PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- For what now looks like a brief window in the 1980s and 1990s, video arcades were as big a part of the summer experience as road trips, warm temperatures and barbecues.
For whole generations, summer excursions to the mall, boardwalk or amusement park usually involved parting with a few quarters to get reacquainted with old friends such as
's Billy and Jimmy, the globetrotting
crew or that who always took a seat next to you in the
machine just long enough to ram your car into every wall in the game. It cramped wrists, blurred vision and kept kids out of the sun they were ostensibly on vacation to enjoy. But it was everything to kids whose ears perked up when they heard the
theme blaring from a
console halfway across the boardwalk.
But former arcade rats with graying or disappearing hair, wedding rings on their joystick hands and, in some cases, kids of their own, know where this story ended. U.S. arcade revenue hit $8 billion during its
heyday in 1981, dropped to $2.4 billion in 1991 as kids ran home to their Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis, but jumped back to $7 billion in 1994 as
Street Fighter II
popularized head-to-head multiplayer games and swelled crowds around the machines.
By the end of the '90s, though, even the arcade performance art that was
Dance, Dance Revolution
couldn't save the day. While arcade games outearned home consoles $7 billion to $6 billion in 1994, the consoles were catching up. By 1998, Sega's Dreamcast featured the first arcade-quality 3-D graphics on a home system and was about to get eaten alive by
Playstation 2 and
Xbox. Arcade revenue dropped from $1.3 billion in 1999 to $866 million by 2004 as struggling arcades switched off
and started stocking more games that spat out tickets customers could redeem for small prizes. Every other arcade was now a version of Chuck E. Cheese or Dave and Buster's and those that weren't were like a 30-something's CD collection post-Napster: Filled with '80s and '90s relics that haven't moved from their spots in ages.
So that's it, right? We're more than a decade of "game over" jokes from the death of the arcade, no? Well, funny thing about that console takeover: As it turns out, folks actually get tired of playing sequels to the same game series over and over and grow weary of having slurs flung at them by whatever 12-year-old is playing their online role-playing game or multiplayer shooter. According to market research firm
, video game sales plummeted 9% last year and have gone through a sustained decline since the recession. While digital game sales increased 16%, sales of game discs tanked 21%.
New consoles such as Nintendo's Wii U and Sony's handheld PlayStation Vita haven't spurred sales. Meanwhile, Sony's upcoming Playstation 4 and Microsoft's newly announced Xbox One are less game consoles and more multimedia centers that also happen to play games. Smartphones and tablets, meanwhile, ballooned from 19% of the portable game market in 2009 to 58% in 2011. Somewhere along the line, a whole lot of casual gamers decided that their trial price for a game was closer to $1 or free than it was to $60 for a game that will be obsolete by the same time next year.
While that's not going to send Americans streaming back to the arcades and rummaging for quarters, it's exactly the kind of environment where an arcade can thrive. The arcade hasn't come roaring back, but it's refusing to be buried quietly and is adapting to a culture in which star attractions from
's version of the X-Men are just one mobile device app download away.
We've scoured America for places where
still serves Budweiser and
still struggles to get across the street. Our journey ended with five places where childhood summer favorites not only survive, but managed to grow up along with the free-spending gamers who loved them:
Weirs Beach, Laconia, N.H.
If you've ever so much as played a round of
at some random pizza shop once in your life,
is a required pilgrimage. Home to the
, Funspot is a favorite of video game high score tracking organization
and earned a bit of notoriety in 2007 when a group of game geeks were intolerably cruel to
record pursuer Steve Wiebe during the filming of the documentary
King Of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Though there are only about 200 games on Funspot's floor at any given time, just walking into the place offers some perspective on how vast a collection of 200 arcade cabinets is. Long-forgotten friends including
are tucked into far corners of this sprawling collection, but seem just as much at home as they did in local arcades 20 to 30 years ago.
As Wiebe showed during the documentary, however, this place isn't always a joy for casual gamers. This weekend, for instance, it'll be packed with the world's best players for the International Classic Video Game Tournament. That's a lot of talk about kill screens and high scores for folks who still get pangs of nostalgia every time they beat a
Ms. Pac Man
level and get to the animated sequence afterward, but it's far more accessible afterward. Sure, there might be some guy trying to set the record on
, but that still leaves more than 190 machines whose joysticks aren't coated in his palm sweat.
This isn't a town that lets go of things easily. Streetcars are still an everyday occurrence here, as are $3 movies in old film palaces and shops filled with Victorian-era doorknobs and reclaimed gaslamps.
This isn't where old arcade games go to die, though; it's where they go to live again. Yes, they fill floor space in Portland's kiddie-oriented Avalon Theater and its
chain of local arcades, but they're treated far more lovingly at adult bar-arcade
. For 10 years, this outpost has not only provided a home for castoff favorites including
Tron's Deadly Discs
, but has gone through great effort to restore classics including
, with the latter project requiring a
six-part blog post
to document back in 2009.
It hosts a weekly comedy show called
No Pun Intendo
and the annual Portland Pinbrawl Pinball tournament and, perhaps most importantly, is one of the biggest boosters of the annual
, which rolls into town each fall with a convention hall full of classic games and hard-to-find cartridges and consoles. It also helped launch the bar/arcade combo that is saving the arcade as its drinking-age patrons knew it by mixing games, booze, DJ nights and a willing, nostalgia-fueled clientele into a mix that found perhaps its greatest success here ...
Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Jersey City, N.J.
Back in 2004, the simple idea of combining classic video games and craft beer caught on exactly where a plan like that should: Williamsburg, Brooklyn. By keeping a blackboard of beer choices packed with premium product while keeping the price of '80s classics such as
at 25 cents,
struck a nerve with the neighborhood's bicycling, budget-conscious and retro-obsessed locals.
The idea spread to Philadelphia and, eventually, to Jersey City. And the arcade offerings eventually broadened to '90s favorites such as
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Eventually, it became so beloved among even hardcore gamers that the Brooklyn branch produced the current
high score holder, Hank Chien.
As founder Paul Kermezian
in February, Barcade is still very much a work in progress. Its initial success and expansion, though, have shown the way for other business owners who've been looking for the magic formula to make arcades viable again.
Keep feeding the customers booze and music while they pour money into loud, bleeping machines? That's just what Vegas does, though it didn't figure out how to get
involved until just recently.
In 2011, with Las Vegas still reeling from the housing crisis and ensuing recession, Chris Laporte opened up the
in the city's Fremont district. By combining an arcade full of restored games, a bar where the bartender hands you a controller and lets you play
on the screens above and private gaming booths with table service that includes two consoles of your choice, Insert Coin(s) came up with the high roller experience for Silicon Valley geeks who have the cash for Vegas clubs, but not the ear for house music or the Jersey Shore wardrobe. Live acts including Just Blaze, De La Soul, Talib Kweli and a weekly lineup of house DJs provide the soundtrack and, as Laporte told
, subsidize all those games of
Street Fighter II
Is it working? Ask the folks behind
in Henderson, Nev., who co-opted the idea for the own facility, but toned down the club vibe in favor of a more
laid-back suburban feel
South Park Pinball
Pac Man Battle Royale
are free, but the beers aren't.
The Wildwoods, N.J.
Not every arcade turned into a museum or started slinging booze. Just about every boardwalk town in America still has arcades that call it home, even if some of those establishments yanked out
years ago to make room for more Skee-Ball machines or ticket-dispensing pop-a-ball video poker games.
Smuggler's Arcade and Casino Arcade in Santa Cruz, Calif., still make strong arguments with their sprawling collections of retro games, while the three-mile arcade-lined boardwalk in Ocean City, Md., and the Palace Playland arcade along Old Orchard Beach in Maine make a case for other spots along the East Coast. Still, even with Jilly's Arcade in Ocean City, N.J., just a bit north, the two miles of boardwalk in North Wildwood, Wildwood and Wildwood Crest may be the largest concentration of arcade games in the country.
The big boy is still
in the middle of the boardwalk, but a host of others have lineups ranging from pinball games dating back to the late 19th century to walls filled with
The upper reaches of the Jersey Shore took a huge hit from Superstorm Sandy, with arcades in Point Pleasant, Ortley Beach and Seaside Heights ravaged by floodwaters. The sight of a waterlogged vintage
machine being pulled out of Barnacle Bill's in Ortley was almost too much for this formers Jersey Shore arcade rat to stomach. The Wildwoods, however, were spared the worst of Sandy's wrath and were up and running as of Memorial Day weekend.Though Seaside Heights had the stronger lineup during the arcade heyday of the '80s and '90s, Wildwood held more firmly to its retro roots and still has long stretches of video games for those who remember them as staples of summers at the Jersey Shore.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.