Vintage arcade games return to a San Francisco BART station

An unusual sound echoed through the lobby of the Powell Street BART station in downtown San Francisco on Saturday morning — the nostalgic din of digital explosions and the familiar explosions of 8-bit spaceships.

Just outside the fare gates, four vintage arcade games transported commuters back to a wild moment in Bay Area transit history, when BART formed perhaps one of its most storied partnerships. inconceivable today.

1976 was a tumultuous year for the transit agency. With it came the grand opening of Embarcadero station and extended hours of operation, but also a host of financial and technical issues. This included a hot summer day when the system’s control boxes overheated, resulting in a fleet of stranded trains along what is now the Antioch line, according to former spokesman Mike Healy’s book, “BART: The Dramatic Story of the Bay Area’s Rapid Transit System.”

Eager to improve its public image and increase revenue, BART formed a partnership with peninsula-based video game company Atari, and on December 1, staff installed a 7-foot-tall Atari Arcade Theater kiosk. wide and six-sided for riders to play on the Powell Street platform while waiting for their train to arrive.

December 7, 1976: Atari launches several new games in the Powell Street BART station, including Tank and Le Mans.

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Imag

“1972 is when we started carrying jumpers, and it’s also when Atari came out with the first commercially successful arcade game, which was Pong,” said BART spokeswoman Anna Duckworth. , to SFGATE at the station Saturday. “The idea then was that Atari could promote their new games and this cool contraption they had, and we decided to partner with them because we thought we could make a profit on the 25 cent game as well. “

At first, the transit agency tried to convince Atari to make a BART game, but changed its mind once it learned it would cost $150,000 to make, according to a 1976 article. in the examiner. Instead, ‘Pong’, ‘Space Race’, ‘Tank’ and ‘Le Mans’ were among the games installed. On a flashy screen above them, a digital slideshow relayed information about the system’s hours of operation (a BART study at the time showed that only 30% of its riders knew trains ran after 6 p.m.) , upcoming special events and destinations of interest, and BART’s slogan at the time: “BART keeps your nightlife moving.”

December 7, 1976: Atari launches several new games in the Powell Street BART station, including Tank and Le Mans.

December 7, 1976: Atari launches several new games in the Powell Street BART station, including Tank and Le Mans.

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Imag

“In those early days of BART, Atari arcade machines beeping alongside the rush of trains and digital voices announcing destinations must have been a very modern experience for passengers,” said Alex Handy, Founder and President of the Museum Board of Directors. of Art and Digital Entertainment in Oakland, SFGATE told SFGATE in an email.

“The BART was quite revolutionary when it was built, and the boom in the computer industry, which was taking place at the time of its construction, contributed greatly to the general feeling that the BART belonged to the future,” he said. for follow-up.

Five weeks after the games were installed, a January 1, 1977 press release from BART called the experimental promotion “very successful”, bringing in a total of $3,582 in revenue (equivalent to about $18,651.33 today , adjusted for inflation). Fifty percent of the product was distributed to Atari. At the time, it was bringing in the same amount of revenue as 2,591 additional passengers for that period, and BART toyed with the idea of ​​adding a new console to another station in downtown San Francisco.

Within months, however, the games were removed without explanation, according to Chronicle culture critic Peter Hartlaub, who has written extensively on the subject. Duckworth could not confirm when the games were removed or how long the console was meant to remain on the platform.

So the return of retro games, to celebrate BART’s 50th anniversary, is something of a novelty. Unlike the Class of 1976, they’re free to play and you don’t need to hop on BART or Muni to access them – although runners are encouraged to do so, as Clipper card users get 50% off discount on all fares throughout the month of September. .

People play on vintage arcade machines in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

People play on vintage arcade machines in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Magali Gautier

BART communications director Alicia Trost came up with the idea earlier this year after repeatedly seeing vintage photos of the six-sided console on the Powell Street BART platform popping up on social media every few years approximately. The response was so enthusiastic whenever Trost knew what she had to do.

“She said, ‘We have to bring this back,'” Duckworth said with a smile. “And I was tasked with trying to figure out how to do that.”

It was not easy. The six-sided Atari Arcade theater kiosk was virtually impossible to find, as were most games that briefly called the Powell Street BART platform. Eventually, Duckworth tracked down South San Francisco-based video game rental company Video Amusement and asked if they could use four of the oldest games they had – Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Asteroids. and Galaga. One by one, the 250-pound arcade cabinets were carried into the BART elevator on carts and carried to the 4th and Market Street entrance of the Powell Street station.

“BART Arcade” banners, along with grainy retro imagery from the early years of the transit agency, replaced what would have been the information screens above the games. On Saturday, teenagers dragging their skateboards behind them invaded the Space Invaders game, while a father hoisted his toddler up to the “Asteroids” screen so she could play.

Matt Lee holds his daughter in front of a vintage arcade so she can play Asteroids at the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Matt Lee holds his daughter in front of a vintage arcade so she can play Asteroids at the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Magali Gautier

“I wouldn’t consider myself a gamer, but my brother is,” Homer Chang, 74, said as he snapped some photos of the “Pac-Man” machine. “Before, there were arcades all over town, and people were playing, and playing, and playing. For fun, I decided to check this out.

Levi Romano, who recently moved to the city of Austin, Texas, broke the buttons of “Galaga”. When he looked up, he had tears in his eyes.

“I didn’t expect my favorite machine to be here,” he said. “I grew up playing Galaga on a Nintendo NES when I was around 9 or 10, and it brought back memories of spending time with my family. I miss them, so it makes me emotional.

Earlier in the day, Duckworth said a BART rider approached her with a dollar bill and asked if he could trade it in for quarters to play arcade games.

“I said, ‘You don’t need quarters, it’s free!’ And then he was like, ‘Oh, here we go,’” she said with a laugh. “He stayed here for at least three hours.”

The BART Arcade is available to play at the Powell Street BART station from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until September 9.

People play on vintage arcade machines in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

People play on vintage arcade machines in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Magali Gautier

David Galdamez, right, and his daughter, Abigail Galdamez, play Pac-Man on a vintage arcade machine at the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on Sept. 3, 2022.

David Galdamez, right, and his daughter, Abigail Galdamez, play Pac-Man on a vintage arcade machine at the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on Sept. 3, 2022.

Magali Gautier

Pablo Sevilla, left, and Yash Gupta, right, play vintage arcade games at the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Pablo Sevilla, left, and Yash Gupta, right, play vintage arcade games at the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Magali Gautier

The screen displayed on the vintage Galaga arcade machine after a game ends, at the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

The screen displayed on the vintage Galaga arcade machine after a game ends, at the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Magali Gautier

Alex Nam plays Space Invaders on a vintage arcade machine in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Alex Nam plays Space Invaders on a vintage arcade machine in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Magali Gautier

Ariunzayat Yunren plays Pac-Man on a vintage arcade machine in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Ariunzayat Yunren plays Pac-Man on a vintage arcade machine in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Magali Gautier

People walk around vintage arcade machines in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

People walk around vintage arcade machines in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Magali Gautier

Decorative designs on the vintage Pac-Man arcade machine in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Decorative designs on the vintage Pac-Man arcade machine in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Magali Gautier

Yash Gupta plays Space Invaders on a vintage arcade machine in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Yash Gupta plays Space Invaders on a vintage arcade machine in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Magali Gautier

People play on vintage arcade machines in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

People play on vintage arcade machines in the Powell Street BART station in San Francisco on September 3, 2022.

Magali Gautier

Comments are closed.