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The Coin-Op Comeback: Classic Arcades Get an Extra Life


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The Coin-Op Comeback: Classic Arcades Get an Extra Life

Ben Silverman
Games Editor
November 25, 2015

I ran away from home when I was 8 years old. I can’t for the life of me remember why. Most likely I was just fed up with people older, smarter, and wealthier than me telling me what to do.


But here’s what I do remember: Three hours after I emptied out my piggy bank and raced off on my dirt bike to begin my brave new life as a miraculously self-sufficient third-grader, my father strolled through the doors of Captain Video on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, kindly let me finish my game of Wizard of Wor, walked me outside, and hugged me as I wept uncontrollably in the passenger seat of his beat-up Datsun.


For children of the early 1980s, the neighborhood arcade was more than just a place to cough up your allowance, hone your reflexes, get into a fight, and become best friends with the kid you just got into a fight with — it was a refuge in a storm of confused adolescent emotions, a sort of public clubhouse that served as a community touchstone in the years before we all hung out on Facebook, a dodgy but welcoming home away from home. It was also fun as hell.


And, sadly, short-lived. Arcades went as quickly as they came. Few original arcades are still standing today, leaving a generation of gamers hopelessly pining for the halcyon days of chunky red joysticks, grossly stained carpets, and gloriously pixelated screens.


But where there’s a vintage will, there’s an enterprising way. Across the country, nostalgic entrepreneurs are resurrecting these beloved relics in an effort to reconnect gamers with their long-lost roots.


From Brewcade in San Francisco to Yestercades in New Jersey, new versions of old arcades are popping up everywhere. Ohioans can find three locations of the excellent 16-Bit, SoCal types can venture out to Pasadena’s Neon Retro, and anyone with a real passion for coin-ops should hightail it to the legendary Galloping Ghost in Brookfield, Ill., officially the largest arcade in the world (it houses nearly 450 distinct cabinets, including tons of exceptionally rare games).


Though they look and feel a bit different than their shady forbears, re-envisioned classic arcades are suddenly thriving. Here’s why.




Brooklyn’s Barcade. (Photo: Barcade flickr)

Press start


“We didn’t really have any hope that it would be popular,” says Paul Kermizian. But the 41-year-old owner of New York’s Barcade couldn’t have been more off base. A collector of coin-op machines who longed to hang out in an arcade again, Kermizian saw an opening and went for it.


“The bar scene was getting crowded in Williamsburg, and we were looking for a theme at the bar, so we looked at my games and they were popular at parties,” he said. “We were just kind of like, we’ve seen a bar with a few arcade games, but we haven’t seen a bar filled with arcade games, so we just thought it was a good idea.”


It was. Located off Union Avenue in a hipster corner of Brooklyn, Barcade occupies a nondescript building positioned between a high-end condo and a rickety three-story apartment building. The only way you’d know the bar even exists is a small steel sign above its door, and the steady flow of people entering and exiting.


Inside, though, Barcade is a cacophony of music and chatter. A row of taps from various American craft breweries line the bar. An enormous chalkboard displays the day’s drink specials and available bottled brews. And surrounding it all is row after row of classic arcade cabinets, their cathode tube displays radiating a gentle glow that lights the patrons’ faces as they furiously mash buttons.


Launch in 2004, Barcade is among the oldest throwback arcades, and arguably the one that kicked off the trend to revive the experience of playing classic coin-op games in a dedicated space. The concept is simple: marry the best part about bars (the booze) with the best part about arcades (the games), and let the people play.


That idea isn’t new, technically speaking. Dave & Buster’s, a gaming-oriented restaurant chain with over 70 locations nationwide, has successfully served bar fare and games for years. But while they typically house a handful of classics, most of Dave & Buster’s is filled with flashy, newfangled machines built to promote contemporary brands: Jurassic ParkTransformers, Angry BirdsKung Fu Panda. It’s also a sports bar, a pool hall, and an Applebee’s. It might house arcade games, but Dave & Buster’s sure doesn’t feel like an arcade.


Barcade does, and with a steady focus on classic games released between 1979 and 1984, it’s been a sizable hit. Kermizian and his partners have opened up five locations spanning New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, with plans to expand to Connecticut and Los Angeles.


The concept of essentially franchising a classic coin-op arcade wouldn’t have worked when Barcade started out, however. That’s because arcades have, for the most part, been dead in the water for years.




Ohio arcade, 1983. (Photo: AP Photo/Rich Dugas)

The rise and fall (and rise and fall)



Born out of the pinball industry, modern arcade games got their start in the early 1970s when three enterprising geeks — Nolan Bushnell, Dave Dabney, and Al Alcorn — founded Atari. Their first commercial game, Pong, was an overnight hit. Within a few years, pinball makers switched gears and rushed to make electronic games, as they were easier to maintain and cheaper to manufacture. The video arcade was born.


It didn’t take long to catch on. Between 1978 and 1981, blockbusters likePac-ManSpace InvadersDefender, and Donkey Kong ushered in the coin-op industry’s golden age. Kids and teenagers hoarded quarters, lining up to check out new releases and trade tips with fellow gamers. The machines were cash cows: Arcade game revenue topped an estimated $8 billion in 1982.


But trouble was brewing. Parents worried their kids were becoming addicts. My beloved Captain Video, for instance, faced the wrath of angry neighbors when the owners attempted to relocate it. Fearing a rise in crime at the new location, one resident was convinced “you’d have more purse snatchings because they’d need money to play those darn things.”


Equally problematic was a serious dip in quality. In 1983, an abundance of poorly made games flooded the home gaming market — most famously, too many copies of E.T. and Pac-Man for the Atari 2600. The subsequent home- console crash dragged down the whole video game industry, and arcades began to vanish.


While home gaming was revived a few years later with the original Nintendo Entertainment System, arcades wouldn’t get another continue until 1991, when Capcom unleashed Street Fighter II. The fighting game was a huge hit, luring old and new gamers out of their homes and back into the few arcades (and more commonly, 7-Elevens and doughnut shops) that had weathered the storm. More fighting games followed, likeMortal KombatVirtua Fighter, and Killer Instinct.


Just as players started falling back in love with coin-ops, however, Sony, Sega, and Nintendo started pouring serious money into home systems. As the console wars grew — and more exciting, varied, and ultimately affordable games started appearing on systems like PlayStation and Nintendo 64 — the arcade scene wilted. Coin-ops never managed to regain their foothold, as players preferred to spend time and money at home.


But while some still consider arcades to be little more than a forgotten relic of the ’80s, a renewed interest in retro gaming (spearheaded in large part by the thriving indie game circuit) has recast these old machines as timeless treasures — and our most direct connection to gaming’s glorious past.




L.A.’s EightyTwo. (Photo: Gordon Cameron)

8-bit social club



To Scott Davids and Noah Sutcliffe, the arcade is the key to the future — even if it’s a tough sell. The co-owners of EightyTwo in downtown Los Angeles know that getting people to embrace a live, communal experience isn’t exactly easy.

“People are so into their phones and individual communication here,” Noah says. “In L.A., everyone drives by themselves, nobody’s in the carpool lane.”


A low building crouched along a trendy yet desolate stretch of road downtown, EightyTwo radiates urban cool. Festooned with an enigmatic Dali-esque mural (a collaboration between local artists Vyal and RISK), the exterior seems more appropriate to a club or gallery than to a bar crammed with RobotronFrogger, and Dig Dug machines. Inside, it’s cozy; orderly ranks of arcade cabinets share space with a welcoming patio and a rear section full of pinball tables.


On a Friday or Saturday night, the place is invariably packed, echoing with a blend of tipsy chatter, bass-heavy D.J. sets (plenty of ’80s music, naturally), and 8-bit blips and bloops. The clientele is a perpetually shifting blend of young hipsters, middle-aged nostalgia hounds, and even serious competitive gamers hoping to set new records on old machines.


To its owners, however, the real beauty of EightyTwo is the same thing that brought me to Captain Video as a disgruntled kid: Being at an arcade simultaneously puts them ease and makes them feel edgy.


“For us, growing up, I think the arcade was kind of the first place that we found that. It was the spot where we would meet up after school and do something community oriented. But, at the same time, it’s slightly rebellious, you’re playing games instead of doing your homework. I think that sort of vibe is what we — and I think most arcade bars — hope to promote.”




Alameda’s High Scores. (Photo: Ben Silverman)

Preservation Hall



The owners of High Scores in Alameda, Calif., understand the urge to replicate the feel of an old-school arcade, but they’re doing it in a more wholesome — or at least more sober — way.


Opened in 2013, High Scores isn’t your typical arcade. Housed in a clean, contemporary room on a family-friendly shopping street just a few clicks outside San Francisco, it’s run by a husband-and-wife team who are more about preserving and promoting a fading pastime than helping hipsters hook up.


“I think places that serve beer or wine — with all due respect, because there are a lot of good new arcades out there — is a demonstration of a lack of confidence in what this has to offer the world,” says co-owner Shawn Livernoche.

Originally from New Jersey, Shawn and his wife, Meg, share an emotional connection to the games they offer at their small arcade, in part because they sought out and handpicked each one over the years.


“All of these games have a story that’s personal to us, and when you see someone spill a beer down the front of it, it actually kind of hurts your soul,” says Meg.


Simply opening an arcade was something of an ordeal in itself, thanks to a set of ancient and ambiguous ordinances put on the books in the mid-80s intended to severely curb the spread of conventional gambling machines in counties across the country. Since they accept coins, coin-op cabinets often get caught in that particular net.




High scores at High Scores. (Photo: Ben Silverman)



High Scores managed to find ways around it — calling itself a museum helps, as does charging a flat admission fee and setting all the games on free play instead of requiring players to constantly drop quarters — but the decision to keep their establishment food- and drink-free might have had the biggest impact.


“The liquor laws are such that, if we didn’t have a full kitchen, we couldn’t let kids in to play,” says Meg. “And you’d really miss out on that experience of exposing kids and their families to new stuff. We don’t want to forsake that part of the environment just to serve beer.”


This idea — exposing a new generation to the classics — is High Scores’ mantra, in part because to its owners, the classics remain the gold standard.


“With games like Donkey Kong, with games like Q-bert or Tron orTempest, they appeal to a part of you that these new games are not capable of doing,” Shawn says. “They were created out of a necessity to do something fantastic with very little.”


Shawn is also a fervent believer in the up-close and personal nature of the coin-op arcade. That physicality has been lost through the years, as gamers instead play in their cozy living rooms and communicate over headsets. High Scores hopes to break through that impersonal haze and get people playing together again.


“I think the human heart and soul is aching for an experience with other people,” Shawn contends. “Not one that’s separated by being online in different households. I think what we really love is being together and having these experiences side by side. You can artificialize that with technology, and because a lot of children have not had those experiences, they don’t know that they’re out there. We’re just here to remind you that we can still get together as people and enjoy these devices and games.”




Captain Video in West Los Angeles, 1983. (Photo: AP Photo/Mark Avery)

Insert coin to continue



Despite that warm sentiment, the Livernoches — and everyone else we spoke to about modern arcades — understand the difficulties in keeping a classic arcade simply up and running, if not thriving.


The finicky machines are a pain to fix. Parts are often hard to find, as are service people with the technical know-how to keep the cabinets humming. And of course, competing with the embarrassing wealth of phones, tablets, consoles, set-top boxes, and other devices littering our lives is a tall order. I doubt any 8-year-old runaway in 2015 would seriously consider hiding out in an arcade.


But with interest in gaming at an all-time high, there’s certainly a place for these businesses. Across the board, modern arcade owners are an extremely dedicated lot. And that, says Shawn Livernoche, is exactly what classic gaming needs to survive.


“It takes every one of us to make this art last and still be recognized as a part of our culture.”



Additional reporting by Dan Howley and Gordon Cameron.

Brian Matherne - owner/curator of "The MOST comprehensive list of Atari VCS/2600 homebrews ever compiled." http://tiny.cc/Atari2600Homebrew

author of "The Atari 2600 Homebrew Companion" book series available on Amazon! www.amazon.com/author/brianmatherne

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a good video interview with some owners of the bars/arcades above is located on the Yahoo page (see link at top of first post)

Brian Matherne - owner/curator of "The MOST comprehensive list of Atari VCS/2600 homebrews ever compiled." http://tiny.cc/Atari2600Homebrew

author of "The Atari 2600 Homebrew Companion" book series available on Amazon! www.amazon.com/author/brianmatherne

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We have Barcadia Baton Rouge that opened earlier this year, which is one of 4 in the chain (Dallas, Fort Worth, & New Orleans). I haven't tried to go there yet as its on the other end of town near LSU.



Brian Matherne - owner/curator of "The MOST comprehensive list of Atari VCS/2600 homebrews ever compiled." http://tiny.cc/Atari2600Homebrew

author of "The Atari 2600 Homebrew Companion" book series available on Amazon! www.amazon.com/author/brianmatherne

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