Review by Kevin Steele
Time warp with me, back to the heady days of the early 80's, when new arcade games showed up weekly at your local arcade (one of many in the area). Every time you dropped in to play some games there was something new, a brand new machine usually surrounded by a swarm of players straining to get a glimpse of the new game.
Time warp back to the present day. The arcades are dead, or at least on life-support. New arcade games don't show up weekly, or even yearly. Wouldn't it be great if you could once again get a steady stream of new arcade-style games, basically taking that 1980's arcade experience and transplanting it into your own home? Thanks to the new "NextArcade" games service by TLC Industries, you can.
The NextArcade Solution
TLC Industries, a coin-op industry player who have created cabs for other companies such as Incredible Technologies' Golden Tee line of games, has now branched out into content development (read: new games) as well.
NextArcade consists of two main "components": the NextArcade authentic arcade gaming hardware and the NextArcade games service. Together, these two components combine to create a unique arcade-style gaming experience that aims to keep you fed with a steady 'fix' of new arcade-style games and the hardware you need to play them as intended.
This isn't "MAME" — you're not just getting the ability to run 25-year old games. These are new arcade-style games, designed for use on modern PC hardware. TLC is working hard with developers to encourage the creation of new arcade games, games that can recreate the thrills and action of the classic arcade while still being designed with new ideas and modern graphics.
The key to a good arcade-style gaming experience begins with the right kind of gaming controls: honestly, a keyboard and mouse are never going to deliver the right "feel." TLC has the "arcade controller conundrum" covered, offering a wide assortment of arcade-style controllers (and even complete arcade cabinets!). Single player units, two player units, and combo units with a trackball are all available to ensure your home arcade gaming experience is as "pure" as possible.
The arcade cabs look especially impressive, with a slide-out keyboard tray, coin door, and a very modern-styled cabinet design. Imagine one of these cabinets outfitted with a wireless access point, and you've got yourself an arcade games system that you can update with new content whenever you feel the need for a new game.
One of the more unique cabinet styles available is a 19" "Kid-Sized" sit-down cabinet. I definitely could see my kids getting comfortable with this cabinet!
The Combo Console
For this review, TLC provided me with one of their "Next Combo Control Consoles." It's a joystick/trackball single player unit, with four player buttons, dual mouse buttons, and a player start button.
The unit is solidly constructed of laminated MDF, with a vinyl top surface colorfully emblazoned with the "NXT" logo. It's a quality design that also uses quality Happ components for the buttons, joystick, and trackball.
The joystick and trackball are mounted using top-mount bolts, but the black bolt heads are exceptionally flat and small, minimizing their impact on the overall panel appearance. While I prefer no visible bolts at all, this is acceptable.
The buttons on the controller are laid out in a gentle arch, which works well for games that use multiple buttons (and even games that use just one button). There are just four buttons, which means some fighter fans may be a bit disappointed, but I've never been a big fighter fan, so it really didn't bother me at all.
The combo panel includes a Happ trackball, mounted to the right of the buttons. This is an excellent design choice (both the trackball and the placement), as it allows for a balanced control panel design that is faithful to the arcade layouts, which usually had the buttons to the left of the trackball. Two mouse buttons are mounted above the four main buttons, allowing you to use the trackball as a mouse to navigate in Windows.
The NextArcade panel has two USB cables, one for the trackball, and the other for the game controls. The control panel uses a USB-based game controller interface, meaning the panel shows up as an "ArcadeMX" game controller in Windows. MAME will recognized the Next Arcade as a joystick. No drivers are required, and it's a simple plug-and-go installation.
One interesting thing to note is that the encoder used supports seven buttons, while the control panel as configured only has five buttons (excluding the two mouse buttons). This means that there is the possibility of adding two buttons to the panel on your own, whether as pinball buttons or extra "fighter" buttons. In theory, I suspect you could also add a third mouse button as well.
The interior of the control panel is generally well done, although the lack of bundling does tend to leave a bit of wiring "spaghetti." Both the joystick and the trackball are mounted in recessed routed areas.
The encoder is a tiny board mounted toward the front of the controller — it's almost buried under the attached wires. That's pretty much it for the interior of the NextArcade: it's a simple, robust design that seems like it should perform well under Windows. Being a game controller chipset instead of a keyboard-based encoder, there are no keys to re-program — the buttons have to be assigned from within the games themselves, but any game that recognizes a Windows joystick or gamepad should work fine with this controller.