Vintage arcades are a growing entertainment option in the suburbs, with roughly a half-dozen places in the Chicago area. Gamers can play for a flat fee and stay all day at most arcades.
Arcades are fueled by nostalgia. Pinball machines and the old Atari and Nintendo gaming systems are finding places in pop culture. Movies like “Wreck-it Ralph” featured the Fix-it Felix Jr. game, found at Underground Retrocade in West Dundee. “Pixels” featured many characters, including Pac-Man, who is revered at Level 257 in Schaumburg.
Adults who hung out at the arcades as teens will find the bright lights and familiar “waka waka” sounds they remember — and many are eager to recreate that experience for their own kids.
Scott Lambert, owner of Underground Retrocade, remembers about eight years ago seeing his childhood reflected in pop culture.
“I started looking back on stuff I used to enjoy and it was all coming back, ‘Tron’ and the ’80s in ‘Hot Tub Time Machine.’ My boys were 12 and 8, that sweet spot to introduce them to the games I remembered from the late ’70s and early ’80s. So I hooked up the old Atari, we watched ‘CHiPs’ and then (the book) ‘Ready Player One’ touched it all off. That caused me to look for an arcade,” he said.
Lambert was frustrated to find just a few arcade games tucked away in places like an old hardware store, pizza joint or bar.
Lambert visited Galloping Ghost in Brookfield and discovered arcades were on an upward swing. He started his own collection five years ago when he bought the first batch of five games and learned how to fix them.
Lambert, who received his first Atari system for Christmas 1981 and remembers playing Pac-Man Defender, Combat and Asteroids “for six hours at a time,” opened Underground Retrocade in 2012. It features two floors of 175 games and a pinball room; everything runs on free play with an entrance fee.
Owners of Pixel Blast Arcade in Lisle, Paul Ojeda and Terry “Trickman” Minnich have known each other since they were editors at Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine in the ’90s. Back then, everyone wanted their own arcade, Ojeda said. “My dad got me a Commodore 64 and my first game was Gorf. I was the perfect age to be caught by the Nintendo craze.”
Ojeda and Minnich also talked with Galloping Ghost owner Doc Mack about opening their own arcade. Mack had just one question for them: “Why wouldn’t you open an arcade?”
And so they did, opening Pixel Blast Arcade in 2016. The arcade has almost 90 games. Because of the pair’s industry connections through their magazine days, they have some rare finds like the original Q*bert game with its initial name and a poster signed by creator Jeff Lee.
Level 257 is owned by Namco, maker of arcade games, so it has a rotating inventory each month to bring in the “coolest retro and newest games,” said Ashley Paprock, digital marketing manager.
“Even though we’re vintage we keep it fresh,” Paprock said. Pac-Man is king and Ms. Pac-Man is queen at Level 257. Opened in Woodfield Mall in 2015, Level 257 is aptly named for the next level past the final screen in Pac-Man. Due to a programming error, level 256 halts and freezes the game, making Pac-Man impossible to beat.
Level 257 differs from other arcades in that it offers food and alcohol, and patrons pay to play on a refillable debit card. Other activities include virtual reality games and Pac-Man and Space Invaders on large screens.
A loyal fan base lines up for Rally X, Galaga, Space Invaders and Dig Dug — made popular again at the Palace Arcade in the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” Paprock said.
Ojeda agreed. “Galaga, everyone comes in to play that. And Pac-Man. All the iconic games like that. And it’s kinda neat to see when players come and say, ‘I first played this when I was 12 and now my son is 12 and he’s playing it.'”
Ojeda said parents who mastered these games back in the day may actually have an edge over their kids. “They can beat their kids at these games. When kids are like 10-11 they start to get it. Some of the kids touch the screen and wonder why things don’t move. But it is the coolest when the kids come in and they figure it out and play one game for a half an hour.”
Lambert said his customers are “nerds and geeks, guys who are middle aged and Millennials. When I was younger geeks didn’t take over the world like now. Here they can find a place safe from persecution, no bullying,” he said.
Level 257 and Underground Retrocade have areas dedicated to pinball machines, and Galloping Ghost has a few pinball games on the floor, while Chicago Street Pinball Arcade in Joliet has about 30 games.
“Pinball is a truly immersive, visceral experience, one which can only be simulated, not replicated,” said Mark Czarnowski, owner of Chicago Street Pinball Arcade. “The vast majority of old-school video arcade games can be replicated or emulated with near 100 percent authentic accuracy on computers, tablets, phones. With pinball, you need the real deal: A large wooden box with many mechanical components, complemented with an array of lighting effects, music and sound.”
“People drive from far and near to play pinball games,” Paprock said. “‘Oh my God, I remember this!’ That’s the reaction we get.”
Arcade owners agree there is no competition among them. In fact, many of the owners gather monthly for tournaments at each other’s businesses. “We’re not really competing, it’s a viable option for entertainment,” Ojeda said. “You want to go bowling or to an arcade?”
Ojeda walks over to a tabletop Ms. Pac-Man and presses the quarter button. “That song,” he said nodding toward the familiar intro music, “now that’s the sound of an arcade.”
Shonda Talerico Dudlicek is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.
Where to play pinball
Chicago Street Pinball Arcade is at 215 N. Chicago St., Joliet. Hours are 6 p.m.-midnight Friday, 2 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturday, 1-7 p.m. Sunday. Contact 779-279-8799 or www.jolietpinball.com. $15 admission, $10 for kids 12 and under, family four-pack $40
Galloping Ghost Arcade is at 9415 Ogden Ave., Brookfield. Hours are 11-2 a.m. daily. Contact 708-485-4700 or www.gallopingghostarcade.com. $20 admission
Level 257, 2 Woodfield Mall, Unit A, Schaumburg. Hours are 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Contact 847-805-0257 or www.level257.com. Reloadable cards, games vary in price
Nickel City is at 555 Waukegan Road, Northbrook. Hours are 2-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, noon-1 a.m. Friday, 10-1 a.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Contact 847-559-8727 or www.nickelcitygames.com. $2 admission, games run on nickels
Pixel Blast Arcade is at 1045 Burlington Ave., Suite #2, Lisle. Hours are 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, 3:30 to 10 p.m. Thursday, 3:30 p.m.-midnight Friday, 1 p.m.-midnight Saturday, 1-8 p.m. Sunday. Contact 630-922-5078 or www.pixelblastarcade.com. $10 admission
Underground Retrocade is at 121 W. Main St., West Dundee. Hours are 5-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday, 11-1 a.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday. Contact 331-642-8274 or www.undergroundretrocade.com. $15 admission