Once the vehicle that launched the entire industry (1971’s stand-up machine Computer Space was the first mass-produced video game), the American arcade industry has dwindled as few new games are created worldwide and fewer make it stateside.
This year has contributed its share of disheartening news: Midway Games — once the distributor of major arcade titles like the Mortal Kombat series — finally filed for bankruptcy, and notable machine reseller US Amusement Auctions suspended all auctions in early fall. With entertainment restaurant chains GameWorks and Dave and Buster’s serving as the primary locations for finding these games en masse, independent arcade operators are in for a battle.
Despite these grim details, the recently opened Arcade Legends is doing its part to revitalize coin-operated games by removing the “coin-operated” part and highlighting the “games.”
For owners Jesse Baker and Jeremiah Minor, their entertainment outlet calls back to their childhoods. “Back when we played, console games weren’t near the level of arcade games. You (would) get to play games that look better, faster and more exciting (at the arcade),” says Baker. “Now, it’s mainly for nostalgia. Having the competition right there with you when everybody (else) is playing online is something different.”
While a handful of quality arcades were once spread out all across Cincinnati, they eventually began disappearing. “Once they started dying out, it was sad for us,” says Baker. “Eventually, we realized that we wanted to (open one). We had the money and went for it.”
Three years ago, as Minor was serving Army stints in the Middle East, the pair caught up by phone and decided to pursue their idea. Assembling the project was difficult and unlike anything either had done before. Using sources like Craigslist and auctions, they tried to keep every purchase within two hours of driving distance to cut down on shipping but ended up amassing titles from Texas, California and North Carolina.
The real headache was storing the games during the project’s development.
“We had them all over the city,” Baker tells. “Pretty much everyone in my and his family had a game or 10 in their garage or house.”
Fortuitously, the amount of games the two collected was ideal for their location. Situated in a Fairfield strip mall, Arcade Legends is a room filled with 50 or so games, plus six pinball tables and a 110inch screen hooked up to a PlayStation 3. There’s a staggering sense of variety, as titles run from ‘70s games to ones made this century, and touch on a gamut of genres: shooting (Terminator 2), racing (Initial D), beat-’em-ups (the six-player X-Men), fighting (Super Street Fighter II Turbo) and much more. The machines are distributed throughout the venue comfortably and almost all work perfectly — the only glitch is the glare that tends to surface on screens facing the sun, but that can remedied with the implementation of black-out blinds or visiting the place after late afternoon. A corner containing vending machines enhances the novelty of the experience: one dispenses unusual treats like candy cigarettes, Nintendo trading cards, cassettes (I saw The Replacements’ Tim) and Iraqi currency. An organic vibe permeates the modestly decorated place. The attention to detail and homegrown style are two of the primary components that set it apart from glitzier competition.
Another key element to Arcade Legends’ uniqueness is its pricing tier. Instead of charging customers by the quarter, the venue maintains a flat rate to play all titles from opening to closing. (For adults, it’s $10 Sunday-Thursday and $12 for Friday and Saturday.) This is a sharp contrast to the chains like Dave and Buster’s where, as Baker maintains, “You stay there an hour and you spend 20 or 30 bucks.”
While the owners originally set their machines up to take coins, they altered their strategy upon polling friends and learning that no other place had a similar deal. “It was actually a lot less work, which is what we wanted to start out with,” says Baker. “It was hard to judge whether or not it would be a profitable venture. We didn’t feel apprehensive. We didn’t expect it to be a huge thing. We still don’t. It was more for the love for the games — something that we’d like to bring back.”
Business has fluctuated. Baker says that Arcade Legends’ late May opening weekend was “huge,” with 80 people jamming the room each day. “We can’t keep the place like that all the time, but it was a good opening,” he says. “It’s slowed down since then.” In his estimation, the first month was “decent, (the) second (was) better, (the) third dropped a whole lot and the last two have been pretty much dead, unfortunately.” Arcade Legends’ audience largely consists of young kids and “college age to 35” patrons, and the arcade offers parties and private events suitable for both clientele. Attracting younger teens has been more difficult.
“We rarely get any high schoolers,” says Baker. “Less than 5 percent of our business is high school kids.” After taking a few stabs at that market (including advertising during a high school football game), Baker notes that word of mouth and mentions in the media have helped them best. He adds, “Hopefully, once it gets cold, people need to come inside for their entertainment.”
While arcade games continue to do healthy business in Japan, Baker doesn’t imagine anything drastically changing in America, but he’s certain that the hobby will persist in one form or another. For Arcade Legends to thrive, he hopes to gain a firm, consistent audience, find a centerpiece attraction “that will constantly get people coming back” and rotate the machines to reinvigorate the scenery. No matter what happens, Baker is satisfied with having taken the jump.
“I didn’t expect it to be my main source of income or otherwise I’d probably be broke,” Baker says. “Same with my partner — he’s still in the Army. It’s something that we both wanted to do. If it didn’t work out, at least we tried. We’ll do it as long as we can afford to.”
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