I’m part of the last generation that got to experience arcades, and even then I caught the tail end of that period. Despite missing the heyday of arcades, the time I did spend in them are happy ones filled with wonder. And it seems ever since then I’ve wanted to see arcades make a comeback. I wrote about this several years ago and since then the arcade has made a slight resurgence, although not in the same form as before – but that’s okay.
Say “hello” to the Bar Arcades
The arcade and bar combo is the way arcades are coming back to cities all across the world. Integrating a full bar or restaurant with an arcade was not an ideal to me. I was looking for an old school arcade but knew damn well you can’t make money off arcade games alone. In many ways I probably resisted going to bar arcades because I just knew that a majority of the people there would not be playing games.
But I was wrong.
At least in one recent case when I visited Chicago and stopped by the Headquarters Beercade. There were two bar arcades in metro Chicago that came up when I searched – The Emporium and Headquarters. It just happened that Headquarters was closer to where I was staying so it was the first one I visited…and that was too bad for the Emporium.
Headquarters had gotten great reviews online and claimed that all the arcade games were free. Free?! I didn’t believe it…I knew there had to be some catch. You had to buy a drink, some food or a bracelet or something…but that wouldn’t stop me from checking it out.
We got to Headquarters (my wife and I), got carded and was bombarded with an awesome environment filled with all the sounds I’ve been missing for the past 20 years.
Adults only, please.
But first off, let’s address that first point – we were carded. Because Headquarters is a bar, you need to be 21 to enter…and that’s awesome. You can go and play without worry about children or parents or anything like that. Worst case are some drunk posers…but at least they’re adults.
A true modern arcade
Headquarters is exactly what a modern arcade needs to be, even with a bar and food. Photos from the venue are great but they don’t do it justice. There’s a modern-retro 80s theme to Headquarters, but it’s done right. It’s not too cheezy and overtly retro. There’s retro dance music playing and 80s artifacts all over the place but it doesn’t feel like it was put together by Uncle Rico longing for 1983. It really feels like they’re catering to the over-30 crowd that remembers to the good old days but doesn’t live in the past.
And the games are Headquarters really are free. We walked in and while it wasn’t a packed house, there was a person at almost every cabinet. I saw an empty pinball machines to the left, so I strolled over to see just how free it was. I pressed the button and there’s my ball…ha! Awesome! Played my game and then tried another machine…free. Walked over to Spy Hunter...free. No bracelets, no food requirement, just come and play. Sure, they’d like you to buy some food & drink…and you should…but if you just want to try it out, you can. I think keeping the games free is a better strategy to get people to buy because patrons will respect the fact that the games are free and want to support you by purchasing something else.
True social gaming
We spent 2 hours at Headquarters playing almost every game, both upstairs and downstairs (yes, two floors of games!). And while playing Defender was great and Pin*Bot was awesome, one moment happened that I never thought I’d experience again. Two guys were playing Mortal Kombat and I was watching them fight over one guy’s shoulder. He lost and turned to me, gesturing that it was my turn. I stepped up, played the winner – a complete stranger – got my ass kicked, and then let the other guy waiting back in. Now that’s social gaming. It was such an old school moment, I just had to smile. It was one of those times where you feel there is hope for the future.
The other type of bar arcade
We went to Headquarters on a Friday night and had a great time. I wanted to go back but just ran out of time. But while visiting another part of town, we stopped by The Emporium to see how it compared. Now, it was a Sunday and not busy at all, but even then the environment of the Emporium can’t even compare to Headquarters.
Where Headquarters felt like a place that was created with some vision, The Emporium is simply an empty room with some cabinets along the wall. It was basically a dance hall with arcade games. Maybe on a Friday or Saturday night the place comes alive but that was hard to envision.
Most notably too is games at the Emporium are not free. You gotta plop in some quarters and tokens just like you did 30 years ago. All in all this isn’t a big deal because they’re still cheap but I’ll play 10 games of Pin*Bot at Headquarters for free where I’d play 2 games for 50-cents a play. The Emporium feels like a first attempt at a bar arcade while Headquarters feels like where it should be and needs to be.
Play in the past, don’t live there
Arcades will never be what they were back in the day. We might miss that environment and those games, but just like everything else, it was time to grow up. That doesn’t mean the games need to be newer and better, just the experience. I’m now a believer in bar arcades but it’s clear there is a right way and wrong way to go about it. Booze and games alone isn’t enough. You need to create an environment that is something more…something that people feel like they couldn’t do on their own. They’re out there, you just have to find them.