- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2017


If you grew up in the late-‘80s and early-‘90s, you likely don’t need me to tell you what “Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Select Start” means. (But in case you do, the explanation is here.)

Video games were for the boys — the way to build community and speak in secret codE in the absence of females. As a college choir friend once observed: “You never played ‘Contra’ with a girl.”

As my generation — who, for argument’s and demographics sake, we’ll call Gen Y — sailed through their thirties and the attendant spouses, jobs, children and deaths of parents and friends that are the inevitable companions of maturity, it wasn’t surprising that a certain nostalgia for the gaming culture of youth began to take hold.

In the summer of 2011, I was living in Brooklyn, working a summer job for a Conde Nast publication. Ryan Miller, a dear friend I’d grown up with in New Jersey, worked in nearby Jersey City. Ryan invited me to join him in JC one day after work for drinks.

There was this new spot he said, Barcade, that might pique my interest. Beer, old-school video games, with helpfully placed “shelves” in between the consoles upon which to rest said drinks. It seemed like a no-brainer.

“Day by day, beer by beer,” Ryan said as we toasted and promptly began tossing in quarters to the machines of our formative years.

Clearly, we couldn’t have been the only ones with a certain nostalgia for the gaming culture of our adolescence. (Though I had once, at a party, made the mistake of referring to the booklets that came with the games as “the literature.”)

So why not make a few bucks off of the concept in the process?

“My partners and I were all kids of the 1980s arcades, and we wanted to recreate the feel of ‘80s arcades with a full bar,” Paul Kermizian, CEO and co-founder of Barcade, told me recently in an email.

Mr. Kermizian and his partners clearly displayed a preference for the consoles of the era we had grown up in. But it wasn’t just the games themselves; rather, Barcade aimed to revitalize the classic arcade concept — virtually disappeared by the 21st century, particularly in New York.

Oh, and good beer.

“We wanted to open a bar in our neighborhood with a craft beer focus,” Mr. Kermizian said, adding that his Williamsburg apartment one day got too small to warehouse the four classic video games he owned.

“The games were popular when I would have parties, and so when we started thinking about what else we could do with the bar we wanted to open, we came back to the idea of how popular my games were,” he said.

Barcade opened in Brooklyn in 2004. Gotham hipsters did show up, both for the rotating craft beer menu and the electronic bings, boops and blips of their childhood. The franchise has since expanded to St. Marks Place in Manhattan; New Haven, Connecticut; Jersey City and Philadelphia.

Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, is next. Mr. Kermizian said he hopes to soon plug into the Midwest and Los Angeles.

Retro hip

While Barcade has put its stamp on the Northeast, the U.S. brims with folks now entering middle age who grew up in the late Reagan and Bush I years — anxious to recapture their youth while simultaneously pickling their innards.

“The idea was to create a fun atmosphere for adults who are kids at heart,” Ariel Bracamonte, the owner of Cobra Arcade Bar in Phoenix, told me.

Accordingly, Mr. Bracamonte and his partners have sprinkled their business with both consoles from the “golden age” of the arcade as well as more recent titles like “Tekken Tag Tournament” to draw in millennials who likely know Zelda, Mario and Samus only as “those cartoon characters.”

Mr. Bracamonte maintains friendly business relationships with owners of other bar arcades throughout Arizona, California and Texas. Not only is competition good for this booming biz, he said, but it also allows he and his contemporaries a chance to “relive your childhood on a daily basis.”

Such sentiments are echoed by Erik Holzherr, the proprietor of the Atlas Arcade right here in the District’s booming H Street Corridor.

“It’s an homage to the past that still provides hours of entertainment,” Mr. Holzherr said. “It’s part of our history. It’s fun.”

Mr. Holzherr says Atlas Arcade has drawn a steady cadre of regulars who nightly take a “time warp to their childhood.”

“I can truly tell you, from a bartender perspective, to watch someone playing a game console two feet from you at the bar is amazing,” Mr. Holzherr said. “They can’t help but be totally lost in the play, completely unaware of the facial expressions and body gestures they are making while in ‘the zone.’

“There is an innocence and escape that we provide that keep folks coming back.”

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Holzherr said his concept entailed a focus on the “simpler” times of youth — before marriages, mortgages and mortality.

“I created a bar that my 13-year-old self would think that I grew up to be the coolest adult ever.”

The concept goes Hollywood

In February I was in Los Angeles to cover the Oscars for The Washington Times. All told I lived in L.A. for 15 years, inclusive of my time at USC and then stints working in film, TV, publishing and other industries before I came back east in 2011. (To say nothing of several bouts of chronic unemployment.)

My first neighborhood living off-campus was in Echo Park, where, in 1999, Ryan and our friend Steve from New Jersey rented an enormous three-bedroom for $900. We were the only white kids on the block; Echo Park of the turn of the millennium was far different from the hipster central it is now.

Accordingly, in February, Steve and his brother Chris took me to the newest spot in Echo Park, Button Mash, located just blocks from Dodgers Stadium along Sunset Blvd., where Echo Park and Silverlake blend seamlessly.

“We always felt Echo Park was the right place for us,” Button Mash co-owner Gabe Fowlkes told me via email, adding that he and business partner Jordan Weiss were habitues of the arcades of the friendship bracelet era.

“I always viewed arcades as this unique entertainment form accessible to everyone no matter your socioeconomic status,” Mr. Fowlkes said, adding that video games also rewarded maximal achievement for minimal investment. “All you needed was a quarter to have fun, and the better you played, the further your coin stretched.”

It was in those childhood arcades where he made lifelong friends, Mr. Fowlkes said, and it is this same sense of community he hopes to foster at Button Mash at a time when smartphones host games more powerful than anything on a classic console — or apps designed to cut right to the bedroom with someone you have yet to even meet in person to play the most instinctual games.

Button Mash customers range from “people who were teenagers during the golden age of arcades who are [now] in their late forties, and the people who came of age during the big early-‘90s boom of ‘Street Fighter II’ and ‘Mortal Kombat’ [now] in their thirties,” Mr. Fowlkes told me. “Then there are the millennials who grew up when arcades were all but dead. They have been around video games since birth and have a built-in familiarity and appreciation of the history.”

Like other arcade bar proprietors, Mr. Fowlkes aimed to also educate his customer base about craft beer and food other than the deep-fried options typical of drunken dining on the go.

“We wanted to bring in hard-core arcade fans who may not know anything about craft beer, foodies who may have had little interest in old arcade games, and beer snobs as impressed by our draft list as they are with our rare ‘Sega Hologram Time Traveler,’” Mr. Fowlkes said of the hybridizing of Angeleno social strata. “We want them to all come together and cross-pollinate in a fun environment where you may walk in with one interest and walk out with two more.”

The lights of Button Mash flashed and the beeps of their retro machines booped. But as with any older technology, be it a phonograph or the Singer sewing machine in my mother’s living room that hasn’t run since before I was born, keeping antiques up to snuff becomes an ever more difficult — and expensive — proposition.

“Both the games themselves and the parts to repair them are a finite resource,” Mr. Fowlkes said. “You can’t pull a bunch of potential arcade repair techs from an ad on Craigslist like you can a line cook or dishwasher. You have to get your hands dirty and learn the games and their 30-year-old hardware in order to present the customer with the best experience possible.”

As I rocked my way through “WWF Superstars,” making Macho Man Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior knock down Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter — two dead guys against two rapidly aging media personalities — a beer was never far from my hand. My buddies buzzed about, and we slammed the console sides with too much energy as “Game Over” screens popped up to mock our errors and requiring more quarters.

“Arcades were dead in this country due to economic and social factors, and now they are back and often better then ever,” Mr. Fowlkes said.

Bringing it all back home

That night I stayed at Steve’s place. His basement back home in Jersey was one of the most frequent denizens of my youth, where Nintendo with the boys would intersperse with Van Damme and Seagal flicks mixed in with our own teenage attempts at sketch comedy with a home camcorder.

Steve was, and remains, the only person I know who was somehow able to get his hands on an NES Classic, the recently released Nintendo platform that comes preloaded with 30 of Nintendo’s golden-era games, including “Dr. Mario,” “Double Dragon 2,” “The Legend of Zelda,” “Punch Out” (sans Mike Tyson since 1990, of course).

It was impossible to get one of these damn things. I tried. Ryan tried. Facebook was full of tales of first-world woe as the late-thirties crowd attempted and failed to bring one of these babies home.

How did he do it, I inquired over scotch.

Steve patrolled a site called BrickSeek, which claims to “locate the impossible,” even, as it turns out, the underproduced NES Classic.

“It somehow had access to Target’s inventory, and they listed how many units each Target had in stock,” Steve told me as we took turns knocking out Piston Honda, Soda Popinski and King Hippo. “Usually it was zero, but when they get them in, basically somewhere around 10 p.m. at night, they would show up as inventory that would be available the next morning.”

When one was listed, Steve hiked to the local Target to wait in line at 7:00 in the a.m. At 7:45, he said, a Target employee handed out slips of paper, basically vouchers to the select lucky few.

(In another tale of L.A. lore, my stand-up comedy teacher, Bobbie Oliver, told us a tale about getting to an audition at the Comedy Store “early,” but there were already 20 people in line ahead of her. “They wanted it more,” she said.)

“This was after an incident in early January where Best Buy got a shipment of like 30 or so, and I went to stand in line around 7:15, and the line was around the block, maybe 80 people,” Steve said as we switched up to “Dr. Mario.” “Some employees handed out slips of paper to the first 30 people in line, but then didn’t bother to tell everyone else that that was it, and just let everyone stand there wasting their time.

“I figured it out and left, but stopped to ask the guy who got the last slip of paper what time he got there that morning, and it was like 6:30. They told him ‘You’re the last one,’ but didn’t bother telling anyone after him that they were already accounted for. Jerks.”

As TechCrunch recently reported, Nintendo has opted to suspend production of the NES Classic. No explanation from Nintendo’s reps has yet been given, though one could likely surmise that, after decades of profits, they have likely not suddenly developed an aversion to money.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery of why so few units were produced and made available to consumers in the first place. Despite numerous attempts to get some info, a clearly harried representative at Golin, the firm that handles PR for the gaming giant, was unable to get me even a token quote from Nintendo.

Nevertheless, as Steve and I moved on to “Double Dragon II: The Revenge,” it was as if he and I were reliving the “glory years” of our youths, but this time, instead of glasses filled with four or five scoops of Gatorade powder, we had adult beverages.

Oh, and 20-plus years later, we both had serious girlfriends.

Steve and I were older now. Wiser? Maybe. But here we were, in another basement-level domicile, 3,000 miles from where we first started playing video games together, now returning to titles we had played — and, in many cases, conquered — decades earlier.

“Was it worth it?” I asked of his Sisyphean effort to score this emulator of games from 30 years ago.

“Highly questionable,” he responded.

Game over

I get up back to Jersey about once every two months. Washington is just close enough to make a weekend visit viable, but not so proximal as to tempt me into not trying to make a social life here in the nation’s capital.

Somerville is but a few miles from where my buddies and I all grew up. The town has enjoyed a bit of a suburban resurgence, with Division St. roped off to vehicle traffic, and restaurants, shops and other businesses on both sides of the pedestrian-only economy zone.

Sandwiched in between Origins, the French-Thai fusion restaurant, and Sushi Palace is Yestercades, a full-on time warp where you pay by the hour to rock out on consoles and pinball machines from the ‘70s on up. There are also multiplayer areas where you can plug into Super NES, Playstation and other consoles and jam on cooperative or competitive games as you like. There’s also the “Terminator 2” two-player, first-person shoot-em-up, but for whatever reason, the grenade launchers aren’t working, requiring ever more pressure on the trigger of the futuristic plasma gun to mow down hordes of T-800s.

No quarters are necessary here; you play to your heart’s content or until you get hungry or bored or realize you’re in fact playing with toys from the days before you knew what an orgasm was.

And, because this is New Jersey, there is no liquor license, but you can bring in your own booze and get carded to do so. (I did so.)

Less than 15 miles from here are the basements, attics and living rooms where, in middle and high school, the boys and I would alternate between video games and movies in our dateless youths. I recall fantasizing in those early years about how my “ultimate” date would be either going to Six Flags Great Adventure or playing air hockey and other games at the arcade with a partner.

Or both.

At Yestercades, I’m playing Cyclone, a circus-themed pinball machine I first enjoyed not far from Mt. Snow in Vermont when we’d go up there to ski. With nerd quickening full on coursing through my veins, I’m jumping up and down and shaking the machine, doing my best to get the silver balls of “Tommy” lore away from the gutters.

My patient girlfriend, Victoria, comes by and attempts to hold my hand. I shake her off.

“Honey,” she says, gently but in that uniquely British fashion of hers, “is it any wonder you never got any dates back then?”

And so there, I suppose, is the bent and the rub: When I was young, all I could think about was having a girl by my side. And now, as a middle-aged bloke with a busy career, all I think about are those early days with my friends, who are now almost all married, spread out to the far points of the compass, many with families of their own.

There’s always that mythical day when we’ll all somehow wind up in a basement again, playing video games, but this time drinking. Somewhere out there, just over the horizon.

But probably not.

At the end of an hour or two at Yestercades, Victoria and I walk out of the retro enterprise with my friends to call it a night.

My lady and I kiss and head off for home.

Eric Althoff grew up in New Jersey, lived in California and New York, and is now the Entertainment Editor of The Washington Times. He can still recite the “Contra” code from memory.

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