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How Arcade Bars Became Boozy Playgrounds for Adults

It’s not just about video games — it’s about the atmosphere

Photo courtesy of Barcade

Inside Barcade on St. Marks Place in Manhattan, diehard gamers and newcomers alike take a trip to the past. All around the venue, walls are lined with an array of vintage cabinets, ranging from machines from the golden era of the late ’70s and early ’80s like Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac-Man to contemporary classics like The Simpsons and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. Glows from cathode-ray display screens bathe players’ faces, and glitched-out sound effects circulate through the venue.

In between fishing for tokens and watching the points rack up, players sip cocktails or pints of craft beer. Some simply stare in awe at the screens occupied by seasoned players, many of whom spent their youth mastering technical games like Mr. Do!, created decades before some Barcade patrons were even born. Regardless, the appeal to participate is universal.

“The experience of the arcade — it isn’t necessarily nostalgia,” says Paul Kermizian, one of Barcade’s founders, noting that newcomers who barely meet the legal drinking age had probably never seen games like Tapper before. “They were so popular, so they must’ve touched on something social.”

Arcades began shuttering in the late 1990s, but bars centered around coin-operated video games are giving these machines a second life. A number of arcade collectors, recognizing the universal appeal of simple controls and pixelated graphics, have discovered these games make the perfect add-on for an adult playground: Pairing them with alcohol draws a wide-ranging crowd.

Portland, Oregon's Ground Kontrol, one of the first arcade-style bars in the United States, is expanding for the third time this year, doubling its current space, so it can house large-scale games like the new Star Wars Battle Pod and the ’90s driving simulator Lucky & Wild. Barcade, whose first location opened in Brooklyn in 2004, has expanded to Pennsylvania and Connecticut, with plans to open new venues beyond the East Coast, including in Los Angeles and the Midwest.

Pairing games with craft beer might seem like a novel idea, but the connection between suds and arcade machines dates back to the origin of the arcade itself. In 1971, Atari’s co-founder Nolan Bushnell unveiled one of the first video game arcade cabinets, Computer Space, a cabinet version of the 1962 computer game Spacewar!. Earlier that year, he discovered that Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck, two students at Stanford University, had also converted Spacewar! into a coin-operated machine, which they called Galaxy Game. (At a talk at the Museum of Moving Image in New York, Peter Samson, one of Spacewar!’s creators, said that “[the game] was open source because we didn’t have any choice. You couldn’t copyright software in those days.”)

Pitts and Tuck installed Galaxy Game in the Stanford University student union, and according to Simon Parkin, author of Death by Video Game: Danger, Pleasure, and Obsession on the Virtual Frontline, Bushnell installed Computer Space at the Dutch Goose, a bar near Stanford, to see how his product fared among students compared to the rival machine. Pitts and Tuck’s game was a hit: They had hour-long waits in the union, and a second version of Galaxy Game was developed the following year. The hardware, however, was so expensive that it could not be scaled, and the console remained in the union building until it was retired in 1979. Meanwhile, Bushnell and his business partner Ted Dabney used inexpensive hardware, enabling them to mass-produce their arcade console and develop subsequent games like Pong.

In the coming years, Atari would continue to use bars as testing grounds for their coin-operated machines. Gauntlet, a fantasy-themed hack-and-slash game released in 1985, was calibrated so that most players would have three to five minutes of gameplay. “That’s the time loop that makes it ideal for bar play, and most video games used that model,” Parkin says. “If it were a 10- or 15-minute commitment, that would work less well. Bars wouldn’t sell as much beer; people would get tired.” Pong machines were notorious for averaging a cool $200 a week, and it’s common lore that the test machine in Sunnyvale, California’s Andy Capp’s Tavern broke down: The coin mechanism stopped working because it was flooded with quarters.

Eventually, arcade cabinets became so popular that they branched out from bars into spaces geared toward the under-21 crowd. The most common kid-friendly spots for these cabinets were amusement arcade venues, which were also home to pinball machines, claw cranes, and air hockey machines.

Photo: Lincoln Barbour Photography, courtesy Ground Kontrol

But after years of popularity, arcade culture slumped in the mid-’90s. According to Keith Feinstein, the founder of the arcade museum Videotopia, parents cited concerns about students skipping school to play games, fueled by fears of gaming addiction. Parkin also notes that newer arcade games shifted from skill-based gameplay (where a single quarter could last you hours of gameplay, depending on your skill) to experienced-based gameplay. Players flocked to home consoles like the SNES and Sega Genesis, and, as a result, arcade culture’s popularity fell out of fashion.

But in recent years, the quarter eater has resurfaced, albeit with some boozy additions. “Just bringing back the arcades as they were in the ’80s ... would not be successful as is,” says Ground Kontrol co-owner Anthony Dandrea. “There had to be a twist.” Although Ground Kontrol initially banked on nostalgia, also selling old VHS and CDs, they realized that people were most interested in playing their historic gaming cabinets on the nights that alcohol was involved. “By turning it into an arcade for grown-ups — by making it an arcade with a bar — it became a popular destination.”

In Los Angeles, childhood friends Scott Davids and Noah Sutcliffe opened the coin-op bar EightyTwo three years ago. Davids, who’s in his 30s, spent years collecting arcade machines, which he stored at his house, in a warehouse, and at friends’ homes. After throwing a number of parties where friends played games and drank brews — and witnessing the still-present allure of these machines at local gallery iam8bit — Davids had a eureka moment. In their new home, his 40 original cabinets light up six nights a week, their decades-old parts still whirring.

The arcade cabinets at venues like EightyTwo may be enticing to drinkers, but quarters aren’t enough to sustain a business. All of the bar owners noted that the majority of their revenue stream comes from snacks (like Tetris-shaped tater tots) and alcohol. “We have locations where the games only do, say, 10 percent of the revenue, and other locations where it’s 20 to 25 percent,” Kermizian says. “We’re only charging 25 to 50 cents per game, but for a beer and sandwich, it’s $15.”

The level-up from a run-of-the-mill pourhouse to an alcohol-fueled video-game center is an expensive one. According to Davids, the cost of original arcade cabinets has increased in response to the growing demand. At any location of Texas arcade-bar chain Kung Fu Saloon, the collection is valued between $30,000 and $50,000. Nowadays, cabinets cost between the upper hundreds to one thousand dollars, on average. (There are exceptions, like the fixer-uppers found at garage sales and the rare and expensive cabinets that run a few thousand, says Kermizian.)

While there’s now the option of renting cabinets, the “authentic” arcade-style bars own their collection. This, however, adds on the cost of maintenance, which can run around $250 per visit from a decent technician, a couple times a month, says Kermizian. (Sending individual cabinets to the shop is a little cheaper, he claims, and costs around $75 to $150.) And while your local dive bar just needs bartenders to keep everyone happy, these venues require managers and a team of on-staff technicians with knowledge of how to unjam a joystick or fix the coin mechanism.

“You really have to want to do this,” says Kermizian, alluding to the misconception that it’s easy to open and run a pourhouse with a video-game selection stretching beyond Big Buck.

Photo courtesy Barcade

Many of these self-ascribed “hardcore” arcade-style bars use the original arcade cabinets, meaning some of their games were manufactured as far back as the late ’70s, making their parts susceptible to natural breakage. Jonathan Leung, a software engineer in Tyler, Texas, runs the website Arcade Tips with Tim Peterson. Over the past five years, which correlates with the growth of the arcade-style bar venue, Leung has noticed an increase in traffic to their site. The 16-bit hype, Leung explained, is providing job opportunities for technicians with the niche knowledge of how to repair a 1983 Millipede cocktail cabinet, many of whom are finding themselves backed up with repair requests. Leung, who does repairs in his spare time, handles one to two requests a week, and many technicians are busy three or four days a week. Ben Thoburn, who runs Coinopwarehouse with his father near the Washington DC, area, says that he receives “at least four to five calls a day asking if [they] do service or if [they] know someone who will.”

But the spread of arcade-repair knowledge among internet users has skyrocketed as well. Parts like cathode-ray tubes, which provide the iconic burning glow of colors on the display screen, may have been discontinued, but a number of technical experts can replace a defunct tube with one from an archaic television.

“The internet has documented so much of the repair processes with several different games,” Leung says. “This was research they didn’t have back in the ‘80s… You just go online, and you’ll see somebody fixed this one area [of a cabinet] that was almost unfixable.”

And, ultimately, the ability to repair and upkeep the cabinets translates into a preservation of arcade culture. Venues like EightyTwo and Barcade pride themselves on the fact that many of these games still contain their old parts, and sometimes they’re the only venue carrying a certain cabinet. (Kermizian notes that a number of their customers travel all the way from Brooklyn to Jersey City just to play Zoo Keeper.) With the cabinets’ iconic proto-chiptune soundtracks and white-hot magnesium, a quarter or two is enough for players to time travel to a world in a near past — or one they never knew.

“The thing is, it’s not just the games, it’s the environment,” says Dandrea. “The games, the people, the bloopy noises, that’s all part of it. You don’t have to play the games to experience the environment.”

Matt Sedacca is a writer based in New York City.
Editor: Erin DeJesus