• The Argentinian arcade cabinet NAVE turns play into a performance
07.15.14

The Argentinian arcade cabinet NAVE turns play into a performance

NAVE has been on tour for more than a year. During that period of time, Hernán Sáez and Máximo Balestrini have been travelling across Argentina with an arcade cabinet that weighs more than 200 pounds, where people can play their retro arcade shooter. Like a traveling band with a devoted audience, the cabinet is received rapturously everywhere it goes. It draws a crowd.

One of the tour dates was at the Indie Showcase at EVA 2013, the most important Argentinian game event. There, at the entrance of the theater, stood the black cabinet with a long queue of players waiting for their turn. The white lights of the screen illuminated the players’ faces each time they shot a bullet. Most of the other games shown at the EVA ran on mobile devices. The hulking NAVE drew attention, sure, but it also posed a real accessibility issue. Why would anyone make a game that needs to be played standing up?

Balestrini and Sáez met in 2010. At that moment, Sáez (a filmmaker and designer) was thinking about learning how to make games, and he began with the first tutorials of Game Maker. When he showed Balestrini (who had a background in programming) his prototype–a simple shooter—they started exchanging ideas and rapidly, decided to create a classical space shooter called NAVE (which is Spanish for spaceship). At the beginning it was not conceived as an arcade game, but rather a simple prototype in Flash aimed for a web release. However, in October 2012, they were asked to show their game at GameOn!, a game exhibit in Buenos Aires, as an arcade. They spent the next three months learning how to assemble an arcade cabinet and got it ready at the last minute, while the moving truck was downstairs waiting for them.

"...the game brings back the glorious showoff days of the arcade, when pinballs were introduced in the 30s and were seen in bars and shops."  

At EVA 2013, NAVE was one of the main attractions; players lined up to get their name on the scoreboard. As with other shooters, NAVE’s score is calculated by the amount of time you can resist dying. The average playtime of NAVE is less than five minutes; the best scores are around an hour. But the game brings back the glorious showoff days of the arcade, when pinballs were introduced in the 30s and were seen in bars and shops. In the 80s, when Pac-Man and Donkey Kong were released as arcade games they became cultural phenomena, drawing crowds away from theaters. Playing NAVE, too, is a performance in itself. While people wait in line, they trying to see the techniques, the movements, the face of the player at the front.

NAVE next emerged miles away from Buenos Aires, in San Francisco. Or at least, a flyer asking for it emerged. At GDC 2014, Maximo and Hernán brought flyers that said the following.

MISSING

We want to bring NAVE arcade

to GDC 2015… wanna help us?

They knew that it was important to be at the show and meet their peers at GDC, where developers from around the world experiment with new kinds of game interfaces and resuscitate old concepts with new technologies. NAVE fits right in with the joyous, experimental vibe of the event. Like popular rock bands, people gathered around them to be entertained.

It requires these appreciative crowds, as does the mammoth Killer Queen, which was conceived for the No Quarter exhibition at the NYU Game Center but rapidly became a hit in the NYC game scene. Balestrini and Sáez played it at GDC in 2014 and realized that they weren’t alone in trying to bring back the arcades. Now they’re aiming to visit new places across Latin America and bring the NAVE experience to more people—interested in not only playing a game, but performing it.