If you’re a gamer in his/her 20s or 30s, you probably fondly remember afternoons or even whole days spent in arcades – those big dark rooms full of big, colorful stand-up game cabinets all abuzz with lights, sounds, and music. It was a pretty magical time for gamers; arcades had a little something for everyone. Whether you wanted to quarter up to take down your local arcade’s resident Street Fighter II king, beat up foot soliders to rescue April O’Neil, or blast bad guys arms only with a light gun, a pedal, and a desire for justice, there was something for every gamer to enjoy. Or if you wanted to shoot CDs at a bunch of bad guys to save….music…?
More importantly, arcades offered gamers an avenue to have game experiences that you just couldn’t have with home consoles at the time. Sure, there would eventually be console ports of games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II, but the graphics and sound ultimately took a hit and the experience suffered a bit for it. Not only did arcade games look far superior to console games at the time, many arcade games offered a level of interactivity that home consoles simply couldn’t match. You could play Hang-On on your Master System, but the console version of the game didn’t come with a peripheral in the form of a motorcycle you could ride and lean on in order to steer your cycle in-game. And don’t get me started on those epic 8-player Daytona USA cabinets, each equipped with a full-sized car for players to hop into. Arcades felt special and that’s why kids flocked to them in droves – at least until around the turn of the new millenium.
With the introduction of game consoles like the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2, not only did gamers have consoles that could compete with the graphical prowess of the arcade cabinets of our youth, but they now had console ports that not just as good as their arcade counterparts, but BETTER. Why would you go to the arcade and spend 25/50 cents per round of Soul Calibur when the Dreamcast version offered better graphics than the arcade version, but a deep, rich single-player mode with tons of unlockables and the ability to play their friends for hours on end without quarters? Sure, arcades did still offer the immersive experience. Sure, there remained a few niche markets that arcades appealed to, such as the Dance Dance Revolution fans – after all, an arcade-quality dance pad for home consoles was prohibitively expensive for most gamers at the time. Of course, the social aspect of the arcade was still present. However, for many gamers, it became harder and harder to justify going to the arcade and arcade turnout saw a steady decline that ultimately led to many an arcade closure.
Now, you might think that this would be the sad end to the arcade, leading only to a time when arcade cabinets were relegated to the bowling alleys and movie theaters of the world, but there is a light in the distance for the humble arcade. In the late 2000s, new businesses have emerged with a concept that has seen great success. I’m referring, of course, to the bar-cade.
In this day and age, many arcades have shifted their focus. Rather than looking to appeal to just teenages and kids, they’re striving for something that can be appreciated by gamers of all ages. Chuck E. Cheese still exists of course, but there is little there for anyone over the age of eight. Enter establishments like Dave & Buster’s, which offer a variety of modern arcade games (with a couple of retro ones mixed in for good measure) as well as the redemption machines they may remember from their Chuck E. Cheese days, only with much better prizes and a modern “ticket” system that places all of your winnings on the card that you also use to pay for each game. (Isn’t modern technology great?) Best of all, you can do all this while getting a decent meal and even a cold adult beverage or two if you’re so inclined!
However, D&B isn’t the only game in town. A good friend of mine introduced me to a wonderful place in Greensboro, NC called Boxcar Bar + Arcade. I’m gonna be totally honest with you guys – this is the kind of place that I’d probably never leave if there was one closer to home.
This was an experience unlike any other I’ve had. This is a barcade that has completely embraced classic gamer culture. It’s a venue lined with classic video game artwork and murals. It sports a main room that is lined with just about every classic arcade cabinet you could ever want, a back wall lined with beautiful modern pinball tables, a back room dedicated to Dance Dance Revolution, a few modern arcade cabinets added in for good measure, and even a bar that folks can sit down and play classic video game consoles at. Who wouldn’t want to sit down with a cold drink while power-sliding around Cocoa Mountain in Mario Kart 64? (Oh, and children are allowed when accompanied by a parent or guardian before 9 PM, in case you were wondering on the age policy!)
Of course, all this would be meaningless if people weren’t coming. Folks, let me tell you – this is the most people I’ve seen in an arcade since my days at the original Tilt at Patrick Henry Mall.
It’s clear from the response that places like D&B and Boxcar are getting these days that we’re in the middle of an arcade renaissance. Sure, they don’t look quite the same as they did in our youth, but I’d argue they look better. Kids still have their places to play, and for the adults, these new places have the best of both the modern and classic eras of gaming, no smoke, and great food and drink selections.
I guess arcades never went away. They just grew up right along with us.