By Marshall Garvey
A short time ago in my World 1-1 movie review, I lamented the tremendous decline of the classic video game arcade in recent years. As the console wars rage on (and may even be supplanted yet by mobile games), it’s economically understandable why people don’t make the effort to drive out to designated places just to play video games. But that doesn’t dilute the sadness of seeing arcades close down. With each closure, we’re becoming more distant from the social experience they once provided at innumerable locations across the country. Before eSports or League of Legends (hell, before people even crowded together in living rooms for a hate-inducing session of GoldenEye or Mario Party), the local video arcade was THE place for nerd socialization and gaming machismo. Not only was it a fun place to see friends, but if you attained the high score on Street Fighter II, you were the ultimate badass on the block, and everyone knew it.
Being a millennial raised on consoles, I can’t unspool any personal memories of having truly grown up in video arcades (save for the occasional visit). But any time I’m in the presence of arcade machines, be it the legendary Santa Cruz Boardwalk or a tiny row of games at a roller rink, I get an authentic feeling of excitement that sets the imagination ablaze. There’s just something special about seeing a veritable chronology of gaming history all gathered in one room, from Pac-Man to Mortal Kombat. Not to mention the sound: tokens and quarters jingling, the relentless cacophony of game sound effects overlapping, the elation and frustration of players with each game over or high score. It’s a feeling that, truthfully, you can’t experience holed up in your room playing even the most immersive console title.
Of course, whenever a widely popular medium or trend dies out, there’s always a good chance there’ll be a movement to revive it. Take the recent surge in popularity of vinyl records, to the point where even premiere chains like Barnes and Noble are selling them anew. As for the mission of bringing back arcades (albeit in the process of their extinction, as opposed to long after it), those of us here in Sacramento have recently been blessed with the Coin-Op Game Room, located downtown on 9th and K Street. Excited by the potential of a brand new retro arcade, I packed into a car with my fellow LTG friends and colleagues Michael Ros and Alex Aguilar (as well as my longtime friend and gaming companion Shane Canton) and headed to K Street to get our fill of coin-operated nostalgia. (Heads up for my fellow Sacramentans: It’s close to the construction site of the Kings’ new arena, so plan your parking location and walk ahead of time.)
What impressed me first about the place was how spatial the layout of the room is. When I think of arcades, I think of sweltering rooms crammed with endless rows of games opposite each other, with gamers and their lookers-on bumping shoulders….in a completely endearing way, mind you. All the same, I loved how the arcade cabinets and pinball machines of the Coin-Op Game Room were mostly against the wall, with only a few positioned opposite each other in the back.
More important than the layout of an arcade, of course, is its game selection. Fortunately, the Coin-Op is an arcade veteran’s dream, packed to the hilt with the standards that should comprise every gaming room: Contra, Terminator 2, Star Wars, NBA Jam, The Simpsons, Tron, Punch-Out!, Dig Dug, and much else. Not to mention a pinball lineup on the right side of the entrance with Lord of the Rings and The Wizard of Oz. And if you don’t see a favorite title there, don’t fret: They have more game cabinets on reserve, and occasionally swap out current ones for them. I tackled as many of the familiar favorites as I could, with my efforts running a wide gamut from “just plain terrible” to “seriously, let’s pretend that didn’t happen.” One game I hadn’t previously experienced, however, was a new four-player update of Pac-Man, in which eating dots is de-emphasized in favor of increasing your Pac-Man’s size and eating the others. It doesn’t satisfy the Fever quite like the original….but it’s a brilliant way of turning it into a local multiplayer romp and attaining bragging rights over your friends.
The one thing that truly exceeded expectations was the quality of the food. On the drive there, I remarked to Alex that I’d gladly fill my empty stomach with the crappy pizza and soda typical of an arcade. However, the Coin-Op Room serves pizza by the slice that, dare I say, tastes like it was made at an excellent pizza joint. Sodas are served in clean glasses as opposed to paper cups, with a selection of local beers also on tap. Additionally, the polished bar had crystal clear televisions showing the NBA Finals. In the highly unlikely event that you your gaming appetite isn’t satiated by the game selection, your actual appetite will be by the bar and its attentive staff.
And if this isn’t reason enough for you to to visit the Coin-Op Game Room, then I offer you this last morsel: This place is so authentic in its reverence for arcade and retro games, that even the bathroom walls are covered with it…literally. When I walked into the restroom, I found the walls were covered entirely with old Nintendo ads and pages from gaming magazines.
All told, the Coin-Op Game Room is more than a pleasant trip down nostalgia lane. It’s a place that feels sparkling new where it should with its bar and food selection, while still retaining the well-worn familiarity of an arcade you’ve known for years. Most importantly, it’s got enough of the classics to keep you there for hours. If you’re at all within the Sacramento vicinity, you’re highly encouraged to grab a stash of quarters (or some bills to make change) and bolt down to 9th and K for some old school gaming revelry. As much of a local treat as the Coin-Op Game Room might be, hopefully it’ll be emulated across the country to save arcades on a wider scale.