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ATEI 2008 Show Report

Silent Hill, Far Cry, Tekken and scaffolders' laptops.

Even those of us who weren't there at the time seem to remember the golden age of arcades with a fond twinkle in our eye. Our heads are crowded with memories of cheering spectators, 20p credits and air thick with the smell of freshly cooked chips and first tastes of tobacco.

Well over twenty years on and the stereotypes paint a far bleaker picture. Long gone are the rows of upright cabinets offering a taste of the future at a pocket money price, apparently replaced by greedy machines that provide little more for your cash than a tired last-gen racer. At least that's what my sceptical editor told me to begin by saying.

To see if modern arcades really deserved the stick (perhaps a Seimitsu auto-switch with Sanwa push-buttons), a trip to this year's ATEI seemed essential. The industry event draws together the world's premium manufacturers of slot machines, arcade games and interactive amusements, who turn the gaping blandness of the Earls Court arenas into a three-day celebration of flashing lights, rasping speakers and tasteless neon fonts.

In medias res.

Stepping into the main hall is disheartening. Hundreds and hundreds of scaffolders' laptops, referred to politely by the army of onsite salesmen as 'fruit machines', dominate the building, and it's strikingly apparent that gambling now dominates the industry. Push a little deeper, however, and reassuring 'insert credit' screens become increasingly prevalent.

There are countless stands to pass promoting everything from gently rocking kiddy rides to sinister-looking slot mechanisms that seem designed to trap fingers and snare clothes, but eventually a huge and elaborate Konami booth dominates the landscape.

It's early in the show, but already there's a queue for the new Silent Hill arcade game, which is loosely based on the events and characters from the second in the series of mist-enveloped, backwater horror titles. Players must pass through a ragged black curtain and stand in a small dark chamber to get to the light-gun that is the game's centrepiece.

Then, a decidedly slow but nevertheless thrilling adventure begins to unfold, giving you a great deal of playing time for a credit and plenty of scares. Things are certainly closer to House of the Dead than Time Crisis, but if you have any desire to pump lead into zombies then is one of the highlights of the show.

Hopefully they forwent incarceration for Tails and just burned him alive.

Around the hall, light-gun games dominate. Most, like America's Army, now seem rather mundane, and the huge, grin-inducing plastic guns on the Paradise Lost cab, based on the Far Cry Instincts Xbox release, are let down by a painfully repetitive game.

Perhaps hoping to cash in on the recent release of the Wii version, SEGA's classic arcade light-gun game Ghost Squad is back, updated as 'Evolution', and it's plenty of quick-fingered fun, but a stroll around the company's sprawling stand reveals exactly where the industry is today. Sure there are some impressive Outrun SP cabs, and another sit-down driving game by the name of SEGA Race TV that's attracting some impressive crowds, but in leaping forward out of the gutter it appears that the arcade industry has had to take a few steps back.

The SEGA area, it seems, is populated by a huge number of modern takes on old mechanical amusements that filled weather-beaten piers and carnival midways long ago. There's UFO Catcher, which reinvents the frustrating crane grabber machines, and whack-a-rat retold as Manic Panic Ghosts, and numerous cabinets that offer some form of prize in return for wielding various plastic accessories.

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Will Freeman