Nostalgia often makes me sick to my stomach. But it depends on the general type of nostalgia I’m experiencing. One is provoked by old photographs, ’80s country music and James Taylor, and it produces the same tilted, queasy feeling you get when riding a Tilt-a-Whirl on low speed. The preferable type is produced by driving old pickup trucks, watching Spielberg movies set in suburbia, listening to AC/DC tapes on a ghetto blaster and by playing arcade games.
So a recent visit to Arkadia Retrocade, in the Evelyn Hills Shopping Center in Fayetteville, was just the blast from the past I needed. Like Evelyn Hills, Arkadia offers a glimpse into the ’80s. It is not too cute or ironic. It’s just a great arcade, a place where you might’ve spent your childhood back when parents were allowed to drop their children off at a non-school-sponsored location for more than 10 minutes of unsupervised fun. One 34-year-old customer described it as the dream basement of her tween years.
Arcade attendance declined in the late ’80s. Home video games began making leaps in technology and playability, stand up games could not compete with the extended game experience offered by home systems, and arcades were virtually wiped out (except in China and Japan, which still have thriving arcades). A North American resurgence in retro-arcades and barcades (serving alcohol) began in the ’90s, perhaps fueled by arcade gamers coming of age — Arkadia owner Shea Mathis, 38, said demographic research says that the most avid gamers are in their early 40s — and it has reached Arkansas with the opening of Dickson Street Social Club and Arkadia and the new Z82 Retrocade in Sherwood.
I visited Arkadia around 8 p.m. on a recent Friday. I was greeted by a friendly doorman, paid my $5 all-day cover charge (cash only), and was free to game until I got a raging case of “Nintendo Thumb.” No quarters are needed. It’s your 10-year-old self’s dream come true. You are set loose in the arcade with unlimited plays. You can finally afford to figure out how to win Dragon’s Lair! You can take a break, go next door to Hawaiian Brian’s for a meal (there’s also a snack bar in Arkadia), make a grocery run down to Ozark Natural Foods, run home for a nap, and come back for more gaming. Mathis said he keeps the price low to make it affordable for families. He gets by on volume.
Stand-up games line the walls and there are two foosball tables at the front of the room. There is a riser in the middle of the room with tabletop arcade games and a couch/console TV/Atari station so authentic you can almost taste the Lik-M-Aid Fun Dip and chocolate milk. One young gamer of about 13 told me it was his first time ever to play Atari. But lo and behold, these kids seemed to be enjoying themselves playing these technologically inferior, often clumsy games. Graphics and playability have improved over the years, but the basic elements are not so different that they can’t be enjoyed by all. That was my only concern upon hearing that a retro arcade was opening — that the clientele would be predominantly the same vintage as the machines — but I was pleasantly surprised to see all age groups in quantity, male and female, a demographic breakdown Mathis said is the norm.
Arcades need young customers to bridge the gap between older clientele indulging memories of their youth to make a retro arcade into a thriving atmosphere and business. They need customers with expendable time and income, and without the kids it would be more akin to a bar than an arcade. Also, there is a tangible bond between generations as they enjoy each other’s pastimes. It reassures the older generation the younger has not strayed as far as feared. Parents tend to push the toys of their childhood toward their children, and Arkadia is a rare place where parents and children can go play together without one patronizing or indulging the other.
Toward the back of the room is another “living room” Nintendo couch station, and, at the time of my visit, Mr. Drummond was lecturing Arnold and Willis on the overhead TV. Arkadia hosts parties and special events periodically, and party rooms stocked with board games are available for rent. If you rent the party room or the whole space after normal business hours, you can bring booze and your own food in, Mathis said. Since opening in late 2012, Arkadia has hosted a nationally ranked Donkey Kong champion (who almost kill-screened their machine), a wedding announcement, Street Fighter tournaments, and a rap video shoot among other birthday parties and special events.
Due to space constraints and high maintenance costs, Arkadia does not, currently, have pinball, but it’s not ruling it out. It sprang for the good stand-up arcade games: Asteroids, Congo Bongo, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, Double Dragon II, Galaga, Gauntlet, Rampage and Tetris and some 80 others. Mathis recently drove to Oklahoma to pick up the much-coveted Star Wars game. If you didn’t love one of these games, then you never spent more than 10 minutes in an arcade. Even if that’s the case, based on the younger customers I saw at Arkadia, that won’t stop you from losing yourself in the fuzzy glow of vintage technology. Vintage customers will forget that they came for a piece of the past and just play for a while.