I found myself wondering recently, “What’s the arcade experience of today?” Now, I could have gone to an actual arcade – something like Fun Spot or Galloping Ghost – but those are specialty outfits. They’re full of old-school games, the novelty and draw being more of an emulation of the past than a representation of the now. I wanted something more organic, to see what one could expect just being around where they live and not traveling to a joint that’s famous and been around forever. I didn’t want to see old cabinets, to be tempted by the classics I already knew like Donkey Kong or Area 51. But you don’t exactly find, just, an arcade anymore, right? I figured the best way to answer my question was to find somewhere that would logically have arcade games, more than just a pinball table or two off in a dark corner. I found a spot, one that ended up being pretty cool, and exactly what I wanted. Turns out, there’s some super cool stuff in contemporary arcade machines, and some pretty weird stuff as well. It’s also ludicrously expensive, a sad reminder in why a modern arcade is such a myth in America.
What did I end up doing? I went bowling. My area has a Kegler’s, a chain that rebranded itself as a family-friendly sort of sports bar-slash-bowling-slash arcade. It is a huge box of entertainment options. I walked in and looked to the side, away from the lanes and bar of course, and saw a space bigger than I expected full of the lights and sounds I was hoping for. And much to my surprise, I didn’t recognize a single machine. I even popped at one in particular, which was not only something new, but man did it ever look awesome.
I’m talking about Space Invaders Frenzy. Look this thing up if you haven’t heard of it; it’s insane. It’s a sit-down shooter with massive plastic guns that have those drooping handles, sort of like turrets. In front of the seats is a massive LCD screen, eight feet tall according to the game’s official product listing. On the screen is an explosion of high-def color, with the classic sprites of Space Invaders dashing around the screen with a few added visual effects. Playing it was just as fun as it looked – it’s super fast, with aliens tearing for the bottom edge of the screen and challenging your speed and precision. Several power-ups made for more visual flair and excitement, and the blaring sound system enhanced the intensity. I played with another player, and we did quite well until the game suddenly ramped up, and the aliens really do make a beeline towards the failstate. Then you’re done. Then reality comes crashing down.
You don’t just drop quarters in the machine any more. In this case, Kegler’s has its own little system, in which you swipe your method of payment and get a new card, with which you swipe at each game to play. You pay x dollars for x credits, and Space Invaders Frenzy sure did take three credits for one life, and boy did we immediately see how expensive that could get. And you don’t even get the option to continue! It’s start over, try again, die at roughly the same point. Brutal. My group went back to the better value proposition, drinking and bowling.
There were other games of course, and with plenty of interest. Highlights included a sit-down, enclosed Walking Dead game that looked like a new take on the House of the Dead style, but with crossbows. There were also elaborate arcade conversions of popular mobile games, including Candy Crush and Crossy Road. There was even a new entry in the Cruisin’ series published by Nintendo, something I didn’t realize was still a thing (this one was from 2016!) Finally, there was weird stuff like a mix between beer pong and skee-ball? It all felt like a contemporary version of what I remembered from my childhood, games set up in bowling alleys or other tourist trap-like spots, all featuring familiar IP or unique mechanics you couldn’t get anywhere else. No classic games, no classic genres that have sense moved on from arcades.
I looked up Space Invaders Frenzy later, and saw that it costs almost (well over with taxes I’m sure) $14,000. That’s insane overhead, and I understood why it costed so much for a short play. I also understood why I saw so few people interacting with these beastly contraptions. America is too big for rooms full of machines as expensive as cars to do well. It seems impossible; nobody wants to pay more than a dollar to point a fake gun at a screen for thirty seconds. It’s fun, but not that fun. Only dorks like me are willing to pony up the cash, and even that’s not going to go beyond a try or two.
That’s why you find games set up as a part of something else. A bar, a bowling alley, so on and so forth. It reminded me of the discussions we’re having now about AAA games and how they ostensibly struggle to make the big bucks. It’s a shame that I probably won’t see something as awesome as Space Invaders Frenzy again for a while, if ever, but at the same time, curiosity doesn’t sustain an industry. But at least I have a new excuse to go bowling sometimes.