Can you ever truly go home?
I aimed to answer this question as I set out from the fortified comfort of my mixed use urban dwelling and took to the wide open interstate tarmac like an eagle to the wind. Just as the Freedom Riders who came fifty years before me, my journey is one of great peril and even greater faith. I’m headed straight for the Bay Area’s deep south, the true heartland of Olde Silicon Valley. This is not the friendly faced home of Apple, Google, or other such enlightened tech companies that sit on civilized soil mere miles to the north. Rather, this is the rough and ready turf of San Jose, CA, the Bay Area’s final frontier. What could possibly bring me to this desolate and hostile outpost of an economy languishing in obsolescence? The former offices of SNK Corporation of America.
To understand the corporate culture of SNK is to understand its surroundings. As the colorful working class and criminal culture of Osaka shaped the company in its motherland, the United States subsidiary can be viewed as a product of its unique socio-economic environment. Part of the Bay Area in strictly geographic terms, the city of San Jose lies on the fringe, a final buffer between civilization and the untold horrors of the Central Valley. Amongst the city’s rolling hills, the discovery of quicksilver in 1845 allowed the California gold rush to reach fever pitch (shout out to my good friend Dean Takahashi of the Mercury News). In much the same way, the city’s laissez-faire approach to environmental regulation made possible the technological gold rush of a century and a half later. With that in mind I throw back my potassium iodide tablets with a swig of GT’s Original Kombucha. A quick consultation of my Neo Geo Pocket Horoscope and I’m ready to hit the road. Let’s roll.
Entering from the southern crest of the valley, not all is what it seems. Spent and weathered cans of Four Loko lay at my feet as I overlook the vista. Grain ripples in the wind as profusions of wild mustard identify vast plots of land deemed unworthy of upkeep but well worthy of hefty development leases. Such idyllic pastoral scenes have long been the venue of technology makers eager to obscure their operations. Grazing cattle provide a quaint rural aesthetic — and convenient agricultural subsidies — while the sparse surroundings offer a tantalizing opportunity to dump hexavalent chromium, trichloroethane, and myriad other carcinogens. That party can only last so long, though, as it did for Fairchild Semiconductor, SNK’s amiable corporate neighbor. What happens when you excavate 146,191 pounds of volatile organic compounds under EPA supervision? You get a perfectly graded and level site for the construction of a lavishly stucco-ed shopping plaza of trademark Californian ubiquity.
The Great Oaks office park, with its manicured lawns, appears equally typical. Perhaps it is; most of the offices are now unoccupied. Indeed, SNK was ahead of its time in more ways than one. Like a desert oasis, the contrived pleasantries of an office park attract the usual escapists: tight panted joggers, sweat panted dog walkers, and long haul truckers searching for reprieve from the road. Though equally weary from my travels, I know I must continue this pilgrimage to the crumbling mecca of mega shocks. As I cautiously skirt the office compound, more local color comes into view: a seedy dive bar called the South Side Cafe. Is this truly the South Town of Fatal Fury lore? Before Billy Kane or Duck King could emerge from the dark tunnel of neon beer signs visible within, my eyes caught another spectacle: 17 Great Oaks Blvd.
And there it is. The storied building, home of SNK in the heady days of the Neo Geo, bolt holes from the old signage still plainly visible behind an economical application of spackle. For nearly a decade in the 1990s, this site concealed drama and glory of a magnitude rarely known in the gaming industry. My pulse races at the thought of Neo Geo hardware, software, and unknowable paraphernalia that once sat floor to ceiling in this unassuming locale. Or perhaps these palpitations are the result of the chlorine fumes that waft in a thick bouquet from the Hitachi factory across the highway. As I struggle to regain my composure, I imagine how many more grey market AES cartridges were stuffed into the scant cargo space of Dion Dakis’ Lamborghini Diablo that once sat parked here, possibly in the very same space my Prius now occupies. Those fabled cartridges, later to be flaunted in internet postings as titillated would-be collectors watched in feigned outrage and barely concealed lust as the inserts were destroyed like a copy of the one cent magenta. What fate truly befell the AES mother lode? What additional secrets might lie beneath this ghostly white shell of a building? Much as the secret of the one cent magenta died with John DuPont, untold fortunes may still be cached here, perhaps one day to be discovered by unassuming EPA excavation crews. Never mind toxic groundwater plumes, we’ve got bigger issues to remediate. Drill baby, drill!
As the last moments of daylight begin to flicker, much as the sun set on SNK Corporation of America some 11 years ago, I begin to feel the emptiness of a waning adrenaline high. The outward emptiness surrounding me also takes on a bitter note as the murky twilight creeps in. Faces become hideous. The patrolling glare of the local sheriff becomes increasingly sadistic. Shouts of “why don’t you get a haircut” seem to emanate from a passing truck. I hasten my vigil as I bid farewell to this strange corner of the world. On the grassy knoll I perform several Surya Namaskara — Ashtanga sun salutations — and pour out the remainder of my Kombucha in memory of the triumphant and tragic events that unfolded here. In my hurry to leave, I forget that I have left a plush memento of E3’s gone by sitting upon the grassy strip outside the building.
Indeed. The cows have finally come home.
Jeysen Jürgensen is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California. He is a dedicated vegan but will consume red meat if the cow has died of natural causes under supervision of licensed bovine hospice care.