As a child, the allure of a weekly night out at Shakey's Pizza was not in their iffy-at-best food. For me, the main attraction was their gorgeous neon lit arcade room. All of the essential 1980s and early 1990s classics were there, with a growing number of awesome shooters, fighters, and beat 'em ups. I wasn't any good at them, but I would gladly give up a quarter or two for even five minutes of gameplay.
Even with a game console at home, the act of merely playing an actual arcade machine truly felt special. Upon my inevitable loss, I was perfectly happy to hang around and watch others play or even just stare endlessly at the attract modes. After seeing Mandi Odoerfer's recent tale of putting up with cardboard quality pizza from "Daddy O's" just to have the chance to play their Konami X-Men cabinet, I've realized my Shakey's experience is merely a small part of a larger phenomenon.
Just as Mandi's local Daddy O's had X-Men, many other eateries seemed to have at least one attention grabbing arcade machine on hand. Even big chains like Pizza Hut got in on the act. The nearest one in my town had a lone Street Fighter II cabinet that always drew a crowd. Forget breadsticks and pitchers of Pepsi; there were just as many people there to Hadoken and Psycho Crusher each other into oblivion. In the past, a popular arcade machine was a great way for restaurants, bowling alleys, and even laundromats and convenience stores to bring in more customers.
Of course, it's no secret that the popularity of arcade games swiftly began to wane over the course of the next decade in North America. The Ms. Pacman, Tekken 2, and Time Crisis machines that seemed to line random walls just about everywhere began to disappear. Many dedicated video arcade locations closed as well. They aren't gone entirely, but they've become increasingly rare. This can easily be blamed on the growing quality and popularity of home console and PC gaming, but however you slice it, the general public's perception of arcade games has turned from a beloved pass time to a largely abandoned novelty.
Even so, arcade games are still well regarded in the hearts of many gamers, and there have been many attempts to rekindle their former glory. Interestingly, one formula has actually proven successful: the "gaming bar."
Modern establishments like Columbus Ohio's 16-Bit Bar & Arcade offer a great place to hang out with friends over beer or cocktails and check out an extensive collection of awesome arcade games in the process. The machines are all free to play, putting the financial burden entirely on the beverages. There are a growing number of similar businesses that have found success. While still part of a small niche, they've stumbled upon a clever way to make gaming a viable source of social entertainment despite the currently "dead" arcade scene. I find the fact that it came down to simply tweaking the old relationship between arcade games, food, and drink incredibly intriguing.
The crucial role of food and drink in the newfound success of gaming bars makes me think of the old phrase "the more things change, the more they stay the same." People love playing games, and they love having a drink or snack to unwind. Any combination of the two makes perfect sense. Even if their respective roles may shift with time, gaming has an almost symbiotic relationship with food and drink that doesn't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.