The days of heading into your local arcade to jump onto the latest machine are long gone.
Adults from that time remember it fondly - gathering up quarters, calling up some friends and gathering around a cabinet to beat the new Galaga high score. It’s a nostalgia that gamers nowadays will never experience. Or so we thought.
Some passionate players are bringing that atmosphere to the modern age with arcade bars. Sounds too good to be true, right? A place where you can get drunk with your buddies while playing classics like Donkey Kong and Street Fighter? What if I told you the games were free? Mark Kwiatkowski, the founder of the Replay Lincoln Park arcade bar in Chicago, built that vision into a reality.
“I visited ‘Barcade’ in Brooklyn, was amazed, and wanted to bring that back to Chicago,” says Kwiatkowski. One of the first of its kind, Barcade had opened to great acclaim by bringing games and alcohol together in a public space. Kwiatkowski planned his take on this in early 2012, clearing out a space in the back room at his bar in Lincoln Park. “A competitor, Emporium, had opened up shortly before me. They sold a ton on their opening weekend, and I saw an opportunity here.” Both Barcade and Emporium charged for their games while having traditional beer prices. But, Kwiatkowski found that he couldn’t charge for games without some extra licenses. He used that to his advantage.
“It’s something the city put in law back in the ’80s because they felt that arcades were corrupting the youth. They wanted more control, and needed us to buy all sorts of licenses on top of the liquor one.” The team was ready to push the opening date back a month, but Kwiatkowski found a loophole. “If we made the games free to play, we no longer needed that extra license,” he says.
The city of Chicago did not like that. Officials would come in and record people attempting to put quarters into machines. They tried a cease-and-desist letter to take the bar down. But, Kwiatkowski always found a way around these obstacles. “My attorney got us an emergency injunction to keep us open. It took months, but we convinced the city. We had to tape the quarter holes shut to prevent people from trying them.” Free games turned out to be a great competitive advantage against Emporium and other spaces that charge for playtime.
Replay attracts all sorts of players. “We’ll see 50-year olds playing Galaga with their 20-year-old kids. First dates happen here, it’s great.” Some high-ranking players come through sometimes too. “We had a top three world champion pinball player come in to play. He would hit a target every time. The only time he would mess up is if the ball was out of his control. It’s amazing how different the game is from a normal player.” Another player was incredible at Galaga. The expert credits Karate as the reason for his focus, his discipline.
The free games do a good job converting into drink sales. That said, it’s damn near impossible to protect arcade machines from drunken mishaps. “There’s a decent amount of spills into the games. One of our guys comes in each week and tests every game, making sure everything is working alright.”
Kwiatkowski peppers in modern gaming too. “We’ll do pop-up events all the time. We had a Big Buck Hunter one with ten different arcade games and some complements like Duck Hunt.” Replay even held some Fortnite competitions, but they didn’t turn out as expected. “We said anybody who wins their battle-royale would get $500. The reward brought in some groups, but nobody was buying drinks. They all wanted to focus on winning!” Kwiatkowski was considering putting in a mobile booth beforehand, but he decided against it. Despite the popularity of games like Fortnite, most gamers want to play that at home. Players coming to the arcade bar want an authentic, retro-focused experience.
Replay delivers that in spades. “You can emulate these games or buy some all-in-one machines, but we don’t do that,” says Kwiatkowski proudly. Genuine arcade experiences may have fallen to modern console gaming, but gamers like Kwiatkowski ensure they live on - even if the process had to be updated for today’s times.