
Minnesota Connected: Did you find most of your arcade systems on Craigslist?
Nathan Block: Craiglist is a gold mine for people who are arcade collectors. I’m not really sure why. It’s just because games are pretty hard to ship so you don’t see them much on eBay. I actually only bought one off of eBay. I bought a Mr. Do’s Castle on eBay and the shipping cost more than the game itself. 95% of my collection came from Craigslist.
Minnesota Connected: Why did you decide to open an arcade?
Nathan Block: Well, it stemmed from my childhood. That was a fun thing for me to do when I could start riding a bike and going places on my own. It was the early 80s and video games were all the rage. Arcades were everywhere. You could find them in any mall, any strip mall, there’d be a couple of them at the corner drug store, a couple of them at the pizza place down the street. Video games for me as a young boy spreading his wings was like a social thing. You went down to the arcade and met your friends, spent a couple of bucks, and enjoyed an afternoon or what have you. Nowadays we’ve got online games and you can game with people you’ve never met or never visited, but it’s not quite the same as going to the arcade to meet people.
I was hoping that Hidden Treasures would bring that back, bring that communal aspect to video gaming back, that we sort of lost. Video games have definitely improved and the technology has gotten better, and the games we can play now are nothing short of amazing, but at the same time it’s become an isolated experience… I’d like to see the concept that I’m trying to fund will bring a little bit of that back or at least be a nice down memory lane for those of us who were old enough to appreciate that sort of environment for video games.
Minnesota Connected: Seems like there’s potential to tap into a nostalgia that hungers for the bygone era of the 80s, but in a world full of video game options, how do you think Hidden Treasures can lure the younger generation that don’t know anything about Gorf?
Nathan Block: That’s a good question. That is going to be one of the challenges. How do you get the younger kids to come out? I think if you can sort of play the nostalgia and the 80s coming in vogue now, especially with the TV show attention coming recently. I think it’s also prevalent in the hipster culture where you gravitate toward older things that were popular two or three decades ago. I think you’ll be able to attract them to come in. I guess whether or not it will be a viable long term option is always a question. There’s a lot of flash in the pan nostalgia, but Atari is about to re-release the 2600 and I think that’s going to help a lot. And hopefully they’ll still be enough of a curiosity with the arcade that as I continue to expand and find more games. That people will still want to come and see what I unearth out of someone’s basement or what have you. I like to think the curiosity will keep the arcade going.
Minnesota Connected: So, you found a location in Champlin, MN. Can you give any specific details?
Nathan Block: Well, right now there’s not much to tell. I found a 2600 square foot building, and it’s pretty much just an empty shell which is perfect. There’s not going to be much demo. I just want to put some sheet rock up and a drop ceiling and put in a whole lot of electric and I should be ready to go. And that’s really what I want. I want a place where there’s just a whole bunch of games there, which is what I grew up with. Just games. I’ve got so many that I need a pretty big space to display them all and that was part of the reason why this was attractive is that it has enough room for me to do that. It has been an ongoing quest over the last year where I’ve been looking over places and seen a lot of places which were perfect, but too expensive. Affordable, but not what I look for. This is the first place that I’ve gone in saying, “Wow this is great. This is perfect.” Hopefully we can get this Kickstarter funded and away we go.
Minnesota Connected: Have you heard of Up/Down Arcade?
Nathan Block: Oh yeah absolutely. I actually have not been there yet. Up/Down is really more of a “Barcade.” And I don’t drink, so I’m not attracted by that, and a lot of their games I own already. I’m looking for a place that, and this is part of the impetus of what I’m trying to, but the place that I would go to would put an emphasis on games that are more difficult to find. You can find Pac-man, Frogger, and Asteroids anywhere. These are all common games and people have taken care of them because they were super popular. They were iconic games of the time. But, there were so many other games that were made in the 80s. There were literally 100s of titles. I’ll see a video game on collector’s forum that I haven’t played and that’ll make me sit up because I spent my whole childhood in arcades. If there’s a game out there I haven’t played I sit up and take notice. And that’s what I want. I want some place that’s got all those games that I remember playing that wasn’t converted to home systems. I want that kind of place.
Minnesota Connected: Tell me about your Kickstarter campaign.
Nathan Block: Well, the Kickstarter campaign is basically to raise enough money to put a healthy down payment on the building. At this point I’ve sunk a rather significant sum into acquiring these games and keeping them maintained and fixed. It’s not a cheap hobby. I mean it really isn’t. So, I’m looking to get some help and get this building purchased. The rewards I’m offering for donating are pretty good I think for putting this thing together. The building will be purchased so the home will be permanent. The games will be available for people to play and that’s what we’re looking to do. We’re looking to get a permanent home for these games, so they’ll be maintained, loved, and appreciated.
Minnesota Connected: Where do you keep the arcade systems currently?
Nathan Block: Well, they’re spread out all over the place. There’s some in my basement. There’s some in a storage locker. There’s some in a store front where Hidden Treasure Arcade had a “Round One” if you will back a year or two ago. Basically, I kept on buying games and there’s so many games in that location that there’s nowhere to walk. It was kind of my own worst enemy. We need a bigger space for all of these and that’s what we’re trying to do right now.
Minnesota Connected: Why should people support your Kickstarter?
Nathan Block: I think there are people who appreciate having these games around. I mean video games are so prevalent in our culture right now. We’ve got them in our phones. We’ve got them online. We’ve got console systems where we can play them. Video games are everywhere. Really it all started from these big clunky machines with primitive graphics and primitive sound, but those machines have spawned this era of video gaming that we know today. It’s pretty remarkable how far things have come, but it’s even more remarkable to go back and look where all these games have come from. Call of Duty that came from Commando or all these games that spawned out of one game or the other. It’s pretty cool to see the origins. I have to think that it’s still worthwhile for people to see that and experience that and I can’t be the only one who loves these machines. I’d like to see people throw down and support it if they knew these games would be available long term, not at the mercy of a lease or a landlord, but that they’ll be around.
Minnesota Connected: What is the greatest challenge that faces you?
Nathan Block: I think the biggest challenge is that the business model is sustainable. I guess the jury is out on that until we get the doors open. The arcade may go through some changes and there might be some things that we have to do differently, but I certainly have plenty of ideas for it getting involved in the community and it being a part of fundraising and having contests and food drives and all sorts of things. I think that throughout all that it will make the arcade relevant, not just from a historical standpoint but from a community standpoint. I think from there we will become a permanent fixture.
Minnesota Connected: How can people get involved and help support Hidden Treasures Arcade?
Nathan Block: Right now we are only on Facebook and the Kickstarter campaign page, both can be found searching “Hidden Treasures Arcade.” If you go to the Kickstarter, there’s a video that I made that talks about what we talked about here and about the arcade. I run the Facebook page and I answer all the questions and make all the posts. There’s pictures of some of our games online and you can see what we have. Eventually, we’ll get a website up and running, but it’s more important to get this Kickstarter off the ground before we go much further. Check out the Kickstarter and Facebook page. Interact with us and donate if you can. Hopefully we’ll have a grand opening before the year is out.
You can donate to Hidden Treasures Arcade Kickstarter Campaign here.
Photos courtesy of: Nathan Block