The Traveling Arcade From Argentina

I saw Nave for the first time in 2014, during a local video games event in Buenos Aires, Argentina that invited developers to showcase their projects to the public. It took me by surprise — a brand new arcade machine that I had never seen before, at a time in which they had practically vanished from existence here in the city. As most of the games being showcased were for PC or mobile devices, Nave stood out with its presence.

A six foot tall dude with long hair in a sweat-soaked black shirt spent at least half an hour playing it, and I only managed to see it from afar while checking other games in the process. A line had formed behind the guy, and it only got longer as time passed. But finally, it was my turn.

Nave (“ship” in Spanish) introduces itself as an old school shoot ‘em up similar to games like 1943, but presented purely in black and white. You control a small ship that gets bigger and stronger with power-ups until it reaches its maximum power, covering the entire screen and becoming almost unstoppable. It’s a game about resistance, both as a small character that has all the odds against them and physically as the player that needs to hold on in place for a while if they want to see their name in the score leaderboards. Everyone else just waits, thinking on strategies while waiting for their turn.

It’s an impressive and addictive experience. The arcade has interior light panels that flash along with what’s happening on the screen, along with sounds and music that stays with you even after you stopped playing. The premise is simple, but it works perfectly.

And everything that surrounds the machine is equally intriguing. There were enough games for dozens of people at the events, including VR prototypes at a time when it was still fairly niche, but everyone wanted to get their hands on Nave. Because unlike those other games, you can only play it in person. You can’t find it online, and you won’t find it anywhere else. It lives inside a unique machine.

‘Have you heard about Nave?’

Since 2012, developers Hernan Saez and Maximo Balestrini have been known for their work at their game studio VIDEOGAMO, traveling around Argentina and Chile with Nave. But they have also toured around the world with Dobotone (“two buttons”), a portable console with party games that, as the name implies, requires only two buttons to play for up to four players, while an additional one can randomly change the variables of what’s happening on the screen by moving a knob.

The team has appeared at events like EGX Rezzed, the Tokyo Game Show, the London Games Festival, and MAGFest, to name a few. And even though they’re looking to create more copies of Dobotone in the future, the sentiment from Nave is still there: you have to be in the right place at the right time to play it, or else you’re one of the many people who has been hearing about the traveling arcades from VIDEOGAMO for years, but has never had the chance to play them.

“We always wanted for our games to make an impact on players, but we weren’t expecting this interest”, Saez tells me over Skype. “The end result for Nave was kind of an accident. At first, we were thinking of releasing it as a web-based game, but we started showcasing it as an arcade first. A lot of people told us it was a great idea to have a game that can only be played in a unique arcade, so we decided to follow that vision.”

My conversation with Saez delves into my love for pinball and how hard it is to find machines nowadays here in Buenos Aires. He recalls that both arcades and consoles were a rarity for a long period, a sentiment that, ironically, resonates with Nave and Dobotone. “Maxi and I come from a time where it was always like this with games. You didn’t even know how they were was until you actually got the chance to play. We understand what it is to be interested in something without a way of actually playing it.”

Marina Pereyra, a PETSCII artist based in Buenos Aires, says that having Nave available in just one arcade creates a ritual. “It’s something you plan ahead of time, and it becomes this integrated experience that takes you beyond the arcade to new events, bars, and places you never thought on visiting,” she says. “Video games have this thing of getting people together, but it’s powered up even further for being a face to face gathering”.

The developers added a score leaderboard after a private online test made on Facebook with a couple of their friends. Then, they tried it out in one of their first appearances in 2012, doing a tournament on the last day of the exhibition. Saez says “They’d just go crazy. And the crowd shouted whenever someone beat a high score or failed right when they were about to take the lead. It became what I like to call an ‘arcade oasis’ of sorts.”

A formal tournament showed up one year later, starting a tradition of hosting at least one per year. The first took place in Saez’s apartment and drew 15 players who were there from 8 PM to 4 AM playing Nave. During the next two years, the tournament became longer and longer, so they started including new games, like Dobotone.

The community built up organically during this time, which led to a massive tournament in 2016. In order to filter and keep a register of players, VIDEOGAMO implemented a rule that became their emblem: everyone needs to have a picture of them playing Nave.

An evolving myth

Alejandro Cura, a satellite software developer by day and game maker at night, met Saez around twenty years ago when he was filming Plaga Zombi 2. “I acted as one of the many zombies as an extra and didn’t see him again until a few years ago when he and Maxi invited me to play Nave”. Having played the machine on several occasions, Cura believes that if the game had simply been published in a site like Kongregate, it would have been just another shoot ‘em up. A good one, he emphasizes, but one of many.

Tournaments sparked interest in people who didn’t know about VIDEOGAMO and even pushed some veterans to train by playing other shoot ‘em ups, exercising their arms to endure longer or improving their tapping speed using Gatorade bottle caps. “Our goal is to create the longest tournament in history”, Saez says, laughing. “Although I’m not sure we’ll be able to pull that off”.

He and Balestrini have released four prototypes of Dobotone. The first was made out of cardboard, the second was made for their trip to Japan in 2016 — and is the one most commonly seen at events — the third is currently in New York with Death By Audio Arcade, and the last one is owned by Twitch.

Saez adds that they see the next iteration as the definitive one, taking all of the feedback and lessons they got from tours in order to create something that can be duplicated and sold in small quantities to bars and hotels. Their ambition is clear: they want it to become Nave’s ambassador.

Different premise, same soul

People’s interest in Dobotone came as a surprise for the team but in a different way. It doesn’t require any tutorials nor the use of complex controls, so it invites people of all ages to just pick up and play. And again, at least for the time being, you have to be lucky enough to find it someplace in the world at the right time.

Developer Steve Pettit had the chance to play Dobotone at MAGFest. From a design standpoint, they say that the ability to have people immediately understand an arcade machine is incredibly important, and their experiences seem to indicate that it’s a game that anyone can pick up and play. “This year they were calling for someone named Daisy who never showed up for their match,” they tell me, “so they just grabbed me. And, despite having played this game a few times, I was completely outclassed by an 11 year old”.

From MAGFest to the Tokyo Game Show, VIDEOGAMO are still looking for new places to visit, adding new photos to their albums each time. The community is spread out from South America to Asia, but the memories are shared overseas. Who knows? Maybe you’ll happen to stumble upon them and play Dobotone in your favorite bar or local event.

Arcade machines are a rarity nowadays. But as long as there are people like these two friends from Argentina, the experience and history of public play will remain alive.

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