The State of the Arcade

Maybe it’s the passing mention of a certain decrepit old arcade machine in my friend Tim’s recent rundown of the late greats of videogame boxing. Or maybe it’s just midwinter cabin-fever. But lately I’ve been thinking about arcades.

Not emulators, homebrew cabinets, or retro downloads from the Playstation Network. I mean real honest-to-goodness arcades: with bubble-gum on the floors, cotton-candy-colored flourescent lighting on the ceilings, sullen teenagers with mullets, scary old men dispensing tokens, and Def Leppard playing on the sound system.

The fading glory of the arcade is a hangup unique to those of us who were old enough to care about video games in the 80s and early 90s. This was the mythical golden-era of the arcade, before Nintendo made it obsolete.

But even as late as the end of the 90s, there were still technological marvels that home game machines simply couldn’t duplicate. So arcades struggled on, but they moved from bowling alleys and skating rinks into upscale niche entertainment complexes for adults, like Jillian’s or the now defunct Block Party.

The current crop of home game machines are superior to almost anything that an arcade can hope to provide. Not only are they more powerful, they are more convenient… and in the end it’s cheaper for a game player to own a machine than it is to keep buying tokens, tickets, or “play cards.” And you can provide your own microwave pizza.

But there are always intangibles to be lost in any trade. No child living today will experience anything like the day I ruled the Double Dragon cabinet at the StarDust Bowl, surrounded by a crowd of the defeated and the curious. Children today will rule online charts from their living room. And that’ll be it’s own reward, but it’ll be different.

The Quest

I’m not going to get into whether or not one experience is better or worse than the other. Suffice to say, it’s always sad when the good things of our lives go away. So I’m embarking on a quest to experience the best arcades my home state (Indiana) has to offer – while they still exist.

I’m going to visit five arcades, ranging from the mom-and-pop mall arcades of the past to the giant adult-centric entertainment complexes of the present. I’m going to give each a traditional review, but along the way I also want to answer a few questions…

  • Is the era of the arcade at its end?
  • Are classic arcade games actually more entertaining, or do more recent arcade games offer anything better?
  • Do arcades still have the social component that I remember so fondly?
  • Is it still possible for a kid to have fun in an arcade? And the corrollary question: can a kid still afford to visit an arcade?

And most importantly:

  • Which arcade has the best snack bar?

The Contestants

After an entire hour of painstaking research, I’ve settled on these five as offering a good mix of classic and new-school arcade experiences:

MegaPlay: Mishawaka, IN

This one’s a bit far for me – about three hours away from Indianapolis. But from what I can see, it is currently Indiana’s reigning champion for golden-era arcade games. The number of classic cabinets this place sports is impressive: Joust (1 AND 2), Asteroids, Centipede, Karate Champ, Ms. Pac Man, Space Invaders, Galaga, Pole Position… and a lot more. I’m willing to make the drive, because I’m itching to play some of these games.

Great X Scape: Bloomington, IN

Slightly closer to home, this mall establishment in Bloomington seems closest to my idea of what an arcade used to be. It’s family owned and operated, they operate off tokens (awesome!), and if the pictures can be trusted they have really weird carpet. All good signs. They don’t have as many classic games as MegaPlay, but they do have a decent selection (including an Arkanoid cabinet).

X-Site Laser Tag & Games: Indianapolis, IN

Continuing the prominent use of the letter X, we have the first entry in my home town. They certainly have games, but details on exactly what games they have are sketchy, and the primary draw of this place appears to be Laser Tag. That’s ok, the best arcade of my memory was in a bowling alley. This is the wildcard of the bunch.

Gameworks Studio: Indianapolis, IN

This joint is on the top floor of our downtown mall. I’ve probably walked by it like 15 billion times. It was once called something else (don’t remember what) and it is prominent in my memory for having once had a virtual reality BattleTech simulator that was insanely detailed. I think that’s gone with the old name, and that the new place is more focused on regular games. It’s also a national chain, and appears to be one of those all-in-one adult-oriented “entertainment complexes” that started sprouting up in the late 90s. Its website boasts that it “…strives to meet a variety of moods and needs by offering finger foods at the snack bar, scrumptious meals at the sizzling grill, drinks with flair at the full-service bar, and a massive, high-intensity gaming floor categorized into separate zones…” None of which sounds particularly encouraging.

Jillian’s: Indianapolis, IN

Another all-in-one entertainment complex. I’ve been here before, but it’s the 800 pound Donkey Kong in the city, so I’m gonna try to give it a fresh look.

The Criteria

I’m a fan of keeping things simple, so there are five criteria. Each gets one of three ratings: Sucks, Cool, or Righteous. I think that’s a fairly self-explanatory system. Many of the ratings are bound to be arbitrary. Sorry.

Game Selection: I’m a gourmand, so places that offer a lot of different kinds of games will score well here. I like classic games, but I’m also interested in seeing some fresh stuff. I really like group racing games, and while I don’t like fighting games at home much, I really like them at the arcade.

Game Quality: Having a ton of games isn’t much good if they all suck. That’s possible: does anybody remember the experience of walking into a room full of games and somehow not finding anything to play?

Atmosphere: Is the place fun to be? I’m not looking for any specific feel, but I want to be comfortable enough with an arcade to want to spend some time there.

Value: It’s becoming fashionable to gouge people with expensive games and questionable “game card” deals that encourage you to spend more money than you normally would. My standard is simple: could an adolescent afford to play games here?

Snacks: This is the most subjective and simultaneously the most important criterion. Are the snacks good but simple snackbar fare? Or are they pretentiously dressed-up pub food? Something different? All snacks will be measured against the glory of the snackbar at the bowling alley that I grew up with. So the bar is admittedly pretty high, but I’m willing to be surprised. Cost is a factor too. I don’t want to spend all my game money on snacks.

The Schedule

Like the rest of this blog, it’s gonna be pretty irregular. Look for updates about once a week. Maybe more. Maybe less. I dunno. Each place will get an entire post, just to give everyone a fair shot. And, this may turn into an obsession, I’m not sure. If you know of a nearby arcade that I haven’t listed here, let me know in the comments. I may drop by. Especially if it has Ms. Pac Man.

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5 Responses to “The State of the Arcade”

  1. Back in my day, we played with quarters, not tokens. Games were 25 cents each, all of ’em. There were “house quarters” that had a streak of nail polish on them so that the arcade could tell the difference between those and customer quarters. You’d get a house quarter if a game ate your quarter. Or sometimes you’d get one for a promotion or prize. Or sometimes the guy at the counter would give some out to kids because the kids were running out of money and he didn’t want to see the place empty out.

    The arcades I went to never had cotton-candy colored lighting. They were small and filthy, housed in buildings that weren’t up to code for anything else, and the front doors were always (literally) open, to encourage people to wander in. They were full of scary looking kids who smoked while playing. Even though they were 14.

    There was no snack bar, though you could go around the corner to the gas station and get some tater wedges.

    My brother was one of those pinball wizards who’d play all day on a quarter, rack up a dozen free games, and then hand them over to some kid because he was bored of playing and wanted to go home.

  2. If I have somehow contributed to this epic adventure, I’m mightily pleased. I don’t know how this can’t be good reading. I’m like you and Shae — lots of evocative memories of the arcade.

    I suspect you’ll find it can still be pretty fun, but things like MoCap Boxing are where arcades are going — things that are hard to replicate at home. With the Wii, games like MoCap and various other unique-to-arcade experiences have been taken off the table. Last time I went to an arcade, I played air hockey and one of those driving games where four people sit in them at once.

    We all know that one can indeed have an air hockey table in one’s apartment. But if you want to air hockey it up, do the crazy driving game, shoot some baskets or throw some skee for tickets, you better have one big house. Therefore, I think there are still some unique-to-arcade experiences out there.

  3. Not that you can can include them in your list but the best arcade I’ve been to in the last decade was in Leon, Mexico. You can talk all day about the glory of globalization, all I know is that the Invisible Hand of the Marketplace gave the Mexicans a love of pixelated entertainment but no cash for a PS2. Consequently the arcade was the size of half a football field, it had games of every type and many of them. There was a freaking train on the ceiling that you could ride around the arcade. It. Was. Awesome.

    Also. I could be wrong, but I think that Jillians changed its name.

  4. Tim: You are right, arcades that do stick around will prolly focus on visceral stuff that you just can’t do at home. Big racing machines with built in movement, pinball, elaborate mocap setups. Also, that stuff is really fun, and I stopped going to arcades about the time they really started to appear in their more primitive forms.

    Maybe the same technologies that nearly killed the arcade will someday be part of its renaissance.

    JimPanzee: When you inevitably have to flee the country to mexico, I will come visit you and you can show me that arcade. it sounds Marvelous.

    Shae: I am happy to have seen the day in which we can compete with cantankerous grumpy-old-man style rhetoric about which eras arcades where the best.

  5. Do collections of video games in movie theaters count? The one I went to had only shooters, driving games, and a sword game of some sort, mostly broken. Feh.

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