Lately I’ve been searching for authentic video arcades in the UK. I have both a Raspberry Pi and an Android hand-held running Mame, and I even have a stand-up arcade cab with a couple of thousand games installed, so I’m not lacking in the ability to play the games I grew up on but it’s the atmosphere you get from an arcade that I miss. Let me tell you a little about my history with the arcades and I’ll share what I’ve found.
I kind of fell out of love with gaming sometime in the early 2000’s and found myself getting through much of the following decade playing only the Grand Theft Auto and Resident Evil series of games. It was a combination of factors – a focus on my career, meeting my wife, and perhaps more significantly the change in the video games industry itself that did it.
I grew up through the 1980’s and 1990’s on the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore Amiga. In those early years the games industry (especially on computers rather than consoles) was still finding its feet and games hadn’t necessarily yet fallen in to neat genre boxes – in 1984 for example I was playing Jet Set Willy, Elite, Sabre Wulf, Skool Daze and Alien – an eclectic mix of game styles.
By the early 90’s when I moved on to the Amiga the industry had evolved and much of what I was playing were arcade conversions and film licences fitting in to defined genres, but still mixed in amongst those were innovative and original titles like Millennium 2.2, Monkey Island, Lemmings and It Came From the Desert. But by latter years of the 90’s when I was saying goodbye to the Amiga I found myself without a new computer to move on to. The friendly, accessible home computer had been replaced by the era of the Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation consoles, and as the 90’s came to a close it seemed to me that most games on these consoles were defined by clear genres and with a growing trend towards 3d.
My problem with 3d in the years of the Playstation and the Saturn was that the consoles weren’t capable of producing beautiful 3d graphics. Of course the novelty of seeing everything in 3d was fun enough initially, but those games have tended to age far worse graphically than the pixel art of the 80’s and 90’s.
I bought my Sega Saturn due to an addiction to Virtua Cop in the arcades, but I only ever bought one other title (it came with Sega Rally), Resident Evil, as nothing was really grabbing me anymore. Soon after, I met my wife-to-be who owned a Playstation which saw us through the better titles like Silent Hill, Driver, and Grand Theft Auto III, and from then on I would periodically upgrade my console to the next generation of Playstation so I could continue with the Resident Evil and Grand Theft Auto series, but very little else.
So why this introduction when this article is about retro arcades? Well, to my mind it was the Playstation that killed off the arcade.
In the United Kingdom, arcades were not as prevalent as I understand they were in the United States. In the US every mall seemed to have its own arcade, whereas my local ‘mall’, Brent Cross in Hendon, North London, didn’t even have a single arcade machine that I recall.
In the UK, arcades were really found in the seaside towns. If you were a kid who lived in a seaside town I can only image how wonderful that must have been, but for those of us who didn’t we had to seek out our arcade machines in a variety of locations, typically wherever children were a captive audience. For example, my go-to places to play the arcades were…
- The David Lloyd Sports Club in Finchley (they had a room of arcade machines including Shinobi and Rolling Thunder)
- Barnet Copthall Leisure Centre (a Rastan machine in the cafe)
- Hollywood Bowl Finchley (Sega Rally)
- Southgate Bowl (various machines)
- Hatfield Galleria (Virtua Cop)
- The Trocadero Piccadilly Circus (various machines)
- The local funfair when it came to town
- And various fish and chip shops, kebab shops and newsagents in North Finchley and Finchely Central (Ghosts ’n Goblins, Ghouls ’n Ghosts, Double Dragon, Bad Dudes v Dragon Ninja, Chase HQ)
…but they would also turn up in the most random of locations, so as kids our weekends were often spent wandering around the local area seeking out arcade machines, or if we came upon one while out with our parents we’d try to stall them for as long as possible so you could play.
So once a year when your parents decided to take you to the seaside for a few days, you made the most of the arcades!
First there was the car journey. At some point dad would need to fill up on petrol or someone would need the bathroom, which meant motorway service stations! Motorway service stations almost always had surprisingly excellent arcades inside, and because of the space available would often feature the sit down versions of machines like Outrun, Afterburner and Thunderblade. The great thing about the services was that everyone usually wanted a break from driving for a while so you tended not to find yourself hurried along and your money would tend to run out before being dragged away. To this day I still look around the services on car journeys but always find myself disappointed by the array of fruit machines which stand in place of the arcade cabinets.
Arriving at the seaside it would take minutes to track down an arcade: They had huge lettering above the door made of flashing lights, they were pitch dark inside and the combined noise of the games spilled out on to the street. And there was never just one arcade, there were always a few along the seafront and always one on the pier too.
The seaside arcade was the mecca of arcade gaming. You were spoiled for choice and they were stocked with everything from Space Invaders to Operation Wolf to Sega’s R-360 machine which spun you through full 360º rotations.
By the early to mid 90’s I was starting to see more 3d games appearing in the arcades like Daytona, Sega Rally, Virtua Cop and Virtua Fighter. And whereas when I used to see these games in the arcade as a kid I would be hopeful for the best conversion possible on my ZX Spectrum, I was now seeing really quite faithful adaptations on the Saturn and Playstation. The gap between the console and and arcade was closing. In fact, I first played Virtua Cop in the arcades in 1994 and by 1996 I was playing it on my Saturn at university with very little discernible difference between the two.
It was really by this point in time that the performance of the home console and the arcade cabinet had all but merged. All that the arcades had left to offer was the novelty of sitting in a cab that looked like a bit like a car or holding a light gun – but even those were readily available for the consoles. As a kid, walking in to an arcade was always a magical experience – I saw games that I couldn’t possibly have at home, but for the new generation of Playstation-owning kids, the arcades can’t have held any mystique, and ironically, for my generation we now had exactly what we’d always wanted – arcade quality games in our homes. And for anyone who did still long to play the arcade games from their past, the first release of Mame was in 1997, around the same time also that the World Wide Web came in to the public consciousness. It was a perfect storm of technological advancements that killed off the arcade as it was.
In the years 2000 to 2010 I rarely set foot in an arcade and when I did, gone were the games I remembered and in their place were coin pushers, ticket redemption and fruit machines. The arcade machines that I could find were almost always light gun and driving games, the two genres that are arguably still attention-catching and more difficult to achieve at home, but whenever I’ve played this new generation of shooter or racer I tend to find myself quickly robbed of my credit in a situation that’s designed to be impossible (or almost impossible) to win and requires another credit to continue. These machines feel less like games of skill and simply a way to part kids with money as quickly as possible to earn their space on the gaming floor; the modern arcade is a sad shadow of its former self. But I digress. The point of this blog is to discuss the retro arcade.
When I returned to gaming and got my nostalgia on, I began looking for retro arcades thinking like-minded adults would also want to return to the games of their youth in a familiar setting, or that some of the seaside locations had simply not moved on with the times, but I was left sadly disappointed. In my Googling of UK retro arcades and searching on Twitter, I found hardly a dozen locations around the country, and even then I’m bending the definition of ‘arcade’ a little and including some bars that have arcade machines. However, what I’m not including are any locations that call themselves arcades but only have consoles. The full list is here…
First a disclaimer that I have visited only one of these locations so far so I can’t attest to their quality. The four main retro arcades on this list are…
- Arcade Club, near Manchester
- Time Warp Arcade, near Bristol
- The Heart of Gaming, London
- Astro City, Southend
I’ve heard a lot about Arcade Club and The Heart of Gaming and both sound exactly like the arcades of my youth (but without some of the strange characters hanging around). I’ve heard less about Time Warp Arcade and Astro City but both review well. These locations are spread pretty sparsely across the UK, so I’ve also included others that I’ve found to give you somewhere closer to investigate.
The National Videogame Arcade is not an arcade as such, but does exhibit arcade machines, has a very reasonable entrance fee and lists all their machines. Plus it’s also based in the middle of England unlike each of the other locations.
Most of the other locations are arcade bars, so no good for kids and not extensively stocked with machines, but if they’re closer to you, then they may be something to check out.
Lastly, I’ve included Las Vegas Arcade in central London. I’ve had conversations with them before about retro games and while they used to have some they’ve since retired them for machines that better pay for their floor space. It’s a shame as for those living in and around London like me, it’s the easiest location to get to. However, I’ve included it there as it’s worth checking out – especially if you like music games, there is a very lively scene down there.
I am amazed though that in the whole of the UK, this is all I could find! Last year I spent some time living in the US in LA and my nearest retro arcade, Neon Retro Arcade, was a thirty minute drive away and a fantastic arcade! The machines were almost all in great condition and it was busy with adults and kids showing the retro arcade is a viable business. The year before I spent several weeks in Vancouver where just two streets away was the Movieland Arcade – which is not even a retro arcade, but an authentic arcade from the 70’s that’s still running! And the games are still $0.25c! It seems that America and Canada had more of an arcade culture originally and have better embraced the return of the arcade and I can find arcades in many towns and cities across the water.
I hope that the enthusiasm for retro gaming continues to grow and that it drives the growth of the retro video arcade, and that someone opens one closer to my house!
As a quick aside, a great blog to follow is this guy’s. He’s been travelling to lots of arcades in the UK and seeing what they still have available, the odd older machine turns up from time to time so do have a read.