Video Arcades' Last Gasp
By Christopher Borrelli | Tribune reporter
Diana Thompson hears Space Invaders in her head. She hears them in her sleep, marching ever downward, clomping ever closer. She hears them on her way to work. She hears them at work. And when they stop, for even a second, when there's the slightest glitch in their relentless stomp, when their incessant dun-dun-dun-dun hiccups, she hears that too. Thompson has worked at Gameland in Lake Geneva, Wis., for 12 years. Most days, most hours, especially during the off-season, she's alone with this cacophony of ancient coin-operated arcade games—beeping and wheezing and clanking and blasting and marching. And maybe a customer or two. And that's about it. Each blap and zap bleeds into the next and congeals into a digital orchestra, and like a conductor with a keen understanding of dense compositions, her ears prick up at the tiniest bum note.
But not for long.
Come September, when the tourists head home and school begins, this dimly lit room, awash in garish blinking Day-Glo— boasting machines so authentic they still bear the cigarette burns of 1982—will go silent. Donkey Kong will lay down his barrels, and Ms. Pac-Man will cease to chomp. And Gameland, a block from the lake, a charming staple of Chicago day-trip culture since it opened in 1944, will close for the season, and for the last time. So go now. The machines will be auctioned off. The plugs pulled. Its demise was inevitable. Its problems are the problems of any arcade—the rise of the Xbox, old machines, big electric bills, an overwhelming lack of youthful interest—and its lonesome decline more prolonged than a bad actor's death scene.
"Teenagers haven't come in a long while," said Thompson, who manages Gameland with her husband, Carl. "The people we get now come out looking to remember something from their past. They look around, they play a bit, then they leave."
This is not a news flash: The video game arcade, as a neighborhood meeting spot, as a one-stop shop for the latest in entertainment technology, is slightly more vibrant than an Edsel parts supplier. Indeed, ye olde vintage video arcade is so rare these days that—well, try finding one in Chicago at all. One by one, over the past 20 years, they have fallen away: Diversions, Treasure Chest, Mothers (in Mt. Prospect), Chicago Game Company, Rubus Game Room. All gone—a sad reality in a town that basically served as headquarters for the arcade industry.
No, the surprise is that a place like Gameland, this dingy blinking testament to our pre-PlayStation days, has clawed its way to 2008 at all, 25 years after the video game arcade peaked in popularity, at least two decades since the industry's implosion.
Step into Gameland now—and if you wasted your childhood and drained your parent's pockets of quarters, plugging coin after coin into Defender and Tempest, then stepping from the dark of Aladdin's Castle into the sunlight like a junkie emerging from a lost weekend—there should be a shock of recognition. The squat brown machine that converts $1 bills into four tokens. The wood-paneled walls. There's a Track and Field machine. And a Jungle King. The logo on the side of Galaxian has faded. The sound on Donkey Kong is nonexistent. And the joystick on Tron sticks. Asteroids eats my first token. I bang Qix to get the color back. But the vintage racing game Pole Position—the sit-down version!—works just fine. The floor is dotted with milk crates—for those shorter gamers. The vibe is sullen. And the radio at the front desk is even (no joke) blasting "We Are the World."
It's glorious. Nothing has changed.
But the crowds.
Or lack thereof.
At Star Worlds in DeKalb—also every inch the classic arcade—the room resembles a never-ending kiddie birthday party, with balloons lingering on the ceiling and games that spit out tickets to be redeemed for T-shirts and toys. But the Lady Bug and Centipede machines sit dormant (though the games themselves are impeccably kept up). "This is a nostalgia business now," said Patrick O'Malley, who started Star Worlds in 1985 when he was just 15 (with the help of his parents). He decorates the walls with album covers by bands like Squeeze and Kenny Loggins. To remain solvent, his tiny brick arcade partly makes its money back selling machines on eBay and repairing games in people's basements. The arcade's motto is "Play Today the Games You Miss From Yesterday"—but that's mostly wishful cajoling.
Closer to Chicago, in the Golf Mill shopping mall in Niles, the Replay Arcade sits across the hall from a JC Penney. On a weekday, after school has let out, a handful of teenagers wanders in and they play Dance Dance Revolution (which is giant and loud and hard to replicate on a PlayStation), then wander out. Dig Dug is shoved into a corner. There's a Whac-a-Mole and redemption skee-ball machines and an ancient puppet show that shakes and jiggles its marionettes for a couple of minutes then goes silent. This used to be an Aladdin's Castle. Then a Namco Cybertainment. Now, you're just surprised to stumble on it at all, intact.
"I think it's tragic," said Roger Sharp, director of marketing for WMS Gaming, formerly Williams, once a leader in pinball and video games, now a leader in slot machines. "This is part of our culture. And the arcade industry has always prided itself on being recession proof. But, then, this has never been an industry full of brain surgeons. For years they didn't have to do a lot of work to get customers, then when they were faced with competition, they lost them. It's pathetic."
For many Chicago gamers, the final coffin nail arrived last December when Dennis' Place for Games, on Belmont Avenue, closed after 28 years. Dark and tiny, it had character, and was full of characters, competitive players, large bouncers, threatening locals. It stayed open until 4 a.m. Dennis Georges, who served in the Greek navy and wore a peacoat most of the day, put a visage of his younger self on the sign out front (which still hangs). Dennis' stayed afloat as long as it did, she said, because it became a test site for many new games. Of the three dozen it generally offered, at least 20 percent came from video game companies based in the Chicago area. Williams, Bally, Midway, Data East, Namco—all were either started in Chicago or had a North American headquarters based here. Dennis' would get a game for free; then pay for it later at discount. But eventually, Dennis himself said, "We couldn't compete with home systems. We did our best, but our customers buy a game for $300 and play on big TVs. We're asked to pay $14,000 for one machine."
Ironically, what put Dennis' out of business is partly what kept it going. Arcades, faced with Nintendo and Sony, decided to go big or die, "to make coin-op games that offer an experience you can't get in the home," said Andrew Eloff, co-founder of Skokie-based Raw Thrills, one of the few arcade game manufactures to thrive in recent years. The physically enormous Fast and Furious driving games, the shotgun simulator Big Buck Hunter—thank Raw Thrills, which sells many of its machines to family entertainment centers, "the spiritual successors of the old-style arcade," said David Bishop, senior vice president and COO of Namco Cybertainment, based in Bensenville.
Like the games they offer, family entertainment centers are large, immersive. And Chicago, bereft of traditional arcades, is awash in family entertainment centers: GameWorks in Schaumburg, Fun Time Square in Alsip, Enchanted Castle in Lombard, Brunswick Zone in River Grove. Most have a modest selection of old arcade games. But it's not quite the same. They're almost too upstanding. Nickel City in Northbrook has a snack shop and party room—inversely, ESPN Zone and Dave & Buster's are more like large scale arcade-themed restaurants than real arcades. (Indeed, at Nickel City, the old-school games are free because nobody plays them anyway.)
"The nature of the arcade has changed," said Gary Stern, president of Stern Pinball, based in Melrose Park. "I don't agree they're going away. It's just different. We don't even consider ourselves in the arcade business now—we're in bowling alleys and pizza parlors and family entertainment centers." That said, Stern Pinball is also the last company (on the planet) that still makes pinball machines.
"See, it's not that the industry is gone," said Mike Rudowicz, president of the American Amusement Machine Association, which represents manufacturers and distributors. "It's that we're a cottage industry now. We have around 3,000 family entertainment centers, but those are mostly not arcades. A vestibule in a movie theater—that's an arcade now." Indeed, Raw Thrills was launched in 2001 by developers at Williams who recognized that fewer companies (including their own) were making fewer games for an ever dwindling number of arcades. They had grown up hanging around Dennis' and didn't want to the classic arcade experience to fade away completely, Eloff said.
But that's probably irreversible.
Mall real estate is too expensive now, considering this was once a $50 billion business and it's now around $7 billion. There aren't enough new games to bring repeat business, let alone cover overhead. The explosion of new water parks/family entertainment centers like KeyLime Cove in Gurnee has helped somewhat, said Ron Malinowski, the former vice president of Aladdin's Castle (now director of sales for Sega Amusements, based in Elk Grove Village). But if you're a gamer who missed the old bedraggled iconic arcade experience, you probably don't go to water parks, said David Bishop of Namco.
"See, The real arcade is almost a niche now. It was part of the fabric of society for a short time. It had a seedy undercurrent. But it was so cool. I'm sad to see it go. I miss those days. You will never see them again. Which is sad, but evolution. What can you do? Enjoy while you can—if you find one. You're not going to see them much longer. The arcade is done. Game over."