By Ryan Smith
5:09 PM CDT, June 21, 2012
Ms. Pac-Man suffers an untimely death at the hands of a blue-clad ghost, but A.J. Matthews doesn’t seem too upset by his failure to navigate the pellet-filled maze without smacking into a homicidal spectre. Instead, Matthews turns around and admires the glowing lights and bleeps and bloops that emanate from a couple dozen arcade machines crowded into the backroom of Logan Hardware.
"It's a generational thing, this is like coming back to a place you remember going to as a kid," said Matthews, 28, of Old Irving Park. "This place really is a treasure in the city."
The sights and sounds of Logan Hardware might evoke the feeling of stepping out of "Back to the Future's" Delorean into 1985, but this is 2012—and the neighborhood arcade, the once ubiquitous quarter-eating staple of American youth culture in the '80s and early '90s, is making a comeback in Chicago—although in a slightly altered form from its Reagan-era heyday.
Logan Hardware, a Logan Square-based record store which already dealt in the nostalgia of selling music on vinyl LPs, reopened in January at 2410 W. Fullerton so that customers could enjoy the arcade cabinet collection of store owner Jim Zespy. Once customers make a purchase, they can slink away to the back and shoot down space aliens in "Galaga" or zap killer robots in "Robotron: 2084."
Meanwhile, the Emporium Arcade Bar—a clone of Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Barcade which serves up craft brews and classic gaming in equal measure—opened this week in Wicker Park with titles ranging from "Arkanoid" to "Xybots." And in the suburbs, places like Galloping Ghost in Brookfield, which brags over 250 old school gaming machines, have popped up recently.
It might sound strange for an arcade revival to occur in a time when many own ultra-powered home game consoles or smartphones with the ability to download these games, but Zespy says going to a place like Logan Hardware to game is a completely different experience than playing the same title on an iPhone.
“It’s like music, where you can find instantly find like a terrible YouTube version of a song online, or you can go and actually hold a physical record in your hands and experience it that way, and it’s the same with games,” Zespy said. “It’s about immersion and reconnecting with the past. For me, it reminds me of a time where I was listening to mini-discs in Fargo (N.D.) while playing ‘Tron,’ trying to get a top 10 score.”
Laura Green, who once made music using 8-bit Nintendo systems for the Chicago band I Fight Dragons, said the arcade revival is a part of recent surge of nostalgia among younger people and the popularity of “nerd culture.”
“There’s a movement where everything old is new again and people in their mid-20s and 30s want to revisit their childhood and want to play 'Burgertime' again or see if they can still beat 'Mario Bros,' said Green, 26, of Lincoln Square. “I’ve been to barcades in other cities, and it’s cool how people can combine their adult sentiments of going to bars with the experience of being their younger self with these games.”
Danny Marks, who, along with his brother Doug, are the co-owners of Emporium Arcade Bar, 1366 N. Milwaukee Ave., believes the arcade revival is also about the social aspect of playing video games in public.
“I think people are going through a 180 a bit and want to play in public more,” said Marks, 30, of Bucktown. “People want to be social and this is kind of a fun date night or a party where you can play “Pac-Man” for a few minutes and have a beer.”
This wasn’t always the case. The rise of powerful home consoles, increasing overhead for more advanced machines, and other economic factors led to the closing of many arcades in the ’90s and ’00s. According to a 2007 U.S Census business report, there were 2,677 amusement arcades in America, down from approximately 13,000 from its peak in 1980-1981. Chicago’s last true neighborhood arcade, Dennis’ Place For Games in Lakeview, shut its doors in 2007.
The city of Chicago, in particular, also made life as an owner or potential owner difficult. The city adopted a resolution in 1988 designed to keep kids out of arcades during school hours, though it was later ruled unconstitutional. The city also requires owners to get a special Public Place of Amusement (PPA) license, and zoning laws say arcades have to be 125 feet from a residential district.
Marks said he’s had to talk to the city about 20 times in obtaining the proper licenses for Emporium. “Getting a license for an arcade in Chicago should almost be its own video game,” he said. “It was really difficult.”
Green tried to open her own barcade business near the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park last year, but stopped after vocal opposition from local business owners and community members.
“The laws with arcades are archaic and dated, but I guess it’s a way for the city to collect more money from businesses,” Green said.
Tangled up in red tape or not, Geoff Przekop, 35, of Lakeview said just he’s happy that a place with classic games like Logan Hardware exists.
“I was addicted to these games as a kid, and it’s awesome being able to play them again,” Prezekop said.
Ryan smith is a redeye special contributor.
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