Nostalgic arcade show brings organizer back in time: ‘It’s 1985 again’

Leon Essex hates to brag.

But he sure played a mean pinball at a young age.

He spent a lot of his parents’ quarters on Williams’ Flash pinball machine and Evel Knievel from Bally, honing his skills.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that, to this day, he continues his mission to keep nostalgic video games in front of new generations with Free Play Florida.

“We just don’t want it to fade away,” said Essex, the president of the organization’s board of directors. “I don’t want to see a revival 20 years from now where it disappeared and came back. I want to keep it in the forefront.”

Free Play Florida celebrated its 10th year last weekend along with a new venue, RP Funding Center in Lakeland.

The weekend-long event combined an arcade floor with panels, game shows, competitions and plenty of old-school game consoles to keep attendees busy.

A user-driven experience

A wide range of ages enjoyed Free Play Florida.

Perhaps the most impressive element? The machines come, for the most part, from organizers’ and supporters’ personal collections.

“We get great pride in our hearts when we see people playing our personal games from our collection, and especially introducing it to people that didn’t realize it existed,” he said. “It makes us very happy to share our passion with the general public.”

The show floor was easily the most popular area.

However, a series of panels did provide insight into the industry, with voice actors, game developers, content creators and others hosting Q-and-A sessions.

Among them was John Riggs, a YouTube personality whose channel focuses on video games and has more than 190,00 subscribers.

A good part of his channel dives into classic video game consoles. But he said playing arcade games provides a much different experience and thrill.

“This show brings that all back,” he said. “Back then, there was no online gaming. You actually had to interact with people. You just had a new best friend for a few moments.”

The fact they were all set to “free play” wasn’t lost on Riggs, either.

“These were all built to be quarter munchers,” he said. “You just kept playing, popping quarters in and those companies got rich, 25 cents at a time.”

A fading trend? Maybe not.

Although reliable data is hard to come by, anecdotally, arcade cabinet production historically comes in waves.

As the home console generation emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so, too, did the production of new arcade cabinets and the popularity of arcades.

More recently, there has been a surge in production, according to various outlets that specialize in the genre, as so-called “barcades” have grown in popularity.

That has created a new opportunity for people like Caris Baker and Brian Stabile of Astrocrow Games.

The Orlando duo launched their two-player sports action game THROWBACK: Jai-Alai Heroes just four weeks before Free Play Florida in 2016.

Ever since, they have become a staple at the event and led a panel this weekend about creating the cabinet.

“This is kind of where it first started,” said Stabile, whose cabinet is now installed in two Florida arcades. “It feels great to have everybody supporting us. They have been with us every step of the way.”

Free Play Florida origins

Free Play Florida came from partnership forged in 2013 between the Southern Pinball Festival and Game Warp.

The non-profit group Byte Amusement Group was created to support the effort in 2017 with a mission of educating the public on the history, art and science of arcade, pinball and early computing.

One of the more interesting sections of the show floor is the “Pre-War Playground,” which highlighted games created 80-90 years ago.

Essex called that section a cornerstone of the show.

“It’s important for us to continue to perpetuate that education to the masses,” he said. “Our goal is to give them an opportunity to experience that with us over a 3-day weekend.”

Essex laughs when he thinks back on his early arcade experiences, pumping quarters into Flash and Evel Knievel.

As he checks out the floor, he said he does feel some of the memories come back to him.

More importantly, he said, he has not lost much of the drive to be entertained.

“We still have that desire to have fun, relive our childhoods and be children in our own way,” he said. “When you step up to a game at 50 years old that we used to step up to at the age of 12, it takes you back to that arcade. Stepping up to these games, it’s almost like you’re in 1985 again.”