How a Brooklyn bar rekindled New York's interest in gaming's fading past and trained the new Donkey Kong world champion.
Video games owe a great deal to the American bar. It was here, on sticky carpets, before glinting taps and amidst woozy patrons, that the medium made its public debut — when Atari founder Nolan Bushnell installed his first arcade cabinet, Computer Space, in the Dutch Goose near Stanford University in 1971.
The video game — a homeless invention — flourished in the drinking context. A year after Computer Space's arrival Al Acorn, one of Atari's first employees, was called to Andy Capp's Tavern in Sunnyvale, California where a Pong location test machine had malfunctioned. On arrival Acorn opened the coin box to issue himself free credits for testing, only to be showered with coins. The game had proved so popular that the coin mechanism was seized.
Atari soon began to use drinking establishments as impromptu venues for ruthless live user testing. A new arcade game would be stationed in a popular bar and, if it failed to exceed a set amount of earnings over the week, would be promptly dropped from production. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, video games lived or died on their ability to woo bar-goers. It was a symbiotic relationship: The games provided entertainment to fill the bars and help keep patrons drinking, while the bars provided the players to fill the machines' coin slots with quarters.
In time, the arcade cabinet spread its wooden wings, befriending and moving in with the pinball and claw machines in amusement arcades, before finally being compressed and condensed into console form for the home. Years passed, and as the home system caught up with the arcade machine's thrill and spectacle, destination gaming made way for convenience gaming: People didn't get out so much, when it came to video games. Arcade machines were thrown out of bars onto the street like inebriated, broke customers, surrendering their space for quiz machines, karaoke sets and other mutant Atari offspring.
Video games owe a great deal to the American bar, but the American bar owed nothing to video games. The world and its technology moved on.
Paul Kermizian, however, did not.
Happily stuck in the past
"Sorry I'm stuck in a world of classic arcade games; I'm not that up on new technology," Kermizian says, staring fretfully into his phone's camera from his New York apartment. It's a statement equal part apology and brag.
Kermizian owns an iPhone, but needed to set up FaceTime for this interview. He has yet to download any games for the device.
"I'm just so not up on [current games], I guess," he says. "I play a lot of Mappy these days. Oh! And I play a lot of Pitfall on my PlayStation 2. People give me a hard time because all I have are the classic collections, but when I play [current games] they're not that appealing to me. They're too realistic.
"If I want realistic, I'll just look at my dog."
Kermizian's unwillingness to contemporize his relationship with video games is more than a preference: It's a calling.
In 2004, he and some friends founded a Brooklyn bar that combines early arcade machines with American craft beers. Eight years later, the bar employs 50 staff across three locations (including one in Jersey City and one in Philadelphia), with a fourth bar planned for launch in Manhattan later in 2013.
Where the video game industry has largely turned its back on the arcade, Kermizian found himself at the spearhead of a new trend spreading across America: the bar-cum-arcade, or Barcade.
Kermizian grew up in central New Jersey in the 1980s. "It was very suburban," he says. The local arcade was housed in a pizzeria — Little Italy — and there were some other, outcast machines stationed at a gas station a paperboy's bike ride away. Kermizian was eight years old when he first started playing. He soon developed a taste for "cartoony" games over what he saw as the identikit space titles, falling in love with "weirdo" releases like Q-Bird, Dig Dug and his current favorite, Mappy.
"I was more into games that had characters and unusual storylines over just shooting stuff," he says. "I remember as a kid so many of those games ... like Space Duel and Star Castle, and they all seemed so similar to me. I wasn't that into them. Little Italy pizza got everything — Mario Bros., Punch Out, Gauntlet, Dragon's Lair, whatever was new. I hated Dragon's Lair when it came out because it was hard to control. Plus it was 50 cents and that was a lot of money for me."
"It was about two years before we had a really strong good line-up ... Ms. Pac-Man, Tetris, Galaga, Frogger: those are like, you know, the classics."
Kermizian's interest in video games sustained through his adolescent years but began to wane at 13. "I think I just got into other stuff: baseball cards, sports and, later, music," he says. "It didn't really circle back around to video games until I saw one for sale really cheaply when I was much older."
The game in question was Mappy, Kermizian's first love, up for sale in a local classified advertisement. "I saw it in the newspaper and was just like: 'Oh my God, I can buy a Mappy arcade game for 200 bucks?' I had enough space so I went for it. And then next thing I knew I had four machines [Zaxxon, Tetris and a Pac Man/Ms. Pac-Man combo] in my apartment."
At the time Kermizian was working in film and television, but was eager to open a bar as a side business. "I had some longtime friends who were also working in different creative fields and wanted to partner with me on the bar," he says. "The idea of opening a bar and arcade came from us seeing how popular the video games were when I would have friends over or [host] parties. It seemed like a natural combination. We were all living in Brooklyn and in Williamsburg and so wanted to open something within stumbling distance of our homes."
One of Kermizian's friends came up with the name, which expresses the establishment's gimmickry with rare economy: a bar themed around exotic beers and 1980s arcade machines. Then the group drew up a list of games they would like to install in their new bar. "We each made up our own list of ones that we thought were our favorites and also the ones we thought would be good; a line-up that people that hits like all different types of gameplay. We didn't want too many Pac-Man style maze games, too many multiplayer games or driving games, for example."
It sounds like a boyhood dream: drawing up lists of one's favorite video game arcades to buy and position near one's favorite beer pumps. But realizing the dream involved both cost ($250,000) and risk (the groups' life savings and credit cards). Once a location was agreed upon, the group worked on most of the construction between them ("everything but the electrics and plumbing — it was such hard work"). Then there was the crucial matter of sourcing the machines on the list.
Today, Barcade has around 40 arcade machines installed at each of its three locations, with around 100 more kept in warehouse storage, and they're able to source almost any title they want. But in 2004, the team was inexperienced, generally buying cabinets on eBay and Craigslist where prices were high and supply was low or irregular. "We didn't get everything we wanted [for launch] but we had a good line-up, I think," says Kermizian. "Then we kept shopping after we opened and began swapping the games to see which ones performed well. It was about two years before we had a really strong good line-up and figured out which games out weren't popular or that didn't really work out the way we thought they would."
Distilling the collection to the best-performing hits may have taken some time, but the recipe is now almost set, the line-up only changing twice a year at most, and only changing a maximum of three machines at a time. In 2013, the bankable hits are much as they were in New York arcades of the 1980s. "Ms Pac-Man, Tetris, Galaga, Frogger: those are like, you know, the classics," says Kermizian.
After a noisy opening, the darkened bar lit by the cathode glow of its attendant squadron of machines, success was quick and consistent. "The popularity surprised me," says Kermizian, "and [the fact] that it didn't wear off, that it became a place where people came regularly. We were worried that this might be a lot of fun for people, but that they would only view it as a once-in-a-long-while thing. I was astounded at how many regulars we found right away, and how dedicated they became."
In keeping with Kermizian's rejection of contemporary technology (and perhaps his adolescent hatred of Dragon's Lair's extortionate, unaffordable 50 cents entry fee) all of the machines in Barcade still cost the same per credit as they did at launch. On either side of the bar, quarter machines accept $10 bills and spew credits with a jackpot jangle.
"We have a tech guy who fixes the machines when they break," he says. "Every time he comes in he complains at our prices, urging us to increase them to a dollar. My perspective is that people are going to put a dollar in the change machine every time, regardless of whether a credit costs a quarter, 50 cents or whatever. The average game for someone who just walks in, has a beer and puts a quarter in Donkey Kong is like a minute. Most people are not good at these games, especially on a Friday or Saturday night."
But does today's clientele come only for the ambiance, not the addiction? Does Kermizian ever see patrons who discover these games for the first time, fail repeatedly but decide to work at it, improving their skills like the first generation of New York "vidkids" (as the author Martin Amis described them in his 1982 book Invasion of the Space Invaders) of earlier decades?
"Definitely," he says. "We have real classic arcade enthusiasts, and some of the best players in the world are on our scoreboards. Those guys come in a lot, sometimes arriving as a group, converging from all over in a big meet-up so that none of our regulars can get on the games. But we've also seen people who have never really played classic arcade games at all go from playing their first games at Barcade to having a world class score on some game that they had never played before. It's always fun to see that. Donald Hays has scores on our board, John Macallister, Ben Falls — all these guys who are world record holders.
"Then, of course, there's Hank Chien ..."
The student becomes the teacher
Hank Chien first heard about Barcade by looking at the Donkey Kong world leaderboard. A few months earlier he'd watched the Seth Gordan movie King of Kong, which documents the rivalry between two of the game's best players, Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, as they compete for the Donkey Kong world record. Chien, curious about the game (though he was seven when it launched in 1981, the Taiwanese national had never played the game before), loaded a version onto his home computer only to discover a natural, latent talent for the game. Returning home from his day job as a plastic surgeon in New York, he would play Donkey Kong every night. After three months he reached the "kill screen," a point at which the game freezes due to a programing bug.
Eager to take his gift on the road, but unsure of where he might find a working Donkey Kong cabinet in the wild, Chien clicked through the profiles of the Twin Galaxies Donkey Kong scoreboard to see if he could find a top player nearby. It turned out Benjamin Falls, one of the game's top players, was also from New York.
"We immediately became friends and now I would consider him a mentor as well," says Chien. Falls introduced his new protégé to a number of other top Donkey Kong players and invited him to Barcade, the only local bar in New York with a working Donkey Kong cabinet.
"Naturally Donkey Kong was the first game I played on my initial visit," says Chien. "What grabbed me about the game were the constant improvements in your scores and the long learning curve. No matter how good you are, there are always ways to improve your game. Donkey Kong is also a concept-based game rather than one based upon memorization. There are no patterns to memorize but plenty of concepts to understand. In fact, people talk about patterns in Donkey Kong when really they are just guidelines. There are no patterns in Donkey Kong, and the ones people refer to as patterns frequently fall apart."
After another few months of playing at Barcade under the tutelage of more experienced players, Chien was able to reach the kill screen consistently. "At that point, I decided I would buy my own machine, record a kill screen, submit it to Twin Galaxies, sell my machine and be done," he says. "However, I was still improving, and by the time I got my machine I wanted more than just a kill screen: I wanted a million points. At the time there were only two official scores over a million (and a total of five players capable of achieving this) so it was an ambitious goal."
The first time Hank Chien broke a million points, he was killing time before a plane flight. He had reached his ambitious goal but, with all the drawn-eyed hunger of the glory addict, it wasn't enough to hang up his cap and dungarees. Chien wanted more.
The first time Hank Chien broke the Donkey Kong world record he was killing time during a New York snowstorm. "I broke the world record for the first time in February 2010," he says. "I had surgery that day and actually tried to go to work. When I reached my car, it was engulfed in snow up to the side view mirrors. I called my office and cancelled everything for the day. Being locked at home, I decided to make some world record attempts."
But Chien found he couldn't get a game "started." The game's first few levels are more random than those that follow, and frequently players will take more risks since the stakes are lower. "This is why you'll see even the top players dying very often in the early stages and sometimes taking hours before they play out a game," says Chien. "I took frequent breaks and caught up on sleep throughout the day. It wasn't until the evening that I was able to get a game started."
Two and a half hours later Chien stood to his feet, proclaiming, "New world record."
Today, Chien visits Barcade once a week. "It's a different experience for me now," he says. "In my early days I went primarily for the games but now I go primarily to socialize. I think Barcade is flourishing since it targets an older market that can appreciate and reminisce about the arcade scene of the '80s. Also that generation is old enough to drink now ... Most of the younger gamers would prefer to play at home on their consoles and interact over the internet rather than in person."
Younger gamers are, in a sense, both the secret to Barcade's success and its great ongoing threat. More than players like Chien and the older pros, Barcade attracts young local patrons typical of the Brooklyn bar scene. For many of these visitors the classic arcade hits of the 1980s were released long before they were born, familiar to them primarily as cultural icons rather than living memories.
"When we opened in 2004, some of these games weren't even 20 years old," says Kermizian. "But now, eight years on, we find the ideal period of nostalgia keeps shifting on us as our customers are a little bit younger. So we've started to go with some early '90s games. You know, we've put Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in two of the three arcade locations and that's our number one most popular game now. People just go crazy playing that."
On a good night a single Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles machine will see its coin tray filled. "At the end of the night we just dump a bucket of quarters out of the machine, around 50 bucks worth."
All these years on, with prices unadjusted for inflation, the aging arcade still offers a viable business. But time continues to be the greatest menace to the arcade, even in the midst of this repackaged revival. For many, this parade of curios whose bleeps and flashes provide an atmospheric link to the past long gone is little more than a hands-on exhibit, where Space Invaders' and Pac-Man's iconography is not forgotten but made fashionable. But fashions are transient. How long can the business model sustain?
"Who knows when you open a bar in New York City if you're going to be there eight years later?"
"Well, I don't know," says Kermizian. "It's become very much a trend here in the U.S. Since Barcade's success, a lot of similar places have opened, especially in the last couple of years, all following our business model. It's become a big thing, and, as with all trends, it's going to be interesting to see if it lasts. There's a lot of classic arcades opening, they're all combining the bar aspect because that appears to work as a new recipe."
And Barcade itself? Is there a danger that it will go the same way as its precursors of the late '70s and early '80s? Will technology's unstoppable plod render the bar arcade obsolete? "It's sustained itself so far," he says. "We've been able to put newer games in without compromising and making them too new. We don't ever want to do that. I think there's always nostalgia element but equally these games are so simple and so addictive and so deliciously frustrating ... It's clear that young people, and people who are new to the games, are enjoying them on their own merits ... With that fact there's a chance to just keep reaching new generations.
"But we'll see. Who knows when you open a bar in New York City if you're going to be there eight years later?"
What's certain is that the debt has been paid, balance restored: Finally, there's an American bar that owes a great deal to the video game.
Images: Jimmy Shelton