The death of arcades

Kyle Orland traces the long, slow decline of the American arcade, from cultural phenomenon to background noise at pizza parlors and movie theater lobbies—a fate that may be compared to the thriving scenes abroad. [Ars]


      1.  I was just going to post this John.  It’s great that Ground Kontrol is thriving too.  Years ago they did a 2nd location on Hawthorne but it didn’t survive. Methinks the time is ripe for eastside expansion again!

    1. It makes sense that their appeal would largely be limited to nostalgia in the US, but that they’d have a more active life in places like Japan, where much leisure time and socializing take place outside the home.

      1. Yes, that’s part of it, I’m sure, but it doesn’t really explain why, say, the Europeans don’t also have a major arcade culture as they too tend to seek entertainment out on the town rather than investing in home theaters and rec-rooms to enjoy at home as Americans are wont to do.

        1. I’d assume that it is based on size. American homes outside Manhattan and similar places seem to be larger, more spacious. The concept of “partykeller” (party basement) is certainly known, but limited to those who have the space.

          OTOH arcades were always quite limited in Germany. Video games were excessively expensive (1 Mark, 2 to 3 quarters back then) and if they had slot machines (more than one, I think) minors were not allowed.

          1. The concept of “partykeller” (party basement) is certainly known

            That would be ‘rumpus room’.

    2. Rusty Quarters FTW! I freakin’ love that place–and they just got another pinball machine too!

  1. I guess it’s no huge surprise that Portland is keeping arcades alive. I guess all the young retirees have time on their hands.

    1. Speaking as a retired dork in his 30s who sure plays a mean pinball, yes…Ground Kontrol is one of my favorite places in the city.  Backspace being next door is nice too.

  2. I worked at Showbiz Pizza Place from 1981 to 1984. During those first two years, that place was packed; nearly wall to wall flesh in the game room. Then, by the beginning of 1984, it started dying. That summer, you could have thrown a bowling ball through the game room and not hit a soul. The place was sold to some outfit out of Tennessee (BAM Inc, if I recall), and that was the beginning of the end. We had a walkout (really!) in October of 1984, as the new owners completely turned the place upside down. So I was there during those halcyon days, and actually kind of miss it.

      1. Sure have. I can’t think about the Rock-afire Explosion without thinking of all the mechanical mayhem they wrought. Like the time Billy Bob Bear’s main arm mount let loose and is right hand slipped down, so he wasn’t playing the guitar but appeared to be playing with himself (with a group of visiting Greek sailors in the dining room no less; some things  are just universal). Or when Uncle Klunk threw his phone into the audience; we were one of several stores that had Rolfe de Wolfe replaced with this character who could actually pick up this phone (pretty amazing). Problem was that the characters were pneumatic and any pressure drop would cause limbs to not work properly. The result? Uncle Klunk throws the phone, and apparently quite often. But that was really late in Showbiz’s history. 
        Wish we had more places like that where more than just kids could go. But alas…

  3. While a very different kind of place than Ground Kontrol (think more Chuck E. Cheese, less Flynn’s) there’s another thriving chain of arcades in Portland, OR called Wunderland.  There’s one of these down in Salem too.  Some even have movie theaters attached, but all have the same focus on super cheesy carnival style payout games which dispense tickets exchangeable for little prizes.  They also have arcade cabinets and pinballs peppered in between though, and everything runs on nickels.

    1. There’s a place sort of like that in Huntington Beach that someone took me to once last year when I was living nearby. It was one of the most depressing places I’ve been in ages – and I’m from Buffalo NY.

      1. I checked one of them out just for curiosity’s sake, and while it definitely wasn’t my scene (played Terminator pinball for a half hour just staring confusedly at all the people trying to get randomly lucky with nickel dropping machines and prize cranes) it was packed with people who all seemed to be having a blast.  I guess to each their own.

  4. I lived in Japan in the early 80’s, and went to Ground Kontrol in the early 90’s (it was on Hawthorne in a converted theater, so I assume it was GK), and as an old fogy, I would love to see arcade culture return to the USA. But as others have pointed out,  the sprawl, the space, and the less-than-conducive environment don’t really present fertile ground for an arcade culture to thrive.  In recent years, industry moves towards downloading games have even threatened to kill off local console game vendors and their try-before-you-buy setups.  We are a culture of rugged individuals and that has its corresponding pluses and minuses.  I cherish my early memories of arcade gaming in Japan and am looking forward to returning there soon to see how things have changed, and not changed, in 30 years.

    1. It’s still going strong over here in Japan!

      My friend has directed a documentary about it – 100 Yen, the Japanese Arcade Experience which BBers may find interesting.

      (Disclaimer, I appear in the preview for 3 seconds and I had a bad haircut)

  5. I have to laugh because I am counting down to the arrival of the Michigan Pinball Expo next Thursday.

    Last week there was a large tournement in Pittsburgh.
    I know, I know…I was in high school during the height of the arcade era in the 1980s and saw them come and go.
    I don’t know if anyone under 35 would be interested in these “casual” games. Thankfully there are still enough fanatics to justify an event like the Expo.

    For retepslluerb:I happened to take a photo of a machine at the 2011 expo that was orginally in West Germany. I have attached the photo of the coin slots. The name of the game is Dealers Choice.

  6. On my side of Atlanta, we had the Gold Mine and Challenges. The Gold Mine is long gone now, while Challenges is just a strung-out shell of its former self.

    It used to be like walking into the carnival, with all the blinking lights and the cacophony of sound coming from all the machines. If anything, I miss the excitement of walking around the arcade with a pocket full of quarters, trying to decide which game I’d try or revisit next.

    I remember one day in Challenges, my friend Brian and I actually beat “Altered Beast.” When we were low on quarters, one of us would keep fighting as hard as he could while the other ran like mad to the coin machine, then came back and rejoined the game just in time. And the spoils of our effort? Seeing our initials at the top of the leaderboard.

    Those were fun times. Part of me wishes arcades could remain a permanent fixture for future generations to enjoy, but another part of me realizes this transition to home gaming is just a part of how things naturally change over time.

  7. I worked in (and still do some “contractor” work) arcades from the end of the 80’s till today. Yes it’s been a sad and constant decline for many reasons. Improving technology, and the end of the old “mall culture” mostly. The first 1 I worked in was a chain arcade in a mall, near a movie theater. A mall that at that time though “mall culture” was on the way out in that particular area weekends were still the place teens/early 20’s people hung out. Our place a “SpacePort” was literally packed – standing room only wall to wall on the weekend evenings. But it wasn’t long till that was over. It’s very much a niche kind of business now, only really works out at all in very specific locations.  Most the machines you’ll see out in places like movie theater lobby areas are operated by some kind of route managers rather then any of the old arcade companies like the SpacePorts (Edison Brothers mall Entertainment), Time-Out (Namco), etc.

  8. Coincidentally, last night was our first visit to a large arcade in Austin called Pinballz.  It was packed.  One theory why a place like this might be successful in this age of home consoles is an emphasis on pinball machines, which I had no idea were still even being produced, but they are: played Iron Man, Transformers, and Tron: Legacy boards last night.  Hard to reproduce these at home!

  9. I blame the death of American arcades, not to mention tons of “Hole in the wall” stores on property tax scams.

    Note that, even today, most areas have things where people that own lots of commercial property can get “Tax write offs” if the property is un-rented.  That while the cities and states fight like mad to keep property tax for non commercial private homeowners at “Boom” level they openly write off much of taxes for those property barons that own all the strip malls and stuff.

    That, fellas, is why there’s so much “Empty Space”.  They can afford to hold out for “Nationwide chains” who can pay top dollar even if that outlet doesn’t earn a dime.  So they not only do not negotiate on rent, they actually keep prices higher for any “independent” operation…just to keep them out.

    Things like arcades, comic stores, weird niche stores, independent coffee shops/restaurants flourish when the actual rules are followed, that is either the property owner pays property tax like everyone else or (with foreign markets) it’s a matter of “No bailout, dude” so they have to maximize returns for their investments.  The downside is that a “Chain store” can easily kick out a small store once a mall gets more popular as if that isn’t by fare the case anyways, but they can easily move to a nearby space and take their customers with them…

    There’s a need for public spaces to relax and loosely associate with others.

    And it is NOT being filled by the coffeshop/bookstore and a few bars/restaurants.  The former is now too noisy for the intellectualls it caters to.  I’m tempted to go on a frothing rant screaming it’s some kind of “New World Order” thing, but really it’s just stupid.  Greedy property barons either get deals outright or lobby for deals, the “Law of supply and demand” only matters when it applies to others.  The cost is lots of lost business opportunities for small players and the diversity/choice in the marketplace we are supposed to have.

  10. If anyone here is near the Nashville area, we still have a full arcade, with mostly classic titles, and most of those in good order.   Some 2-3 years ago someone bought out Tilt, at the time full of hoop-shots, bigwheels, cranes and other ticket/redemption garbage.  And the new mgmt repopulated it with many of the old games that had been replaced and moved to storage somewhere in the 80’s, early 90’s.

     So, whether you’re a long-time nash-villain, or just passing thru, check out Game Galaxy.  Unfortunately, it is located at Hickory Harlem Mall (I-24 x Bell Rd) but really, it’s not that bad – just wear a tough face.  If you simply refuse to enter the (former) mall without a CCW, then you can use the old JCP entrance – supposedly that one isn’t posted.
    But if you have fond memories of Gold Mine/Pirate Cove/Tilt then you will probably cry tears of nostalgic bliss when you walk in and get transported back to 1989. 

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