5 Places the Summer Arcade Still Rules

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 Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Tapper, Double Dragon's Billy and Jimmy, the globetrotting Street Fighter crew or that who always took a seat next to you in the Daytona USA 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 Peter Gunn theme blaring from a Spy Hunter 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 Pac-Man 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, Mortal Kombat, Ridge Racer, NBA Jam, Lethal Enforcers and Area 51 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 Sony's ( SNE) Playstation 2 and Microsoft's ( MSFT) Xbox. Arcade revenue dropped from $1.3 billion in 1999 to $866 million by 2004 as struggling arcades switched off Street Fighter 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 NPD Group, 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 Dig Dug to Capcom's version of the X-Men are just one mobile device app download away.

We've scoured America for places where Tapper still serves Budweiser and Frogger 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 Galaga at some random pizza shop once in your life, The Funspot Family Fun Center is a required pilgrimage. Home to the American Classic Arcade Museum and the nearly 500 games it houses, Funspot is a favorite of video game high score tracking organization Twin Galaxies and earned a bit of notoriety in 2007 when a group of game geeks were intolerably cruel to Donkey Kong 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 Food Fight, Crazy Climber, Space Fury, Congo Bongo and Depth Charge 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 A.P.B., but that still leaves more than 190 machines whose joysticks aren't coated in his palm sweat.

Portland, Ore.

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 Wunderland chain of local arcades, but they're treated far more lovingly at adult bar-arcade Ground Kontrol. For 10 years, this outpost has not only provided a home for castoff favorites including Star Castle, Tron and Tron's Deadly Discs, but has gone through great effort to restore classics including APB and X-Men, 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 Portland Retro Gaming Expo, 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 BurgerTime and Asteroids at 25 cents, Barcade 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 and Smash T.V. Eventually, it became so beloved among even hardcore gamers that the Brooklyn branch produced the current Donkey Kong high score holder, Hank Chien.

As founder Paul Kermezian told Polygon 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.

Las Vegas

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 Pac-Man involved until just recently.

In 2011, with Las Vegas still reeling from the housing crisis and ensuing recession, Chris Laporte opened up the Insert Coin(s) "Videolounge Gamebar" 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 Mario Kart or Modern Warfare 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 Ars Technica, subsidize all those games of Street Fighter II.

Is it working? Ask the folks behind Hi Scores Bar-Arcade 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. The South Park Pinball and 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 After Burner and Arkanoid 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 Mariner's Arcade 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 Daytona USA racers.

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 Frogger 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.

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