Sponsored By

The Best Old School Arcades in the USA

A deep dive into some of the best old school arcades across the US. Perfect for anyone looking for destinations to reconnect with gamings heritage.

Amanda Walters, Blogger

April 28, 2017

5 Min Read

The video games of 2017 are a world away from what the youngsters of the late 70s, 80s and early 90s enjoyed. Gaming was still a novelty, so sitting in front of a 14-inch screen (often black and white) while a Commodore or Sinclair took several minutes to load up a game where a single sprite battled its way through limited levels against block-like opponents was great fun. Sega and Nintendo sped up the process and brought us legends such as Sonic and Mario, which still look so crude next to today’s epics such as For Honor, Call of Duty and Resident Evil.

And yet we were happy. Very happy. We couldn’t imagine playing somebody who was sitting in another room, let alone another continent. With controllers of a simple configuration of perhaps four buttons at most (and sometimes only one or two), it was a lot faster to learn the actual controls. Games could be picked up and played instantly, in your bedroom or in the arcades.

Gamers of a certain age still yearn for those days of heading downtown with a few dollars to compete in the noisy, neon surroundings of the local arcade. Games such as Out Run, Gauntlet, and Double Dragon, and even further back Donkey Kong, Asteroids and Frogger, represented that journey from family fun, to a meet-up place with teenage friends, and on to somewhere to try to win money on the slots, if you were inclined.

The good news is that these places still exist, albeit in reduced numbers. Sure, the games don’t have as much to surprise us any more, but they still have their nostalgic charm. The thrill of climbing into a movable cockpit cabinet and eliminating enemy aircraft in Afterburner, or hacking your way through enemy hordes with a friend in Golden Axe, never really leaves you.

In fact, who you play with was usually just as important as where you played. Take James Arcade, in Upland, California, a favourite of local schools. You’ll find pool tables and games of chance, but for real retro connoisseurs this is the place to go for fans of Street Fighter II – and weren’t we all in the early 90s? One of the first games that gave you multiple choices of fighting style (Ryu and Ken for beginners, Zangief for experts) and to accommodate the brutal thrill of fighting in a Brazilian rainforest or a US airbase, trash-talking is most definitely allowed.

Just up the road is Santa Monica and Playland arcade, right on the pier. Dating back to 1954 and overseen by four generations of the Gordon family, it describes itself as one of the happiest places on Earth, and with these views, why wouldn’t it be? It’s upbeat and funky, and only too happy to celebrate events of the year such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween and St Patrick’s Day.

Arcade Odyssey was voted the best arcade in South Florida, and it’s easy to see why. You’ll think you’ve been transported to mid-80s Japan at this polish and neon arcade in Miami; the old classics are there such as Mario Bros, Missile Command, multiple iterations of Donkey Kong and House of the Dead, sitting alongside many other lesser-known titles. Brilliantly, the website even lists which titles can be played at any one time and any upcoming events such as the ‘Melty Blood Monthly Tourney’ and Street Fighter competitions. It even hosts pinball tournaments.

If that last line grabbed you, then why not to Delray Beach or head several hundred miles up the coast to the Asbury Park boardwalk? These two locations host the Silverball Museum; as the name suggests, this is as much a shrine as gaming hub. There are well over 100 pinball tables dating back to the 1960s sitting alongside modern arcade gaming titles among classic American diner décor. Each machine comes with a history; its artists, creators, gaming tactics, and the historical influences (hence machines based on Beatlemania and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, thru Indiana Jones and Stingray).

Las Vegas has tens of thousands of arcade machines for you to hit, including Game Nest (boasting six console stations) and Fremont Arcade, which has an average rating of five stars on Facebook. Another arcade which still shows 60s-style Sin City is alive and kicking is the famous Golden Nugget, with old favourites such as air hockey and pinball alongside first person-shooters and rowdy beat-em-ups.

Another near-desert location is ArcadeUFO; the spartan looks shouldn’t disguise the fact that this brings the latest e-sports and arcade imports from Japan and Korea to the US. Following in the path of nearby Einstein’s (which closed several years ago), gamers travel from across the States to test their mettle in Tekken, Street Fighter and other world class fight titles before staying in one of the nearby hotels in Austin (Texas). There’s also a strong music game community and it’s open until 2am too, so be prepared to be as tough as Heihachi Mishima and endure a long night.

We’ve saved arguably the most famous until last; the Galloping Ghost Arcade in Brookfield, Illinois – tightly packed with gaming nostalgia and human beings that love the thrill of the joypad. Embrace the squeeze - these narrow corridors are home to nearly 600 cabinets and uprights, shared by grizzled gamers and newbies alike. You pay $20 to get in and that’s it; as many goes as you want for as long as you want. Fancy tackling 14 different versions of King of Fighters? Or obscure titles such as Primal Rage II, Hammer Away, and Godzilla? This is the place to do it, alongside casual players and pros alike.

There’s a few others that deserve attention; Dorky’s in Tacoma is loved for its 80s vintage heritage; Game Galaxy brings a little country vibe from Nashville into its premises; and  Barcade in Brooklyn combines beer and bar through its brilliant arcade design and superb line-up of on-tap beverages. Wherever you play, enjoy these games. Life was simpler then, but no less fun.

Read more about:

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like