Set at the top floor of an old Victorian mill on the outskirts of Bury is the Arcade Club. Lovingly designed by a team consisting of Andy, Gaynor, Linda, and others, in just a few years it’s expanded from a small prefabricated unit in Haslingden into a multi-floored fantasy factory. It seems that there’s been a new addition, feature, or event every few weeks during the short history of Europe’s largest video games arcade. The latest is live music.
Being big fans of retro gaming ourselves, Josh and I couldn’t let the inaugural gig go by without making an appearance. We’d have been there regardless of who they had on but fortunately, the line-up assembled was as rock solid as a run through Ghosts and Goblins on a single credit.
Opening the evening’s entertainment would be the relatively fresh, North West, post-rock noise makers of Vote Edison. Following them were the couldn’t-be-more-appropriate, chiptune-shredders of EZXP – a five-piece rock band who (almost) exclusively perform instrumental medleys of retro game themes. Before all that though, it’d be rude not to have a quick wander around upstairs just for, you know “research”.
The top deck of Arcade Club plays host to a staggering collection of vintage cabinets spanning all eras of video gaming. At the very heart of the main room, the central section is devoted to the real oldies. They’ve got an outrageously expensive Atari Star Wars sit-in machine, along with many other fiendishly tough 1980s coin-ops that although before my time, never fail to provide enjoyment and frustration in equal measures. Outside this inner sanctum lies a sprawling mass of flashing lights, and the soundtrack is one of syncopated bleeps, engine revving and “hadoukens”. On a quick lap of the outer ring, you’re likely to encounter such legendary titles as NBA Jam, Mortal Kombat, Paper Boy, House of the Dead, Out Run, and more versions of Street Fighter than you even knew existed.
The gig itself took place downstairs. The second-floor area was added some time after Arcade Club’s grand opening in its new premises and provides the “club” element in the title. There’s a well-stocked bar, American diner-style food, chill out areas with consoles and PCs, and taking up most of the floor are various rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution and Taiko No Tatsujin. There’s also a load of fighter cabinets linked back-to-back which provide an intense “versus” experience and is no doubt host to some epic tournaments on designated nights. Finally, the future of gaming is represented by a state-of-the-art virtual reality suite at the front of the room.
“The VR suite often provides some hilarious sights”
The games down here are more modern and thanks to video games arcades’ enduring popularity out East, there’s understandably a lot more Japanese titles on this floor. Just wandering through the place is an experience all its own. There’s nothing quite like the combination of pounding J-Pop in one ear, punctuated by sporadic heavy-machine gun fire courtesy of Metal Slug or a Counter Strike LAN party in the other.
The stage area was down at the far end, and the room was nicely filled by the time Vote Edison began their set. After apologies about how distracting gamers might find the necessary decibel level of a rock band, they exploded into their opening number. We were immediately impressed by the venue’s sound courtesy of a system more than capable of handling a much larger room. It was punchy and forceful, something which Josh later profusely attributed to “hot air” in the room – clearly missing the irony of his endless repetition of the observation.
Vote Edison rock the classic four-piece line-up: drums, guitar, bass, and vocalist. Their sound is progressive yet highly accessible. People use the phrase post-rock as a genre, which makes very little sense to me but I get the kind of sound it’s reserved for. Vote Edison probably loosely fall into this genre. Funky, and complex, they’re also heavy in places but not overly. They’re the kind of band who’d be massive if the arse hadn’t fallen out of the middle of the music industry. Interesting musicianship complementing solid songs and a lively performance which had Josh “fucking digging” them. An enjoyable start to the live portion of the evening indeed.
There was a short intermission whilst the bands switched over. This would usually be filled with endless smoking and shop-beers in the alley down the side of the venue but not at Arcade Club. We quickly headed upstairs to the Pac-Man machine where myself and a friend had a score to settle. Many, many lives later, it was time for the headline act.
EZXP are a self-described “sonic covers band”. Hailing from Lancaster, their catalogue mainly consists of medleys of classic gaming music. The sounds all came courtesy of a standard dual-guitar rock band instrumentation with the addition of a synthesiser. During each piece of music, images of the games themselves were projected at a screen to the left of the stage.
They opened with tunes from the Super Mario franchise and immediately had the room captivated. Note perfect renditions of fragments of gaming history seamlessly blended into flowing montages. As they moved through various titles, it quickly became apparent what a tight unit they are too.
I’ve always been a fan of a the SNES and MegaDrive era of games’ music. There’s something about the 16-bit console’s sound chips that allowed the composers of the day to get wilder than their predecessors whilst still being restrictive enough to provide certain challenges. This combination has resulted in some truly memorable scores. Being such fundamentally solid music makes transposing it into a full-band setting seem natural and EZXP’s reworkings of tunes from Castlevania, Mega Man, Super Smash Bros. and others allowed the brilliance of the original compositions to shine. The musicianship of the outfit was spot on. Huge riffs like that from Chemical Plant Zone in Sonic The Hedgehog 2 and the haunting Vampire Killer from Castlevania proved the competency of dual-attack six-string shredders. A tricked-out Hello Kitty Squire Stratocaster isn’t what you’d usually associate with virtuoso guitar playing but its owner easily dispelled any rash stereotypes.
Somewhat surprisingly, the biggest response from the crowd didn’t come from the game themes. An all-instrumental version of the Pokemon cartoon theme had a large portion of the now sizeable crowd dancing and singing along nostalgically. Amusing touches during the set like the full-band’s sombre salute during the introduction to their Metal Gear Solid piece added to the overall performance. They rounded the show off with a highly enjoyable rendition of the music from Star Wars – another firm fan-favourite. During the track, a custom message about the Arcade Club scrolled up the screen in typical Star Wars intro fashion. They briefly left the stage, only to be immediately calling back on for an encore. Keeping their return short they screamed through the version of Chemical Plant I mentioned earlier – a track that I always thought was dying out for the full band treatment. That main riff. Just. So. Good.
Gig or no gig, I deplore you to take a trip over to the Arcade Club. Get a few mates together on a Friday night or take the family down on a weekend afternoon and hit the sticks. It’s also one of the few attractions these days that genuinely doesn’t seem to be all about the money. With such a vast and ever-growing collection of cabinets, consoles, and pinball machines, they could easily be charging considerably more. You pay £15 on the door for access to both floors, and all the games are set to free play. When you consider that mine and Josh’s last run on House of the Dead would have cost us about seventy quid a piece to complete on a traditional coin-op cabinet, the value’s simply immense.