The Arcade Is Back, Now With Beer

Arcade bars have risen in most U.S. cities, driving up vintage game prices and giving Gen Xers a new (very old) screen to stare at

Illustration: QuickHoney

It’s midafternoon on a Saturday, and most bars in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward sit empty. But the Joystick Gamebar on Edgewood Avenue is hopping. About two dozen adults, mostly in their 40s and 50s, crowd the retro arcade games lining the wall, dropping quarters with a satisfying clink into Centipede and Space Invaders. Everyone is sipping pints of craft beer. “Well, it’s confirmed, I suck as bad at Defender as I did in the ’80s,” one man shouts to no one in particular.

Arcades are dead. They perished in the early 1990s along with shoulder pads, fax machines, and dignified nightly news anchors. The primary culprits were home-video consoles such as PlayStation and Xbox, helped by the Internet and the fact that hanging out at malls became uncool. Now a new breed of arcade bars is suddenly everywhere; pick an American city, and it’s likely that one opened in the last few years. There’s the Coin-Op Game Room in San Diego, Supernova in Colorado Springs, and Zanzabar in Louisville. New Orleans has a Barcadia; Des Moines, Barcadium; and New York, Barcade. Last March a bar called Eighty Two, named for an epochal year of the arcade boom—Ms. Pac-Man, Pole Position, and Donkey Kong Junior all bowed then—opened in downtown Los Angeles. On weekend nights, lines to get in wind around the block. “A lot of people appreciate having another stimulus at a bar besides drinking as much as they can,” says Scott David, 34, one of Eighty Two’s owners.

Most arcade bars function as time capsules for Gen Xers who don’t have the attention span for today’s intricate smartphone and console games. With local brews on tap and stripped-back décor, they draw the same guys who got repetitive stress injuries playing identical machines as teenagers. But the ubiquity of such spots goes beyond pure nostalgia. People spend their lives isolated, staring into screens. The natural solution is to seek places where they can also stare into screens, but together with friends competing in four-player melees. “People just love the multiplayer games like the Simpsons or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, where they can play with their friends in a group setting,” says Jeffrey McEachin, one of the founders of Ground Kontrol in Portland, Ore. “We think this is a huge trend.” (The arcade bars don’t reveal revenue or profits, but the crowds and sprawl suggest the concept is working well.)

Photographer: Brad Swonetz for Bloomberg Businessweek

Contemporary game designers now have a sophisticated digital toolbox to produce intricate games that thrust players onto a football field or into a battlefield. It’s like real life but with license to gun people down indiscriminately. Thirty years ago, game makers had the equivalent of an old rusted screwdriver at their disposal. So what they came up with had to be imaginative and weird enough to suck in players and their coins. “Certainly if you try to describe Q*bert to someone, it just sounds bats--- insane,” says Demitri Fregosi Powers, 34, a regular customer at Ground Kontrol who considers himself an expert at the 1982 game. (The simple premise of Q*bert, you may recall, is to jump up and down a pyramid of cubes, changing the color of each cube before monsters get you.) “It starts to feel like a story, even if it doesn’t make any sense,” Fregosi Powers says.

Most enthusiasts credit Ground Kontrol with kicking off the trend. In 2003 three friends, customers of what was then an ailing music store, decided to buy out the Portland establishment. The place had a few classic games, but they were constantly breaking. The new owners were all engineers and tinkery ’80s kids who knew how to fix them. “Once we got into running the business, I noticed it would clear out every night at about 8 or 9 p.m.,” says McEachin, 52. “So we thought, maybe we should retain our customers by serving alcohol.” Ground Kontrol soon moved into a location with a bar in Portland’s Chinatown and started adding to its game collection. Now it displays more than 60 classic games and 27 pinball machines.

Across the country at around the same time, a graphic designer named Paul Kermizian left his job to open Barcade in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, N.Y. Kermizian, now 40, was a collector of classic arcade cabinets, which he’d crammed into his loft and dispersed among accommodating friends. Bars historically had one or two video games, but he dreamed of a place with a much better selection—a sort of Dave & Buster’s where adults might actually want to go on dates. To get it up and running, he and three pals spent their life savings and maxed out credit cards to lease a property, secure a liquor license, and buy and repair inventory. Since 2011 he and his partners have opened two Barcades in Manhattan, one in Jersey City, and one in downtown Philadelphia. They employ 85 people and have had to protect the Barcade trademark against imitators more than 100 times, even sending dozens of cease-and-desist letters to other bar owners. “It’s a weird business model,” Kermizian says. “I never thought it would work this well.”

That’s not to say these bars don’t face challenges. The old games tend to have the reliability of a ’67 Chevy and must be constantly monitored and fixed. The manufacturers mostly don’t exist in their old incarnations, and no one makes the old parts, like the chunky cathode-ray monitors and lead-plated joysticks, so constant improvisation is necessary. Some proprietors just upgrade the machines, subbing in spring-loaded joysticks and flat-panel displays, but others consider that heretical. “We feel like it ruins the experience,” says McEachin, who spends about 10 percent of his game income maintaining and cleaning the machines.

Others have tried to bring the concept upscale and been less successful. Shawn Vergara owns the popular Blackbird bar in San Francisco’s Castro district. After his nephew told him about Supernova in Colorado Springs a few years ago, he started researching the trend, traveling to check out bars in San Diego and Brooklyn. Last December he opened Brewcade in the Castro. Vergara, 46, had to lobby San Francisco’s city council to change a decades-old ordinance that limited the number of arcade games in a single establishment to 10 and stipulated that games couldn’t be turned on before 3 p.m. (meant to combat teen delinquency in the ’80s). He knew nothing about fixing old games, so he subcontracted the work to a local pro, nicknamed Video Bob. Early reviews of the Brewcade on Yelp have been mixed, with customers complaining about broken machines, limited selection, and the inclusion of newer “multicades,” which offer dozens of games in one box. These can be sacrilegious to purists. Although the bar is crowded on weekend nights, it’s fairly quiet other times. “I thought it would be easier to get off the ground here,” Vergara says.

The concept has flat-out failed in other cities. In 2011, Chris LaPorte opened the 7,000-square-foot Insert Coin(s) in Las Vegas, which draws 1,000 visitors a night. A few years later, when his business partners tried the concept in Minneapolis, it closed within a year. LaPorte, 38, says the space was too big, so it felt empty and devoid of energy. “You can’t get too greedy and make it a huge supercenter,” he says.

Photographer: Brad Swonetz for Bloomberg Businessweek

As new bar owners look to get in on the action, they’re also driving up prices of the old games. “The days of coming across a dusty old cabinet at a flea market or garage sale are largely behind us,” says Art Santana, 32, another member of the Ground Kontrol brain trust. Rarer games such as Atari’s 1985 Paperboy, where you ride a bike and fling newspapers at homes while avoiding plants and dogs, can go for thousands of dollars, up from a few hundred a decade ago. While a vintage Donkey Kong cabinet fetched about $600 a few years ago, LaPorte says private collectors now routinely sell them for $2,500.

The investment’s still worth it. Bar owners say the quarters add up, paying for game upkeep and complementing the real revenue source: bar food such as nachos and chili cheese fries and $7 craft beers. Of course, the games also offer gratification to a dedicated audience of overgrown kids who grew up in darkened rooms, shelling out quarters and staring at screens. Those hard-won skills are finally useful again. Back at the Joystick Gamebar in Atlanta, amid shrieking adults and jukebox tunes, I sidled up to 1979’s space shoot’em-up Galaga. Twenty-five cents and 15 minutes later, I achieved something I hadn’t in at least three decades: a high score.

Chris LaPorte at his Las Vegas bar, Insert Coin(s).
Chris LaPorte at his Las Vegas bar, Insert Coin(s).
Photographer: Brad Swonetz for Bloomberg Businessweek

 

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