How Arcade Bars Are Reviving a Decades-Old Subculture

Thirty-five years after the sun set on the "Golden Age" of arcades, taverns touting cabinet gaming rigs and craft beers are suddenly back in fashion.
Laure Joliet
Button Mash in Echo Park

In the heart of summer in 1978, an invasion occurred. With an iconic four-note looping soundtrack, innovative gameplay and the onus of saving the world from impending alien conquest, Space Invaders landed in America and quickly took the nation by storm, launching an era that would come to be known as the “Golden Age of Arcades” — a period when gaming cabinets dominated the jam-packed neon video parlors of the eight bit caste.

“The Golden Age of arcades really kicked off with the release of Space Invaders,” Steven L. Kent, journalist and author of The Ultimate History of Video Games, tells Heat Vision. “But going into the 1970s, when people thought  of arcades, they thought of the [places] where there were drunks and truants and they smelled bad. These were places where nice kids didn’t go.”

That perspective changed rapidly, however, when Japanese video game manufacturer Taito’s classic Space Invaders made its way stateside and business owners across the country were quick to cash in on the latest trend. In their heyday, arcade machines “made an excess of $5 billion in 1982, alone,” says Kent. “When you stop to think of that, it's 20 billion quarters, an estimated 75,000 years spent playing arcade games in the United States. And then it went away.”

But that may all be changing with the recent rise in popularity of video game-themed watering holes..

“I think a lot of people who frequent these kind of bars, and are buying into the culture of all this stuff, are the people who grew up in the '80s, early '90s or even older,” says Jordan Weiss, co-owner of Button Mash in Los Angeles, whilst on break from pouring craft beers amidst rows of cabinet arcade games.

“We’ve got a pretty diverse crowd,” Weiss continues, as a crowd of children beg their hip, young parents, sipping ales and IPAs, for more quarters as mounds of wrapping paper and unopened toys adorn their table. “There’s days where we’re doing a seven-year-old’s birthday party and then later that night we’re doing a 40-year-old’s birthday party, and a lot of stuff in between. I take that to mean we’re doing something right.”

Button Mash is not the only establishment to offer up the nostalgic allure of Street Fighter, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong in the Southland, however, as arcade bars such as Blipsy and EightyTwo in Downtown and The One Up in Sherman Oaks also appeal to the retro-gaming conscious.

“They seem to give a new outlet for people who remember playing these games as kids, but are now old enough to drink,” says James Rolfe, better known as YouTuber and blogger Angry Video Game Nerd. “They provide great nostalgia and a fun casual/social environment, which is an alternate to the more serious side of gaming.”

That’s not to say that arcade bars don’t appeal to more serious gamers, as well. “We met so many people who have been in the scene for decades, people with lots of stories to tell,” said Weiss. “They became unofficial consultants for us, telling us stories of the golden days when they had an arcade with 20 Street Fighter cabinets lining up an entire wall with a line to play all of them."

“The cool thing about [arcade bars] is, especially if they’re not busy, you can have a blast,” Zelda Williams, who was named (by her father, late Oscar-winner Robin Williams) after the titular Hyrulian princess in the long-running The Legend of Zelda Nintendo series. A gamer herself, Williams recently completed an eight-hour marathon lives tream in which she played Breath of the Wild to raise money for the Brain and Behavior Institute.

While Williams admits the arcade bars are “a lot of fun,” she does voice concern over the older clientele getting a bit too rowdy with the games. “Adults are prone to doing things like hitting the pinball machines when they get drunk, so I don’t know how long a lot of these games will last. [Laughs] As kids they couldn’t really damage the machines, but now they can."

Rolfe offers a different take on the alcohol component to this new breed of arcade: "Many gamers try to remain 100 percent sober and focused on the game, especially with all these challenging classics like Donkey Kong. Maybe that's another reason why drinking and gaming haven't co-existed as much before. Now it's an enterprising novelty."

The answer to the question of why, after so many years, arcades are becoming popular again may not be just nostalgia. The business model has evolved to offer more than just a hall filled with classic video games. It's a more grown-up version of what made them popular in the first place. “The cabinets do more than pay for themselves, but they wouldn't keep the lights on themselves," Weiss says.

Instead, they simply act as the catalyst to attract patrons to the establishment.

Crowds continue to flock to the new guard of arcade, a mixture of nostalgia and pioneering that has struck a chord with a generation reviving a culture that began, decades ago, with an invasion of eight-bit aliens.

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