Bags of cash, court battles and teen obsession in 1980s video game gold rush
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Brent Silby was standing in a Christchurch dairy one day when he heard a strange noise. It went: Blip blop, blip blop. Blip blop, blip blop. He turned his head and in the corner of the Cranford St dairy was a tall black cabinet housing a television. Two backlit words beamed out from above the screen. It was the late 1970s and Silby was eight years old. He was about to discover a new obsession. The two words above the screen? Space Invaders.
"I was mesmerised almost instantly," says Silby, who is now a teacher, but codes video games in his spare time.
People rush through the doors of Wizards after they open for the first time in 1982.
"It was like nothing I had ever seen before. The idea that you could move the joystick and push a button and something would happen on the screen was amazing." "Whenever I saw one I would ask my folks for 20 cent pieces. I would spend all my pocket money on video games." Silby was not alone in his new obsession. Space Invaders, with its simple and addictive game-play, was a global trailblazer when it was first released in 1978. The arrival of Spacies in Christchurch sparked a brief gold rush defined by moral panic, video game operators with literal bags of cash, court battles, secretly recorded phone calls, crime, New Zealand opening to foreign investment for the first time and teenagers feeding pocket money into more and more advanced and entertaining arcade machines. It was a gold rush that left behind an abundance of video game machines that slowly became hallowed objects of nostalgia for a generation. One new venue opening soon in Christchurch will showcase about a dozen restored vintage video games. Old gamers will be able to go back to a time when Spacies reigned supreme.
The peak of that reign was when Wizards arcade opened on Gloucester St next door to the Isaac Theatre Royal in central Christchurch on July 23, 1982.
It was a $1 million arcade full of dozens of the latest video game machines, a dodgem car track and special carpet patterned with Wizard heads.
A Chastronics Black Dragon arcade game cabinet. It was made in Christchurch in the 1980s and was spotted in Greymouth in 2005.
Silby first visited about a week after it opened.
"It was really flashy, like nothing Christchurch had seen before. It had these flashing neon signs outside."
Wizards was one of the first dedicated arcades in Christchurch. Before then arcade games had to be tracked down in the back of burger bars and dairies. Arcade machines could be found in The Dog House in Cathedral Square, Farmer Johns on Papanui Rd, Dixie Land and the Blue Magpie on Riccarton Rd, the Burger Bunker near Sockburn overpass and various dairies and fish and chip shops across the city. Before the arrival of Wizards, one man was the video game kingpin in Christchurch – David Sloan. Sloan, who is now a successful property investor, ran machines across the city. He started in 1975 by installing five pinball machines in the Dog House. The income from the machines was split 50/50 between him and the owner of the milk bar. By 1979, Sloan was operating 50 machines across Christchurch and owned both Farmer Johns and the Dog House.
The dodgem track in Wizards was demolished and replaced with more arcade machines just a few months after opening day. The dodgem cars were made in Christchurch.
He purchased some of his video game machines from a Christchurch company run by local entrepreneur Chris Chaston, who died in 1989.
Since 1977, Chaston had been making video game machines from a small warehouse on Peterborough St.
Alan Nobbs, who now sells real estate on the Banks Peninsula, worked in the warehouse making video game machines during the school holidays and later left High School to work for Chaston full time. He worked alongside his older brother, Andrew Nobbs, who was highly skilled in the repair and manufacture of video game machines. Andrew Nobbs now lives in semi-retirement in the US, having made his fortune from a 1990s internet venture with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. "It was just three of us for a while, knocking them out," says Alan Nobbs. "We had to lift machines up and down the stairs. It was very back of the garage stuff. The industry just didn't exist yet." Because of strict import rules in late 1970s New Zealand, the circuit boards were smuggled into the country. "The boards were probably coming in people's suitcases because you just weren't allowed to bring these things in." "A lot of these guys would go over to shows in America and bring back all these boards." The illuminated signs above the monitor were screen printed by Richard Hunter at Screen Sign Arts in Christchurch. As arcade machines grew in popularity, Hunter struggled to keep up with demand.
Pintech director Iain Jamieson is providing vintage video game and pinball machines for a new bar in Christchurch. Space Wars was made in Christchurch and was a clone of Space Invaders. The cabinet was made in Ashburton.
"There was a time when we could hardly keep up with printing the panels."
The video games grew in complexity very fast, Nobbs says.
"Technology was getting so rampant. You went from Pong to laserdisc games like Dragon's Lair in just two years." Silby remembers it as a "golden age". "Almost overnight there were games everywhere." And then in 1979 the inventor of Space Invaders came knocking on Chaston's door. Japanese company Taito had kicked off the golden age of video games when they created Space Invaders in 1978. A year later they wanted to buy Chaston's company and acquire Andrew Nobbs' expertise in arcade machines.
Teenagers play the video game Dribble in Wizards on September 12, 1984.
Government policy had just changed to allow foreign businesses to buy New Zealand companies. Taito's application to purchase the Christchurch company was one of the first ever considered by the Overseas Investment Commission under the new rules. Video games were at the forefront of a major shift in the New Zealand economy, as it opened up to global investment for the first time.
Taito purchased Chaston's company in April 1980 and had 95 machines placed in 21 venues across Christchurch by the end of 1981.
Taito invested in the company and moved the manufacturing base to a much larger warehouse on Kingsley St in Sydenham. "The company started pumping money in," says Alan Nobbs. "We were making hundreds of Space Invaders machines and they were being shipped all over the country and at one point to Australia." Christchurch computer experts were recruited to help with coding games. Neil Breen, who now develops software for local authorities, would code copies of existing games so they would work on older machines used in Brazil. He rewrote a version of Donkey Kong from scratch in a warehouse in Sydenham.
This Metal Hawk helicopter simulator from 1988 is probably the only working example in NZ. It is one of the vintage video games Pintech director Iain Jamieson is providing for a new bar in Christchurch.
"It was probably the best time of my life from a job point of view," says Breen.
"For someone who was a bit of a nerd or a geek, to be making video games was pretty much nirvana. It was pure creativity."
In December 1982, Taito purchased an old car yard on Gloucester St with the aim of setting up their own arcade. If they owned their own arcade, Taito would not have to share video game revenue with their various venues. But Sloan claimed that Taito's arcade plans broke an agreement he had with the company that they would not impinge on his territory. So he took Taito to court to stop them opening Wizards. He lost the case, but the judge's ruling on the matter is very revealing about the Christchurch video game scene. The case also reveals that a Taito employee was secretly recording his calls with Sloan. Justice Maurice Casey said Sloan was concerned about his "very lucrative takings" from the Dog House and summarised the video game scene in Christchurch.
These video game machines, being played on the opening day of Wizards in 1982, were made in Christchurch.
"This was a rapidly changing and developing business scene where a lot of money could be made very quickly," Casey wrote.
But how much money was being made from video games in Christchurch?
Alan Nobbs says it was a lot. "The video game machine operators would come in with bags of cash. Literally bags of cash," he says. "You had Space Invaders doing a couple of hundred dollars a day in some places, all in cash. A burger bar would have 10 machines. In 1970s New Zealand that was quite a bit of money per day." "They were taking serious money. A machine cost about two to three thousand dollars, but some people were making that in a couple of weeks from one machine." Academic Melanie Swalwell, who wrote a chapter on New Zealand gaming history in the book Video Games Around the World, said operators have told her stories about cars groaning under the weight of coins from their arcade machines. She said there were about 15 companies in New Zealand involved in video games in the early 1980s.
The yellow Wizards sign remained on the building until it was demolished after the 2011 Canterbury earthquakes
"That is incredible for a country of that size."
The money being made from arcade machines explains why Taito wanted to move into the Christchurch market and why they spent nearly $1m building a modern arcade on Gloucester St.
Silby remembers Wizards as a social place where the joy of videogames was shared. "They had large monitors on top of the cabinets so people could watch them as people played. It made it more sociable." "It was a spectator sport. When you were doing well on a game a few people would gather round and watch. You would attract a crowd." The whole arcade would sometimes be rented out to groups for an evening to help with fundraising. People would play a flat fee to enter the arcade and then all the games were free. Alan Nobbs ran Wizards for the first few years. "Wizards was a dark, gloomy place. It was all dark reds and blacks. For that type of machine you needed a dark atmosphere in those days. Arcades were never bright and breezy places."
The Wizards building in August 2011 inside the central city red zone. The building bacame Toff's in 1999. The old yellow Wizards sign can still be seen in the top left.
The arcade minted its own steel coins for use in machines, which meant they could vary the price for a game. The coins have now become collector's items, with one selling on TradeMe in 2013. The auction listing said that "28 years ago, a little nine year old boy had the misfortune of getting the zip to his Green Adidas three stripe trackies jammed, trapping these little gems. Oh the tears."
"As anyone who visited Wizards back in the eighties knows, this was the only place to be, an arcade paradise."
The token sold on TradeMe for $50.
But Nobbs said the special coins caused trouble. People would make their own fake coins and jam them in the machines, or thread a bit of wire down the coin slot to activate a game.
But that was the least of his worries. Arcades in the 1980s attracted vandalism, violence and "street kids" looking for a warm place to hang out.
Nobbs was in charge of making sure troublemakers didn't get into the arcade.
"I've still got a chipped tooth from when I was punched one time. A kid was denied entry and he was a bad bugger. The constant daily battle of keeping those guys out was the worst part of the job."
"We got a little bit of bother from Christchurch's street kid mini gang scene, which reinforced the negative connotations people had of video game arcades in those days."
Silby remembers the "dodgy" atmosphere of the arcades.
"Wizards wasn't really a family entertainment place, but it was safer than the Dog House round the corner, which had a dodgy reputation. At night it was a good place for young dodgy characters to hang out."
"Videogames had a bit of a bad reputation in those days. They were equated with kids that got into trouble and caused violence in society and all that sort of stuff. My parents weren't too keen on me spending too much time there."
Like rock music and Dungeons & Dragons before it, arcade machines became the focus of a moral panic. A front page story in The Press from December 1981 carries the headline "Games cause war". It details a school principal's concern that his students were spending too much money on two arcade machines housed in a shelter on the outside of a Riccarton dairy.
But Swalwell says some of the concerns about video game arcades attracting crime were well founded. She points to a shocking report from 1984 about a 14-year-old girl who was dragged from Wizards by a gang of woman into an alleyway behind New Regent St, where she was raped.
"Arcades did have a seedy image, and part of that was moral panic about what children were doing and a fear of technology, but sometimes that reputation was deserved."
"It wasn't all a media beat up. You can't deny that bad stuff happened, but then that happened in lots of other places as well."
But by the mid 1980s, arcades had become less essential. Gaming consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Master System meant teenagers could now play at home. Eventually, to paraphrase Hunter S Thompson, the wave of 20 cent pieces finally broke and rolled back.
Nobbs puts it more succinctly.
"The whole industry fell apart."
Taito sold Wizards in 1986 to a local company and moved into the ten pin bowling alley business.
In 1990, the Wizards building was sold to two people with links to a key player in the Christchurch arcade scene. It became official in 1995 when ownership of Wizards was transferred to David Sloan.
Decades later, Sloan seems to have quietly settled a score. He declined to comment for this story.
Wizards eventually closed in 1999. A second hand clothes store called Toff's took over the building. The bright yellow Wizards sign that ran the height of the Gloucester St facade remained until the building was demolished after the 2011 Canterbury earthquakes. Sloan sold the site to the government in March 2016 for $892,000.
Once the arcades closed, the game machines became relics. Silby remembers seeing them sitting out the back of a Christchurch warehouse, exposed to the elements and slowly rotting.
But some of the machines were rescued and restored by enthusiasts. A handful of those restored machines will be showcased in a new venue opening on Barbadoes St in central Christchurch in December or January. Arcadia will feature food, drink and about 31 vintage machines.
Pintech director Iain Jamieson, whose company repairs and restores vintage pinball machines and video games, is providing the machines.
He is restoring one machine especially for Arcadia. Space Wars was made by Christchurch company Rait Electronics in the late 1970s. It is a clone of Space Invaders and features Star Wars-inspired art on the side of the cabinet.
"We are restoring that because it has a special spot in the history of Christchurch gaming."
When Arcadia opens it will take many people back to an era when Wizards was the gaming heart of Christchurch.
Silby was there for closing night of Wizards in 1999 and remembers the games being turned off for the last time.
"There was an announcement over the tannoy and then five minutes later all the games went dead."