Our next Trading Card Spotlight features Shawn and Meg Livernoche of High Scores Arcade, who currently is displayed on card number 3158, from the Superstars of 2019 Collection. Megan and Shawn own an arcade in California called “High Scores Arcade”. If you love the 1980’s and all the games that came along with it, this arcade has the classics. Shawn and Meg’s arcade is also known for its custom arcade cabinets, such as Oregon Trail and Legend of Zelda. With over 100 arcades in the warehouse and almost 50 on the showroom floor, there is plenty of arcade gaming to go around. Come visit High Scores Arcade and try to beat the world records held on these machines as they track your scores with an online scoreboard. This is indeed a true vintage arcade that brings back a lot of memories.
When did you open up the High Scores Arcade and what was the motivation?
(Meg) We started collecting after getting hip to the arcade auctions happening around us at the Cherry Hill Armory in NJ and Cow Palace in MD. We bought our first, the Donkey Kong that’s on our arcade floor, from Todd Tuckey in PA. It was for fun - eventually leading us to having 15 cabinets in our 1-bedroom garden apartment. We had an agreement with our upstairs neighbor that we just wouldn’t play the pinball machine after 11 pm, which we had sold our kitchen table to make room for. When we decided to buy property, we started looking at mixed use properties because it was a unique opportunity to house the collection and also live there and fulfill our Flynn’s Arcade dreams. Ultimately, we became intrigued with and purchased a building built in 1705 with a storefront below a 3 bedroom flat. We opened High Scores in Burlington, NJ, in 2010, operating on quarters and fueled by beer, and we had a ton of fun. Two years later, my “day job” asked me to lead a team in San Francisco; Shawn left his tenured teaching position and we decided to relocate across the country with our then-collection of about 40 games. We were closed for 6 months to reorient ourselves and reopened in Alameda, CA in June of 2013. 9 years, 2 kids, and 1 pandemic later, we’ve amassed an awesomely loyal customer base and 120 more games in the collection.
Do you remember your first video game / arcade you played and what do you remember about it?
(Shawn) The first arcade game experience I recall personally is playing the game Carnival by Sega Gremlin at the local Ground Round near the Quaker Bridge Mall in New Jersey. My young mom introduced me to it while we were waiting for our food. From the cartoonish pictures on the bezel, the magic of learning that I had to prioritize shooting ducks, and the instant I realized that I could revisit the same scenario again and again, improving each time, that moment felt like a door to my future of being fascinated by arcade machines. At the end of the meal, we had a baseball sundae! Ground Round always had room for about 4 or 5 machines against the wall to the kitchen. I played my first game of Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Paperboy, Rampage, 720, Double Dragon, so many others for the first time at that restaurant. Even though her and my father both introduced me to arcade games separately, I doubt my mother realizes the role our lunches at the Ground Round played in laying the groundwork for my future passions.
What does it take to be an arcade owner?
(Meg) More than just a love for the games. Much more. Not every collector wants to run a commercial arcade, and for good reason. If you care about the condition of your personal collection as we do, it’s a lot of TLC to keep them in great condition because the public can be harsh. We’ve had people pee on the floor, break joysticks in half, all sorts of terrible behavior. The good outweighs the bad, but you definitely have to roll with the punches and be prepared for the many surprises that come with working with the public. Small and large - sometimes they complain that Spy Hunter “is busted” because they don’t realize it has a gas pedal. Sometimes they look at a row of Defender, Robotron, Moon Patrol, Q*bert, Joust..,and turn around and say the arcade has “no good games”. Roll with the punches, as I said. But largely, the experience of seeing someone walk in and get nearly tearful for being reunited with a visceral memory of their past is well worth the unsavory bits.
What are your opinions about today’s generation of video games? How do you compare them to older, classic games?
(Meg) There are a lot of presupposed advantages to the advances made since the advent of video games - namely sophisticated graphics and an online connection that makes for next level escapism. Unfortunately, I think that sometimes allows for less creativity going into the actual gameplay elements, and definitely fosters some level of physical isolation. Having young kids, we’re a heavy Nintendo family because they’ve done a nice job of having one foot in their roots and the other in innovation. Because of the limitations in graphics and programming, though, older games force your imagination to participate more and for that reason I find imprint themselves in the player a bit more deeply.
Who is your favorite arcade game character and what makes that character special?
(Shawn) Paperboy. I was at the age when that game came out that it was the first character I could truly relate to. The obstacle that paperboy faces are the obstacles I imagined folks would see in a suburban neighborhood. We lived in one of those apartment complexes in very small units, yeah paper boys route kind of reminded me of a neighborhood I would like to live in. Minus all the hazards, of course! For a kid who was 7 to 12 years old at the time it was released, we were Paper Boy! Much more than we had felt like Mario, or Pac-Man, or Qbert.
(Meg) In the most basic of terms I’m most like Q*bert.
Why was it important to include custom arcade cabinets in your arcade?
(Meg) Our custom cabinets started in Shawn’s mind, born completely out of a selfish desire to see how some favorite games would look in the arcade environment. Illustrated by the fact that our first was an Astro City cab with custom “Shenmue” artwork running a Dreamcast. Shenmue in the arcade is ridiculous, but we loved it so much we almost named our son Ryo. They’re a soft combination of personal passions and things our customers loved, like our super popular Oregon Trail or Smash Bros cabinet. They’re fun to make and breathe a little new life into the collection.
When did you first meet Walter Day and where was it at?
(Shawn) We’ve seen Walter in passing at gaming events and we have been in contact with him for most of our time as arcade preservationists, yet I would say it is more accurate to call us admirers of Walter’s work and impact on arcade gaming from afar. Even when we were young children, Walter’s legacy in the world of arcade gaming and scorekeeping was already legendary. As kids, folks our age had to keep tabs on what was going on in the high score arcade gaming world through magazines and word-of-mouth. Later, when we began competing on and collecting games in the mid 2000’s, Twin Galaxies website became a regular go-to for us. Then, all of Walter’s work in the 80’s began being revisited in various documentaries and media outlets.
(Meg) We met Walter at Richie Knucklez Arcade in Flemington, NJ, I believe at the first or one of the first “Kong Off” competitions. It was a sunny weekend day and two gamers had just gotten in a fight in the parking lot. Walter struck me as an incredibly calm force amid the very loud backdrop.
If you could describe Walter Day in one word, what would that word be and why?
(Shawn) Singular. We have worked in various industries and had friendships in all walks of life. Yet neither Meg nor I have ever met anyone quite like Walter Day. There’s a record of Walter’s passion that began long before we were born, and it seems to have no bounds. From arcade gaming, to music, to producing collectible cards which are important memories of the past, to various other endeavors, Walter has made this world more beautiful with a fire and in a fashion that is rare and admirable.
What games today do you play and what are your favorite genres of games?
(Shawn) I personally split my play time between arcade classics mostly from the early 80s through early 90s, and then the other half of the time I play titles that appear to me to be the most important modern games coming out for the newest systems. The joy of fascination, allure, and transcendent experience I’m looking for usually comes exclusively from the arcade games of the early 80s. Almost any of them. From regular old Pac-Man to something like Rockola Eyes. Yet, as a person who is involved with youth outreach, and also who respects the necessity to build a bridge to younger people, I always strive to stay aware of the newest and most highly respected games of the modern age as well. That way, when someone from generation Z for a millennial pop into the Arcade, I am able to have a conversation with them about games they are currently being exposed to end strive to draw their interest to the history of the classic games we care about.
(Meg) I’m not trying to learn about what the kids are doing nowadays; our games were better. But seriously, I mostly play arcade games when I play, and I mostly play games that I find somewhat meditative like Qix, Ladybug, and I really like Stern’s Amidar. Nature or nurture to be argued, our kids really love a lot of arcade games, and we have 22 of them in our garage…and a couple in our living room. But sometimes my personal pendulum swings the other way and I play silly, low mental investment games that only cost $2.99 on the Switch.
If you could own one arcade game or pinball game, what would it be and why?
(Meg) My holy grail, Atari Star Wars, is already part of our collection x3 - we have 2 cockpit versions and an upright. I love everything about the game, the vector graphics, the enveloping environmental feel of the cockpit, the realistic voice. No other game connects to my soul on that level.
Did you ever think when you were younger you would be on a video game trading card?
(Shawn) I certainly would have imagined I would be the type to collect arcade trading cards- as I had a thing for Garbage Pail Kids and other collectible cards from the 80’s. Yet I would never have guessed I would have the honor of being on a video game trading card!
(Meg) I thought I was going to be a Harvard trained lawyer, but I own and operate an arcade. Life has many surprises!
Have you ever received any media coverage for your appearance on the trading card? If so, where?
(Meg) Not specific to the trading card beyond Facebook!
Growing up were you team Sega or Nintendo and why?
(Shawn) I think this is an easy one! In 1987 when Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! was on top, and the trio of Super Mario Bros, the first Zelda, and the first Metroid were all out, and then of course the first Castlevania was on the table, I was 100% team Nintendo! That wore off quite quickly when the 16-bit generation started, and Sega Genesis was truly the first guy in the ring as far as USA. As time passed it would be moments where I very seriously preferred Sega consoles to Nintendo. For example, I would much rather play Dreamcast than N64. By 10 years ago it was actually a tough call. There I was in my mid-30s and it’s much more likely I’m going to play one of the fantastic yakuza games rather than something by Nintendo geared for families. Now here I am with two children to play with, and with the Switch, it’s fair to say I’m back on team Nintendo!
How many games fill the arcade and is there room to grow?
(Meg) 42 games are on our arcade floor right now; about 115 more cabinets sit in storage awaiting their time to shine again. We had two arcades booming pre-pandemic, but our lease came up amid the 15-month government shutdown and we were forced to close one. We’re now back in business at one location and actively pursuing opportunities to get our full collection under one roof.
Do you believe some arcades are too violent and lead to violence in America today?
(Meg) The first time we fought to get zoned to open, a neighbor protested against our proposed “Den of Iniquity”. But no, I don’t agree, in fact the opposite. They teach you to be competitive without being a jerk because you actually have to play side by side against your flesh and blood competition, there’s no hiding behind a headset. They provide a social connection for a subset of folks that aren’t always first in line for the football team. They create a relaxing “third space” for people looking to escape - and you’re never so equal as on the arcade floor, where the games show no deferential treatment and only work in the absolute equality of programming. I’d argue the communal and community nature of an arcade is something we don’t have enough of.
Do you prefer playing video games alone, against friends or online against the world and why?
(Meg) Arcade games I like best alone, because I can easily zone out and escape into the game when playing on an arcade cabinet. Also, I have two young kids and rarely get a chance to be alone so if it’s there I’m taking it! Console games I prefer to be a competitive or a group thing, because I can’t really get hyped playing alone on my couch as much.
Which company makes the best arcade games and why?
(Shawn) That is a very difficult question! Because to me it’s obviously Atari. Yet then I sit back and think about it and suddenly it’s obviously Nintendo! And then I think a while longer, and it becomes clear to me that it’s Cinematronics! However, then I am reminded of games by Sega gremlin, and games by Namco and Midway. And like I mentioned before, Rock-ola. Then I am reminded of Taito, and finally I give up. They are all the best. All of them.
(Meg) He’s crazy. It’s Atari. Unless you have to move them on a hand truck, then it’s Nintendo.
Do you learn anything from playing video games?
(Shawn) Absolutely. Let’s forget about things like hand and eye coordination, or quick reflexes. The fact is most people have the physical ability to at least try to play and win at arcade games. It is the training ground for teaching yourself that you are truly capable of accomplishing goals if you put in the time and choose to learn. The skill sets we learn from arcade games are not necessarily at all transferable to other parts of our lives, yet the confidence we build alone with a machine, slowly but surely mastering what it does, slowly but surely overcoming its obstacles, It is an invaluable experience especially for a young person. Because if you can learn how to play certain games, there is no doubt you can learn how to speak certain languages. If you can achieve a goal that is difficult for many other people when it’s you against the machine, that passion, dedication, and refusal to quit until you get it can convert easily and translate to many other parts of life. We learn about our own limits, our own learning style, and for me personally, an avid streak runner who hasn’t missed a day in almost 20 years, real arcade games from the 80’s are an exercise in mental endurance training while sitting down.
Are video games good for relieving stress?
(Meg) Of course! Sit down and play some Neo Turf Masters on the Neo Geo and tell me you don’t feel better. So many hardcore gamers I know don’t partake in drinking or smoking - games are their outlet. So many people come in on their days off of work, choose their stool and their game and burn off the stress of their day.
What springs to mind when you hear the term ‘arcade’?
(Meg) Trick question - before I operated one, I would’ve said dark corners lit only by the soft glow of marquees, a cacophony of blips and joy, and waiting for a ride from my mom home from the Oxford Valley Mall in Langhorne, PA. Now, it’s all of those things and also my friend circle, my livelihood, my bills, and my kids’ inheritance.
Of these five elements video games, which is the most important to you and why? Gameplay, Atmosphere, Music, Story, Art style
(Shawn) Gameplay. You could take away any one of the other elements and have everything else intact and still have a great game. You can’t get gameplay wrong though. The most important element is, by a humongous distance, gameplay. There have been times during awkward transitions in video game history, and I’m not just talking about the Philips CDI or Atari jaguar, that games have come out which have been absolutely horrendous. Yes, maybe it looks and sounds good, yet the gameplay is literally nonexistent. I just find bad games to be very depressing when you have all this technology at the tip of your fingers and if I really thought hard about it, I might be able to invent more interesting gameplay with a small pile of rocks or seashells and a piece of chalk. All the other elements are very important and play a huge role in whether or not a game becomes classic or universally loved around the world. Yet we have evidence for thousands of years of humans playing games without almost any of the other components other than gameplay. Because if you can’t make the magic happen with 16 or 32 or 128 or infinity bits, I’m better off with a deck of cards and a couple of objects or on a table.
What is your favorite singe player game and favorite multiplayer arcade game?
(Meg) Single player favorites for me would be the aforementioned Star Wars, Marble Madness, and I like the mini game element of games like Tron and Journey. Warlords is a fantastic multiplayer game, and while they aren’t classics, Pac-Man Battle Royale and Killer Queen brought some new excitement back to the arcade floor.
If you can design your own arcade game, what would it be about and who would be the main character?
(Meg) Shawn and I have it all sketched out! It’s classically inspired with a whimsical theme that we’re not quite ready to share! The lead character, Fudgie Harry, will win your heart. We’re currently looking for partners to develop it with us. Time will tell!
Are you still involved with the arcade today, and what role do you play?
(Meg) Of course, and every role! We’ve been commercially open to the public since 2010, with Shawn and I and a close-knit team running every aspect of the arcade. We fix game issues small and large, greet customers, book birthday parties and everything in between.
Where do you see your arcade in the next 10 years?
(Meg) Still bringing smiles to adults who remember it and kids who discover it! The games we showcase are already 30+ years old; they’ve proven their entertainment value many times over. I believe there will always be a place for people to discover the root of the gaming industry.
Meg and Shawn
High Scores Arcade