There was nothing which excited me as a child as much as a trip to the video arcade. As a child of the ’80s, I was surrounded by electronic media. I squealed in delight when my four year-old self found an Atari 2600 hidden in my parent’s room. I spent hours copying code from books into my Commodore 64 in hopes of playing a new game, and convinced my parents to make pirated copies of the VHS series “How to Beat Home Video Games” we rented from the nearby video store. As entertaining as these at-home experiences were, it was at the arcade that my electronic fantasies (not of the Saya no Uta variety) were brought to fruition.
As much as I loved these video playgrounds, they were absolutely hated by my parents, who dreaded any time I was able to con some poor sap of a relative into giving me a quarter. They weren’t alone; all throughout the period arcades were considered dens of iniquity, no better than the pool hall, laser tags or the skate park. As the industry shifted, the number of arcades diminished drastically, reduced to an endangered species. Once a staple of the shopping center, the concept of a mall arcade is practically gone, usually replaced with a small cluster of mechanical rides and the occasional Stacker machine. The arcade as we knew it seems to have been banished to amusement parks, the shore, and retro loving hipster establishments. Even big name facilities like Dave and Buster’s have moved into the realm of redemption games (games that reward your playing with tickets or prizes) rather than the traditional video game.
Topless Robot reached out to two of the biggest names in arcade games, Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day and classic gaming phenom Billy Mitchell to find out what makes an arcade great, and which of the dwindling population of video arcades are ones you shouldn’t miss. Billy told me that a great modern arcade needs to have a mix of old and new machines; the old to give it personality, the new to make money. While not all of the arcades on this list followed that model, none of them should be missed.
Of the arcades left in America, many of them deserve to be recognized for their continued operation in days when costs keep rising and profits keep falling. That being said, please feel free in the comments section to bring your favorite arcade to the attention of others.
Timeline Arcade – Hanover, PA
A classic arcade in a town known mainly for its pretzels, Timeline Arcade has a large selection of classic arcade games, pinball machines and even a nice selection of Atari 2600 games for play. While currently located in a comatose shopping mall, the arcade is slated to move to downtown Hanover later this year, and will include both live music and an art gallery.
Pinball Hall of Fame – Las Vegas, NV
Off the beaten track in Las Vegas is the Pinball Hall of Fame, home to 152 common and rare pinball machines. The machines are kept in immaculate condition, with all of the proceeds going to the maintenance of the machines and the Salvation Army. It may not have all of the bells and whistles (aside from the ones in the machines), but the Pinball Hall of Fame has endured while other similar ventures like Baltimore’s National Pinball Museum have already shuttered.
Yestercades – Red Bank, NJ
Another excellent mix of new and old machines including some classic and more recent consoles. What makes this place badass is its location; just a few feet from Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash. The cast of Comic Book Men has been known to frequent the arcade. Yestercades can satisfy your jones for arcade fun faster than Walt Flanagan’s Dog.
King of Kong Arcade – Orlando International Airport – Orlando, FL
The King of Kong arcade might be small, but what it lacks in size and selection it makes up in character. Walls are adorned with giant scenes of Donkey Kong, the signage looks straight out of the DVD cover of the documentary, and Billy’s signature hot sauce is for sale behind the counter (hopefully in FAA approved containers). Also behind the counter is Billy Mitchell himself, who occasionally makes appearances and never shies away from a photo op with arcade fanatics.
10. PAPA World Headquarters – Pittsburgh, Pa
Ever since I was a young boy, I played the silverball. In fact, thanks to an antiquated and asinine law here in Baltimore, I was kicked out of a mall arcade for playing pinball while still a minor (That’s right kids…playing pinball under 18 in Baltimore is a crime!). The game of pinball, while currently on an upswing with emulated versions like The Pinball Arcade and Zen Pinball and with manufacturers like Stern and Jersey Jack still creating new machines, was, until recently, on death’s door. As hard as it is to find an arcade near you, it’s next to impossible to find a pinball machine most places. The pinballs you do find are often in such disrepair they are often unplayable. But that’s not the case at PAPA World Headquarters.
You can still find the occasional machine broken at PAPA, but that’s hardly an issue seeing as how they have over 450 of them for you to play and compete on. What’s amazing is that this collection, until 2012 belonged to internet entrepreneur Kevin Martin, who recently donated the entire collection to the Replay Foundation, an organization dedicated to community pinball outreach. Even more amazing is that in 2004, almost immediately after PAPA 7, the facility was flooded, destroying the interior of the facility along with the entire pinball collection.
If pinball isn’t quite your thing, they also have an impressive collection of video games, including rare titles like one of the few working copies of the much maligned fighter Tattoo Assassins. Spectators are welcome for tournaments, with large HD TVs live streaming the action happening on some of the more impressive tables. So why is this Mecca of the Silverball so far down the list? Accessibility. PAPA World Headquarters is only open to the public twice a year: during the Pinball World Championships, and Pinbrawl, the pinball world match play championships.
9. Star Worlds Arcade – Dekalb, IL
In the ’80s, every small town had an arcade of some sort. In my childhood hometown we had the impressive, two story Replay arcade, but in many small towns like ours, the arcade was a tiny hole in the wall. At first glance, Star Worlds Arcade is exactly that. The non-descript, khaki-brick building looks more like a convenience store or truck stop than an arcade. Of course, those preconceived notions are quickly whisked away when you open the front doors.
Packed into every single square inch of space are the great arcade games of yesteryear. You won’t find a single new title in the place, which in this case is a good thing. The decor is straight out of the ’80s, and pictures of the cramped space almost instantly elicit memories of arcade B.O. What Star Worlds lacks in space or technology, it makes up exponentially with character. The arcade, which started out 27 years ago as a place to store the ever-growing game collection of Pac-Man Pat, has truly been a labor of love. The fact that it has endured in the same location, over so many years is a testament to the pride Pat has for his arcade, and the amount of dedication he has given it. It may not have the same frills as new and more profitable arcades, but then again, none of them are quite the time travel experience that one gets walking into Star Worlds.
8. Barcade – Brooklyn, NY
Walter Day and Billy Mitchell have different opinions about Barcade, but here at Topless Robot, the idea of combining video games and alcohol sounds like one hell of a combination. Opened in 2004 by a group of four friends, Barcade currently features 43 video game classics, as well as an enormous selection of craft beers.
It would be easy to write off Barcade as just an ale house with a few video games to play, but it has attracted hardcore gamers from all walks. Notable world record holders like Hank Chien (Donkey Kong) and George Leutz (Q*Bert) are often seen practicing at their choice machines. As further proof of concept, Barcade has since opened three more locations in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, and dozens more pretenders have popped up across the country. If that wasn’t enough to prove it’s worth, Barcade Brooklyn was named the best bar in NYC by Foursquare. It’s a great place to button mash while getting smashed.
7. 1-UP – Denver, CO
Taking a page from fellow list members Barcade and Ground Kontrol, the Mile High City’s entry on this list would be the 1UP, a combination pub and arcade in the heart of Denver. With fourteen beers on tap, a bad ass collection of classic games and Giant Jenga, the 1UP can entertain most anyone of the nerdy persuasion.
What sets 1UP apart from the other Bar/Arcade combinations is its large collection of new pinball machines. While their collection included classics like Addams Family and Medieval Madness, it features some of the newest releases from Stern Pinball like X-Men and the amazing Tron: Legacy. Food is the typical pub fare with a twist: taking a page from the Boondocks, their signature 1UP burger is served on a glazed doughnut. If you want to lose all sense of taste and impress your friends with how fast you can drain your sinuses, try taking your cheesesteak, wings or burger to “Total Carnage” level, where ghost peppers and other varieties try to make your face do its best impression of the Toht Fail.
The 1UP is also home to the Kong Off: an annual gathering of some of the best Kong players of all time, once again vying for 8-bit supremacy. This year Billy Mitchell, Steve Wiebe and others will try to wrestle back the record from current holder Hank Chien in November. Of course, one extra life is never enough and so they recently expanded, opening the smaller but equally cool 2UP.
6. Ground Kontrol – Portland, OR
The one name that’s been on the lips of almost everyone I’ve spoken to over the course of my research has been Ground Kontrol, Portland’s arcade favorite. It’s one of the first of the bar/arcade model, successfully operating since 1999. Stepping in will make you feel like you’ve just stepped on the floor of Flynn’s Arcade, with blacklights and Tron-like decorations throughout the facility, and one of the largest video game and pinball collections on the Pacific Northwest. Everything here is video-game themed, down to the decor in the bathrooms.
Instead of the loud background noise of video games and pinballs, live DJ’s perform every night of the week with specific themes for each night including the obligatory ’80’s night. Pinball and fighter tournaments happen rather regularly, with video game trivia and dance club nights rounding out the schedule. It truly is a fantastic destination for gamers and non-gamers alike.
5. Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum – Farmington Hills, MI
In the US, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that there is a museum for even the most obscure subjects. Being close to Washington DC, I have the distinct advantage of having easy access to some of the greatest museums in the world. Unfortunately in places like La Crosse, Kansas, the height of culture comes in the form of the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum, which, as fascinating as it may be for barbed wire aficionados, leaves many others bored to rusty tears. But at Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum, all of the exhibits are hands-on, and none will require tetanus shots.
Marvin’s collection of coin-operated devices began in 1960 and continues to now. From mechanical toys and rides, to video games and pinball machines, Marvin’s has a little of everything. Beyond the typical collection of machines, Marvin’s has some of the most unusual coin operated devices ever created. Coin powered puppet shows, freak shows, electro-shock therapy machines and sex testers accompany the large selection of video games and pinballs from every era.
Listed as one of the 100 most unusual museums in America by the World Almanac, and having been featured on programs like Modern Marvels, Marvin’s has certainly garnered a lot of attention. That attention is well earned, as once again we see a man’s passion transformed into an amazing place to play. It’s like a strange, electricity and LSD powered travelling circus sure to amaze and astound, and certainly worth the trip for any coin-op enthusiast.
4. Marty’s Playland – Ocean City, Md
The shore has always been a popular spot for video arcades, but very few transport you through time like Marty’s Playland in Ocean City, Md. One of the oldest continuously operated arcades in existence, it was originally opened in 1937 by Marty and Anna Mitnick, who passed it down the generations until 1991 when it was sold to Trimper’s Amusements.
Stepping through the doors is like walking through a time machine. While the front of the large arcade is filled with the latest in video, redemption and skill games, the first anachronism you will notice is the distinct lack of modern skee-ball machines. Instead, a collection of ancient, electro mechanical skee-balls lines the left hand wall, with every machine typically filled by players young and old. Moving towards the back, a large collection of digger machines – the precursor to the modern claw machine – have young and old scooping up large amounts of novelty prizes. They maintain the largest collection of pinball machines in the resort town, and have more than a few obscure antique machines like mechanical pitch and bats, love testers and Pokereno machines.
According to manager Chris Trimper, it’s those classic machines that are the greatest liability, but they are a necessary part of his operation, in which nostalgia takes precedence over profitability. That nostalgia seems to be what keeps people coming back to Marty’s. My last visit I witnessed a 90 year old woman playing a digger machine with her great granddaughter. Trimper said she could likely be playing the same machine she played as a child, and it’s that generational sharing that has kept the arcade alive through good and bad times.
In 2008, a fire swept up the Ocean City boardwalk, leveling a nearby pizza parlour and T-shirt shop, as well as setting the arcade ablaze. Trimper and his father, both volunteer firefighters, jumped on the fireline to put assist in putting out the blaze, which damaged the left hand side of the building and several of their antique machines. Remarkably, the arcade was able to be opened only six days later thanks to some quick renovations, and was at full operating capacity a mere 32 days later. It seems like neither fire, hurricanes or the economy can keep this arcade down, Trimper says he plans to stay in business as long as possible.
3. Galloping Ghost – Brookfield, IL
In this high tech era, the need for quarters in arcades becomes less and less. Dave and Buster’s and casinos brought us swipe card or other forms of payment to play our favorite games, but at the Galloping Ghost, even that is too much work. Featuring more than 400 games, an old school arcade-o-holic can walk in and just pay a meager $15 to play all day. No cards, no quarters, no tokens: everything is set on free play.
The collection of games is huge and the unlimited play makes finally taking down games like House of the Dead and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a much more inexpensive and enjoyable feat. But it’s more than just having a large collection according to owner Doc Mack. It’s his belief that the arcade should be a social experience. While console gamers can easily play the latest fighting titles at home, Mack stocks his arcade with custom built cabinets featuring Playstation 3 hardware to allow for players to slug it out on console fighters like the most recent title in the Mortal Kombat series, elbow to elbow with competitors. It’s a remembrance of the ’90’s era of arcade which inspired Mack. In fact, the Galloping Ghost is so popular with the fighting game crowd they even sponsor their own team, Team GGA, in competitions around the world.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Galloping Ghost is a world record setter’s paradise, with over 140 records broken there in the three years of operation. If you want to learn more about how these games tick, classes on building and maintaining classic arcade games are also offered. With better hours than your average brew pub (they are open daily until 2 a.m.), even the most nocturnal of nerds will be accommodated. And if a full day of play isn’t enough, there are weekly, monthly and even yearly memberships guaranteed to ensure your need for future carpal tunnel surgery.
2. Funspot – Laconia, NH
It’s tough to dispute Funspot’s claim of being the largest arcade in the world (verified by Guiness in 2008). With over 500 video games and pinball machines as well as a myriad of other attractions, there truly is something for everyone. Of course, it’s not just size and quantity that matters, Funspot has been deeply involved in video game history. Featured heavily in the documentary The King of Kong, the arcade also contains the American Classic Arcade Museum, described by the Boston Globe’s Billy Baker as “the Louvre of the 8-bit world”.
During the golden age of the video arcade, the company expanded, opening multiple locations around New Hampshire as well as Florida, though all have since closed. Even more remarkable than the size and scope of the operation is it’s beginnings. Opened initially in 1952 as an indoor mini-golf with money borrowed from his grandmother, then-21 year-old founder Bob Lawton continued to expand his business exponentially.
Whether you are a novice gamer or someone gunning for a world record, Funspot will be sure to impress and entertain, and you might just see a kill screen or two.
1. Starbase Arcade – San Rafael, Ca
With the golden age of video games long in the past, few arcades survived through the turbulent times to remain today. One of those to make it through the long haul is Video Bob’s Starbase Arcade in San Rafael, Ca. A small neighborhood arcade, at first glance it looks like it would be a small town barber shop with its tiled storefront and large but non-descript sign. When you get closer the charm really starts to fly, with cheesy sci-fi artwork straight out of the 80’s covering the windows from top to bottom.
Inside is lined with a multitude of games, ranging from the classics like Ms. Pac-man to more recent shooters like Aliens: Extermination. Starbase Arcade is a fighting game players Mecca, with four dedicated fighting games and the entire Capcom and Neo-Geo catalogue on a single machine. Additionally, multiple arcade cabinets have been converted to play console fighting games. Fighter tournaments happen frequently, often with out of town or even overseas visitors, as well as thousands of viewers from the web.
But what truly makes Starbase Arcade a must see is that after 31 years of continuous operation it’s going away. According to Video Bob, the rising cost of rent as well as the landlord’s interest in having another vendor there will leave the Starbase Arcade homeless at the end of August. The dedication of Bob over the history of the arcade is so great, Twin Galaxies is honoring him as well as Starbase Arcade at a special event in Fairfield Iowa in August, with many famous gamers scheduled to be in attendance. If that weren’t enough, the arcade is getting it’s own card in the Twin Galaxies trading card collection. Thankfully, Bob isn’t leaving the arcade world just yet. Aside from refurbishing, repairing and selling classic machines, he is working towards a possible new location or private club to keep his collection and the games alive.
Previously by Jason Helton: