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Arcade Bars Bring Dozens Of Vintage Games To Kansas City

Cody Newill
Hundreds packed into the old Hamburger Mary's building to play retro arcade games at the new Up-Down arcade bar last Friday.

For years, pinball and classic video games like Pac-Man held a special spot in American culture. But by the early 2000s, it was hard to find many arcades still open for business.

But that's changing with the rise of the arcade bar, a craze that Kansas City is just now getting in on.

At the opening night of the Up-Down, the newest arcade bar in Kansas City's Crossroads district, Brian Yates pumped token after token into a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles machine.

For him, playing the game again with a beer in hand wasn't exactly what he expected to be doing in the year 2015. 

"It's as awful as I remembered, and I've died for at least three quarters worth," Yates said as he slashed robots with his anthropomorphic turtle. "[But] I'm playing it because it's the best game I've ever played."

Yates was one of hundreds of people who showed up on opening night at the Up-Down. The place offers up more than 40 arcade and pinball machines to those who are willing to sacrifice a few quarters for a dose of nostalgia.

The old days

Credit U.S. National Archives / Flickr-CC
This picture from 1968 shows the Wonderland Arcade back in its neon-glowing heyday.

Arcades first started popping up in America as early as the 1930s. By the 1960s and 70s, they were wildly popular. Kevin Alumbaugh's family owned the Wonderland Arcade off 12th and Grand for nearly 30 years, and he said it was a brisk business.

"It was like a little circus going on all the time," Alumbaugh said. "The din of the machines was just overwhelming: it was loud in there."

Alumbaugh's father Chet Alumbaugh managed the Wonderland with his business partner from 1956 until 1983, and Kevin spent a lot of time working and hanging out there.

"There'd be lawyers and bankers [playing pinball]," Alumbaugh said. "We were right down the street from the Jackson County jail, so people would get out of jail and the first place they'd go would be Wonderland."

The Wonderland was an old-school arcade, filled with pinball machines, penny games and shooting galleries. By the time it closed its doors after the building was sold, arcade players were growing obsessed with video games.

Video killed the pinball star

Credit Cody Newill / KCUR
Two of the Up-Down's opening night patrons stand fixated on pixelated teenage turtles.

Now classic games like Pac-Man, Galaga and Donkey Kong edged out pinball, and for about 5 years, video game arcades came into their own.

Freelance writer Laura June wrote a history of arcades for The Verge. 

"[Arcades] always had a youth against adults mentality," June said. "There were a lot of concerned parenting groups who would go to arcades and picket them."

June believes that this negative attitude from adults was one of the reasons arcades started to fail in the 1990s and 2000s. 

"In the 80s, there was a widespread perception that the world, generally, had become much less safe," June said. "Parents wanted to know where their children were much more in those days than in the 60s and 70s."

Still, arcades boomed with new games released regularly for most of the early 1980s. But it didn't last. Just as pinball was pushed aside for video game machines, the video games were pushed out. This time, by home gaming.

The fall of arcades

Credit Cody Newill / KCUR
The Screenland Tapcade, pictured here, operates on a $5, all you can play model. The Up-Down's games take tokens or quarters.

In 1983, the video game industry crashed. Too many low quality home consoles were released, and the economic climate of the time wasn't stable enough to support the flood of product. 

Two years later, Japanese gaming company Nintendo released their Nintendo Entertainment System, and with the help of a certain Italian plumber named Mario, swept the North American market. 

By the early 2000s, arcades struggled to make ends meet as more and more players had switched to home consoles.

But arcades didn't stay down for long. By the mid-2000s, arcade bars started to pop up on the east and west coasts, ushering in a new era of arcades.

Arcade bars

Mike Freeland is an arcade game collector and vender. He supplied more than 40 games for the Screenland Tapcade in the Crossroads.

"Kansas City is one of the last markets not to have a retro arcade," Freeland said. "It's only really been theory for years that anybody else cares about these games."

But now that arcade bars are gaining popularity, it's getting harder to find arcade games. Freeland says that more machines are being bought to replace broken parts on other machines.

"In the last 10 years, I've gone from seeing tens of thousands of machines for sale to just hundreds," Freeland said. "It used to be so easy to find somebody in St. Joseph, Missouri that had a barn full of games."

And even though arcade bars like the Tapcade and the Up-Down have been successful, running an arcade is a hard business. Even when arcade machines were new, they were prone to breaking. And now that some of them are nearing 40 years old, Tapcade owner Adam Roberts says they're even more finicky.

"People don't always understand that a lot of these machines are older than them, and they're not going to work 100 percent perfect every time," Roberts said. "[Our] primary draw is something that's 30-plus years old that may not work."

But those difficulties and tight profit margins haven't stopped the Tapcade or Josh Ivey, the co-owner of the Up-Down arcade bar. Ivey started Up-Down in Des Moines, Iowa, and knows that its the food and drinks that keep arcade bars open.

"I think what happened with a lot of arcades was [owners said] 'Okay, how many quarters can we get in these machines?' Ivey said. "And it's like, well, not that many. The games are not our primary revenue stream for sure."

Both Ivey and Roberts emphasized that the nostalgic quality of arcade bars is what draws people in. 

"I love the imagery of the past," Ivey said. "People recognize [the games] and then realize that the people around them have the same shared experience with them as well. It's different than other nightlife spots."

Cody Newill is part of KCUR's audience development team. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill or email him at cody@kcur.org.
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