By Thomas McPheeters
Gaming arcades live again as America has rekindled its passion for bleeps, buzzers, flippers and joysticks. Modern game rooms offering food and drinks are thriving: Late last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Dave & Buster’s—the goliath of arcade chains—sees the long-term potential to nearly triple its number of locations in North America.
Meanwhile, arcades filled with old-school games have sprung up across the country. From pinball haven Pins and Needles and classic arcade EightyTwo in Los Angeles, to Logan Arcade in Chicago and Barcade in New York, many are offering a return to the late 1970s and early 1980s—the golden age of arcade gaming.
Los Angeles’ two premiere retro arcades have a range of gaming options that make them popular among this new wave of venues. EightyTwo offers a rotating collection of 40-plus classics for the 21-and-up crowd, including space shooter game Galaga from 1981—one of the most bootlegged arcade games of all time. EightyTwo’s full bar includes a wide variety of draft beers and craft cocktails for a boozy night of high scores. Pins and Needles focuses on old-school pinball, and is home to 24 machines including Gottlieb’s 1975 Atlantis. Molly Atkinson, owner and chief repair technician at both venues, places the retro renewal firmly in this decade.
“The collectorship explosion happened, yes, in the last decade,” she says. “But the barcade location explosion has just been in the last few years.” She credits nostalgia as a major source of inspiration for both of her arcades. Atkinson’s own infatuation with pinball stems from her childhood, when her neighbors’ vintage pinball machine was pointedly off-limits to kids.
For Atkinson, the overall ambiance and camaraderie of the arcade experience are far more important than honing her gaming skills. “I’m not the best player in the world,” she says with a laugh. “Or in the top 5,000.”
On the other side of the country, Steve Zahler, co-owner of Modern Pinball NYC, is actually one of the best players in the world (at press time, he ranked at No. 30). He credits the pinball player scoring system with spurring some of the recent resurgence.
“The World Pinball Player Ranking system, which was invented by the International Flipper Pinball Association [in 2006], provides a way for pinball players to get ranked worldwide,” Zahler explains. “That definitely provided some of the impetus to get the gamers back into pinball … and because of that, there have been many tournaments held all around the world.”
Modern Pinball NYC houses an exceptionally well-curated and maintained collection, including high-tech, 21st-century treasures like Avatar, Avengers, Metallica and The Walking Dead. Among its 30-plus games, the arcade boasts an Addams Family machine, reportedly the most popular pinball game ever made.
The space is also open to educational outings for grade school children all the way up to college undergraduates. Students can learn about physics, art and sound; a recent class from New York University explored gravity’s impact on the pinball, and how an electromagnet works.
Zahler compares pinball to chess: Both games can be learned in minutes, mastered over a lifetime and enjoyed by any player of any skill level. “If you want to dig in deep, you can,” he says. “Every different game provides a very different experience.”
Zahler’s observation touches on a relatively recent reversal in public opinion that has contributed to the resurgence of arcades: Games, it turns out, can be good for you. Author and game designer Jane McGonigal argues that gaming provides a series of profound physical and emotional gains. One benefit is “fiero” (the Italian word for pride). It’s “an emotional high we don’t have a good word for in English,” she explains in her book, “Reality is Broken.” Another is eustress, the “good” stress that is vital for long-term well-being.
Combine these benefits with the extra bonuses of arcades, such as social interaction and friendly competition, and public gaming starts to look like a healthy alternative to the home gaming systems that initially doomed arcades.
But while advances in technology hurt arcades in the past, today’s tech seems to be contributing to their revival. Both Atkinson and Zahler recount stories of kids and teens—many raised without childhood arcade experiences—taking up real-life pinball after learning how to play on iPad simulations. The advent of vintage video-gaming message boards online, and smartphone apps like Pinfinder, which helps gamers locate the nearest pinball machine, have also facilitated the arcade boom.
Home gaming may still hold a vastly larger market share, but arcades offer the benefit of face-to-face social interaction—not to mention the very real thrill of posting one’s high score initials in a real-life setting. Compared to a night out at the movies, they’re affordable fun.
While new tech and the shift in public opinion have certainly contributed, nostalgia seems to be the driving force behind the arcade revival. In the 21st century, a generation of adults remembers arcade gaming fondly—an affection that goes beyond the colorful cabinetry artwork, or even the games themselves. It’s nostalgia for the entire arcade experience.
There was the anticipation of waiting, peering over a friend’s shoulder, cheering his or her prowess or groaning at the defeat. Arcade competition—having to cross physical space and spend hard-earned quarters—meant that every play mattered.
For Atkinson, the memories of her own, less-than-optimal gaming experiences have influenced a lifelong preference for weathered games. “I know so many guys who have so many wonderful collections, but I would seriously rather stand in the back of a gas station playing a beat up table,” she says. “I’ve seen beautiful collections, tons of them. And it’s wonderful, but it just doesn’t interest me like something that is beat up. I like when a game is in tough shape.”
This sentiment is repeated on countless arcade enthusiast message boards. Gamers, both casual and hardcore, are often as excited by their memories of gameplay as they are by the gameplay itself.
“Early ’80s stuff is hip,” Atkinson says. In the space of just a few short years, the Barcade model has suddenly become economically viable. Owners of rare and beautiful vintage machines finally have an incentive to get their collections back into circulation.
“[There are] just enough crazy people who want to get their games out on location that it works,” she says with a laugh.
With both retro and modern arcades flourishing, it’s not surprising that many establishments have successfully combined old and new. In Orlando, the Game-O-Rama arcade at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort holds a collection of 40 games, most of which are modern and high-tech—but step outside of it, and you’ll find yourself transported back to a different era, with the rounded corners and vibrant colors of 1950s and 1960s Americana.
The common denominator for retro, new and combination arcades is fun—and for all ages. “You know what’s really incredible, is that [when] Modern Pinball NYC opened up a little over a year ago, we weren’t certain of the response we would get by the teens and the younger players,” Zahler says. “But actually, when parents come in with their kids, it’s an amazing thing to see the kids drawn to these machines and their faces light up even before they begin playing.”
Zahler relates arcade gaming to his own childhood experiences with board games. “Pinball is a very safe, family-friendly, nonviolent game. So parents aren’t afraid to introduce their kids to it.”
At Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Director of Rooms Jonathan Barisano seems to agree with this sentiment. “The most popular games are the basketball shooter and air hockey,” he explains, as both activities are suited for family recreation rooms or backyards.
Although the hotel hosts visitors from all walks of life, he sees families the most. When asked which game is his own favorite, Barisano pauses to chuckle. “There’s an airplane simulator chair,” he says. “My 2-year-old son loves that one.”
Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort is a blast from the past. From the architectural swoops of the lobby, to the vintage labels on the complimentary soaps and shampoos, the hotel is a tribute to the 1950s and 1960s. Even the colors and decor of the rooms and suites will make you think you’ve entered a time machine. It’s Rat Pack chic meets Jetsons cool, and just minutes from the Universal Studios Orlando theme parks (the spires of Harry Potter’s castle can be seen from the top floors).
The resort features two sprawling sand beach swimming pools, rental cabanas, a waterslide, fitness studio, gaming arcade and an on-site, 10-lane bowling alley. Dining options include three retro restaurants, and cocktails, beer and non-alcoholic beverages can be found in either the Atomic Tonic or Swizzle Lounge. The hotel lobby also features a Starbucks.
For information and reservations, visit loewshotels.com.