Arcade games have been a fixture at bars, restaurants, and similar establishments since they were first invented in the late 1970’s. Today, just as decades ago, they draw guests in and help to keep children or bored, waiting adults occupied.
Americans are prone to nostalgia, and 80’s nostalgia has been rampant lately. (Stranger Things, anyone?) Now, a lot of the old titles are in demand—surely you remember Pac Man, Galaga, Space Invaders, and Dig Dug? New hybrid arcade bars have been setting up shop in various cities, offering the chance for gaming-while-imbibing, and sometimes offering food menus as well. Ground Kontrol in Portland, OR is an excellent example of a successful bar/arcade.
Not everyone is going to open up a full-fledged arcade, but many establishments do benefit from having games on the premises. I can speak personally to this, because my boyfriend, Grant Garvin, is a game collector/restorer and places games in local establishments through 313 Heavy Industries. He and two other local collectors also run pop-up arcade events called Arcade Revival.
“I think there are multiple reasons for the resurgence; a lot of it is nostalgia for a type of competition that is impossible to find outside of the arcade era. People are looking to capture these feelings they had that no other form of entertainment can replicate, even if they were too young to have experienced them firsthand during that time.” – Grant Garvin
Before you decide to rush onto Craigslist or eBay and pick up an old game to proudly boast in your establishment, there are a few considerations that you must take into account:
If you’re looking to own your own game, the market for vintage cabinets and pins has gotten hotter and more competitive with each year that goes by. Just as with cars, you can often find old games for cheap, but their price tag will reflect the kind of condition they are in and how much work is required to bring them back to what they looked like and how they ran their glory days (or as close to it as possible).
Necessary parts can be hard-to-come-by and expensive, and knowing which parts are needed requires technical expertise. If you can find the title you want, buying it in already-working-order is often the way to go, because the cost to fix it up will probably bring you close to that higher number anyway.
Things have changed a lot since the 80’s and 90’s, and the technology you will encounter in these old games has become almost completely obsolete. Commercially, LCD screens have replaced CRT monitors, which are barely manufactured anymore. Unless you are someone like Grant who enjoys learning about the technical aspects of old game repair, you will need to have a tech on retainer who can maintain the games, which can be pricey.
The alternative is to effectively rent a game out from a company or individual who owns and maintains them and will come and fix it when it’s broken, because they are collecting quarters from the game itself. Grant notes that yearly maintenance can average $400 per video game if you’re paying a technician, but in the case of pinball machines, this number can be dramatically higher.
Games can be unreliable—especially old ones. Some old games are finicky or fragile and cannot be left on for very long periods of time, and with others, turning them off causes the high scores to disappear, which can annoy some customers. The most common issue we see, however, is jams or problems with the coin mechanisms—often caused by customers themselves who have tried to put slugs or tokens inside instead of quarters.
Pinball presents even more possibilities for problems, because it has so many moving physical components in addition to the electronic ones; flippers often get stuck, the insides must be regularly cleaned, and so on. In certain demographics, having a great game or two will absolutely draw folks into your establishment. You just need to be prepared to deal with the occasional malfunction and resulting customer complaints. If your tech can’t get there right away, that can be frustrating as well.
Every state is different in how it taxes games. In Rhode Island, for example, a venue must pay a specific monthly fee per machine after a certain number.
There is also some debate over quarters-vs-free play; most games won’t make a fortune in quarters, and, unless you have a change machine, it can be disruptive to have customers repeatedly asking for them from you and your staff. You may be better off just using the machine as a way to draw people in and then pay the operator a separate rental fee.
If you have taken all of these considerations into account and still wish to rent a game for your establishment, Grant recommends going onto a search engine and looking up your local arcade or pinball collectors organization; they should be able to put you in touch with the right people to keep it properly restored and maintained, because they take the hobby seriously.
You probably already know whether a vintage game would suit the decor and vibe of your bar or restaurant and its clientele. You may have also loved such games in your youth, in which case it can be a big point of pride to have one on display.
If you can make the finances and logistics of game ownership or rental work, the cultural moment is ripe right now to show off your appreciation for retro arcades. Having an old cabinet or pinball in great working order links the space you’ve created back to that golden arcade era and subsequently taps into that nostalgia for any who enter the establishment. If it’s something you want and you can make it work, go for it!