Until this month, there hadn't been an arcade in my hometown of Milwaukee for some years. The last was an Aladdin's Castle I frequented as a youth that was not only closed, but razed to the ground sometime in the last half decade. I didn't hear about it when it happened, and was quite surprised when I went to play a couple games one day. Apparently, it'd been gone for nearly a year by that point.
Now, there's Dave & Buster's. If you're not familiar, allow me to edify you. Dave & Buster's is essentially a grown up version of Chuck E. Cheese's. It's big and loud and there's booze and food. You have to be 21 or over to get in, or accompanied by someone over 25 before 9pm. After 9pm, you must be over 21.
I'd been to the one in Honolulu before, and wasn't terribly impressed, but that was years ago, and now there was now one close to my house. Besides, a friend was having her 30th birthday party there, so I had to go. So, last saturday, off I went to see the shiny new arcade.
I'm still not impressed.
Dave & Buster's is filled with claw machines (including a comedically huge one with appropriately sized prizes), skee ball, racing games and light gun shooters, mostly with film licenses and Dreamcast-quality graphics attached. There was also a Guitar Hero Arcade cabinet or two and, if you looked really hard, seven retrogames separated into three combo cabinets (being Mario Bros./Donkey Kong/Donkey Kong, Jr., Qix/Space Invaders and Galaga/Ms. Pac-Man).
I was disheartened to say the least. Chicago has, or at least had the last time I looked into it, at least two arcades worth frequenting. One is Nickel City, which is owned by Capcom and is filled to the brim with old school goodness, all available for a nickel a credit. The other is Sega's GameWorks, which, if I were to describe it in basic terms, is a lot like Dave & Buster's, but has an area separated for retrogames, and includes slightly more obscure fare like Moon Patrol and Burgertime.
I was hoping for something more in line with GameWorks. Last time I was at GameWorks, they had SNK vs. Capcom: SVC Chaos on a large projection screen. More obscure than anything I reasonably expected to see at Dave & Buster's, but I certainly didn't think a Street Fighter II cabinet would be too much to ask for. Clearly, I thought wrong.
Which made me start to question how what I want from an arcade differs from what other people want from an arcade. You might think with all my grousing that the place would be empty, and if it were, deservedly so. Alas, faithful reader, it was packed. To the goddamn gills. There was a 2 1/2 hour wait to eat, if you wanted to. 2 1/2 hours and not a single Street Fighter cabinet in sight.
It seems that the arcade, at least in America, is little more than a novelty. You go, you get drunk while you wait 2 1/2 hours to eat mediocre food, then you play some racing games with your frat buddies, then you go home and maybe come back in two months. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but an arcade should be about choice. God knows this place has the floor space for it. Literally, no exaggeration, 90% of the floor space is ticket games, racing games and light gun games. The rest is a couple rhythm games and the limp selection of retro titles I mentioned earlier.
Clearly, this is what the people want. It's a casual place filled with casual games. I'm not casual, so I guess Dave & Buster's isn't for me, but I'd like a bit more of a concession that what was offered. The people who were there on Saturday aren't going to be regulars, but me? With a very few of the right titles, you got me in there once a week. Of course, I don't drink, either, and I'm sure much of their revenue comes from mediocre food and booze, so maybe they don't care about people who would come solely to play games. Maybe I'm that much of a dinosaur. And maybe that's why there's a vacant lot where Aladdin's Castle used to be.
Things have changed. We can game socially from our couches with XBox Live and Playstation Network, and I'm all for those things, but nothing's like meeting a total stranger (face to face so he can't call you epithets without getting punched) and challenging his/her skills. Nothing's like teaming up with five strangers and pummeling your way through Konami's X-Men arcade game.
I didn't see any of that. I saw people with groups of their friends, all playing the same games with the people they came with. Not branching out. Not being social in the true sense of the word.
I'll admit this is kind of getting away from me. It's 3am, and I'm exhausted, but I guess what I'm saying is that I just want a real arcade experience. Is that too much to ask?