By Ryan Smith
7:02 PM CDT, March 20, 2013
Rob Lach lovingly pats a hulking, pale-blue arcade cabinet with the Chicago flag painted on the side and a marquee that reads "Indie City Arcade."
"Yep, this thing's spent a lot of time in my garage," says Lach, 26, of Dunning.
A component broke less than 48 hours prior, and Lach worked much of the next two nights desperately trying to get the machine ready for its long-awaited debut in late February at a party at Emporium Arcade Bar in Wicker Park.
"I've never built anything like [this] before, but sometimes it's not what you can do, it's what you can pull off, right?" Lach said with a sly smile.
Many of the brightly lit arcade machines lining the walls of Emporium Arcade Bar--classics like "Galaga" and "Mortal Kombat"--were mass-produced by the tens of thousands in Chicago during the 1980s and '90s and played in nearly every mall, amusement park or laundromat in America. But the "Indie City Arcade" cabinet is one of a kind--literally.
Housing 13 mini-games created by local gaming enthusiasts, the cabinet was pieced together by hand by Lach and a few other volunteers. It is the result of a two-year project of Indie City Games, a Chicago-based collective of self-described "video game nerds" created in 2010 to bring together people interested in making independent games.
The idea of making an arcade cabinet was to raise awareness of Chicago's growing indie game scene, said member and game developer Jake Elliott.
"The indie DIY culture is big in Chicago with music and food and other things, but we also wanted to be a part of the conversation," said Elliott, 30, of Logan Square.
Initial talks with Logan Square bar the Boiler Room and a couple of other establishments about hosting the Indie City machine went nowhere, but when Emporium opened during the summer of 2012, it was "a perfect fit," Elliott said.
"They emailed us in December to ask us and we were like, 'Yeah, cool,' " said Danny Marks, who co-owns the bar with his brother Doug.
"We did have to take "Centipede" off the floor to make room and that hurt a little bit, but it's a really cool thing," Danny Marks said. "It's made by local game developers and a lot of the games we have here are local games from the past, so it really seemed like a no-brainer."
All 13 minigames in the Indie City Arcade cabinet were created during a recent month-long "Game Jam," in which Indie City members were asked to make drinking-related games in honor of Emporium. The booze-soaked, 8-bit style "Super Blackout," for instance, asks players to pass out from too much drinking before their opponent can while keeping a sharp eye on their "bladder meter."
Ryan Wiemeyer describes his game, the awkwardly titled "Max Gentlemen Presents: A Gentlemen's Drinking Game," as an attempt to balance a pile of hats on your head while beer bottles whiz by you during a barfight.
"The idea first came from some spam email that mentioned Max Gentleman," said Wiemeyer, 27, of Andersonville. "So we ran with it and came up with this Victorian-era wrestler guy obsessed with manners."
Eventually, Indie City Games plans to move the machine to different locations around Chicago, creating brand new games to fit the setting.
"For instance, if we move it to a bookstore, we might make all text-games or something," Elliott said. "Or if we move it to a record store, we could do music games. There [are] a lot of possibilities."
In the meantime, Indie City game makers say they're enjoying watching the public play their games.
As two men wearing dark hoodies tap buttons on the Indie City cabinet, "Max Gentleman" artist Sarah Denis can't help but smile at the fact that she's in an arcade watching people play a game she helped make.
"I loved places like this growing up," said Denis, 25, of Andersonville. "So now to watch people play something I worked on is such an exciting thing."
Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.
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