Inside California's Secret Arcades

COVER STORY: With the arcade scene long since dead and buried, hobbyists are building private arcades of their own. We visited one.

Profile by Kat Bailey, .

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In an unassuming neighborhood roughly 40 minutes south of San Francisco, there is a garage that appears to be part of your typical industrial park. You'd never know it by the look of it, but it's one of the last vestiges of what was once a thriving American arcade scene.

Every weekend, dozens of hobbyists descend upon this location to play Super Smash Bros. Melee, Guilty Gear Xrd, and a host of obscure anime fighting games. They are there to train, to play in tournaments, or just to hang out with friends. The tiny space is packed with arcade cabinets, tables hosting monitors and laptops, and players, many of whom spill out into the area outside of the garage to socialize between games.

In the back office is Myung Kim, the founder of what the community has come to call Gamecenter Mk. III. By day, Kim is one of many software engineers making a living in Silicon Valley. On weekends, though, he retreats to the space he created to play games, work on side projects, and spend time with other arcade enthusiasts.

What separates Kim's space from the various other "second wave" retro arcades and barcades that have cropped up around the country is that he's not looking to attract customers. Quite the opposite, actually: he'd rather keep his little slice of heaven away from the prying eyes of the public. He organizes events on a private Facebook group, declines to share his venue's location, and asks that any newcomers be vouched for by an established regular.

He's not the only one, either. Having accepted that arcades as we once knew them are dead, hobbyists are renting spaces or hosting events out of their own homes in an effort to gather with like-minded enthusiasts. This is the third wave of arcade fandom: the final resting place for an American industry that has long since perished, but still has plenty of survivors.

Why keep it secret?

I first met Kim in early 2012, when I profiled his arcade in San Mateo. At the time, Kim was trying to run an actual business, which he maintained in the hours after his day job was finished. His spare storefront had plenty of regular customers, but not enough that he could quit his job and run it fulltime.

"I was still working a day job and going at night and burning both ends of the candle, and in the end I decided I couldn't do this any more. It was personally taking way too much of a toll on me," Kim tells me as we sit together in his office. Outside, a tournament is raging, and every few minutes a player wanders in to either offer a donation or ask that the vending machines be restocked.

Myung Kim.

Many of the regulars at the tournament are veterans of the original Gamecenter. Others are friends who came in later. When Kim decided to get out of the arcade business, they were the ones who convinced him to try again with a more private space.

Kim's plan when he closed down the original Gamecenter was to store the games in an industrial space until he could liquidate them. But it wasn't long before he was getting Facebook message from old customers asking if they could keep playing. "I told them they could come over, we got pizza, and everything was fine. That really opened up my eyes a bit because it made me more acutely examine where I was spending my time and money and my stress at the old Gamcenter. And the bulk of it was because I didn't know who was coming in there. Because I didn't know who was coming in there, I either had to be there, or someone I trusted had to be there. Which meant either a bunch of time for me, or paying an employee to make sure people weren't messing things up. And when it's taking a lot of your time, you need much more return to make it worth it."

"But if you cut those two things out, all the sudden your overall costs drastically reduce. And now, if you just pay your bills, that's alright. I end up spending a bunch of time here anyway just because I like it, but I don't have to. If I want to meet my friends for dinner on Saturday night, I can totally do that."

The result is a space that works because of a certain degree of mutual trust. Every single one of the roughly 120 or so regulars at Gamecenter Mk. III understands the intrinsic value of the space; and they all know that if it were to go away, they would have nowhere else to go. In a very real sense, it's their home. "I appreciate that." Kim says, "I thank my lucky stars every week that happens."

Kim's desire to maintain that level of trust and mutual respect is what has led him to avoid publicizing his events and to keep the location's address a secret. I learned of the new space in part because I stayed in touch with Kim following my first story, his original Gamecenter being one of the only venues to support the Gundam Versus series at the time. I've since kept tabs on his community as they've moved from San Mateo to San Carlos, and now to their current location.

As with the original business, Kim's new space is more or less treading water. He asks for a donation from anyone who is there just to play on the machines, but tournament entries are free to encourage participation. Sometimes the income generated from the community isn't even enough to cover the rent for the space, and Kim has to dip into savings. It's fine, though, because Kim isn't looking to build a business - he's looking to foster a community. And at Gamecenter, he has one.

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Comments 16

  • Avatar for riderkicker #1 riderkicker 2 years ago
    Wow, great cover story. I should look into who's keeping the Arcade Tradition alive on the East Coast. I know there's an arcade in Sunset Park, but it's livelier at night and run only by guys in the same situation as Mr. Kim, software developers on their freetime, but they have to pay actual bills.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #2 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    Bravo article. I had heard of this stuff, but never got a grasp on its signifigance.

    "Like many Gamecenter regulars, Lee's former home is Sunnyvale Golfland - the legendary arcade known as the birthplace of EVO and the cradle of the fighting game community. It still exists, but only as a shell of its former self. When the Golfland scene died, Lee moved to the original Gamecenter, then followed Kim to the current space."

    I did not know this...that makes the old news of Chinatown Fair being made to move to Brooklyn all the sadder.

    "While online gaming has somewhat bridged the gap in meeting fellow players, the in-person dynamic of occurrences like crowding around an intense game and kibbutzing with random strangers, or asking the guy who just got off the machine for advice on a particular tough spot for you, cannot be replicated."

    Or not rage quitting like a scrub or talking mess as catching hands is much easier when those hands are feet away from your flapping jaws. You learned that ain't an option over petty disputes and anger. You also learn to perform under stress of sunk cost from the trip over and your money going down. Its a crucible on-line doesn't really reach the temperature of.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #3 kidgorilla 2 years ago
    This was a great, great article. Nice work!
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  • Avatar for mobichan #4 mobichan 2 years ago
    Great article Kat! I would also point out that this is a niche within a niche, in the realm of arcade enthusiasts. It is like the kids who read about Japanese arcades, saw them a few times while visiting Japan, then tried to recreate them with the most obscure games imaginable. And that is fine. But I am still a fan of all arcade genres, so it is a little sad they only cater to the anime fighting game niche. The San Mateo shop he ran also had that vibe, where there were maybe 2 or 3 cabs with non-fighting game fare. But the rest was either for the people who loved the Guilty Gear style of fighter or wanted to play console games in the back room.

    There are a few Shmup meets that happen in the Bay Area as well that focus on bullet hell shooters in garage arcades. It is basically cabinet enthusiasts who focus on late 90's/early 2000's Japanese games. And I can get behind that 100%, but still wish there were decent arcade meetups that catered to all tastes. CA Extreme is about the closest you can get these days.

    In regards to the community aspect, I really miss those days. Although online play at least lets you turn off the voices of the blowhards during a match.Edited June 2016 by mobichan
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #5 Kat.Bailey 2 years ago
    @mobichan Arcades are expensive enough to collect and maintain that I'm not surprised that collectors are focusing on their particular niches. But yes, it is a niche within a niche within a niche.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #6 Monkey-Tamer 2 years ago
    A new arcade opened close to where my brother lives. It's called "8-bit Beercade." The games are free so long as you drink. It has a few gems, but some of the cabinets haven't been well maintained. It's also close to a college, which means college kid bar scene antics. I took my brother there for his birthday and we had a good time. My wife had to be the designated driver. I'd like to set up my own arcade cabinet but I've got too much work to do on the house before the baby monkey is born. Unfortunately a lot of old cabinets are sold for small fortunes. It's cheaper to build a MAME cabinet with more games in most cases.
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  • Avatar for mobichan #7 mobichan 2 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey I wouldn't call this guy a "collector" as he openly stated he pirated CPS2 games and then made them available to play. Guess it is a gray area, since he isn't openly charging at the door, but still.
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  • Avatar for Spectreman #8 Spectreman 2 years ago
    Mechanical pinball in special is something you need to play when you see, because you never know when you are going to to play a working machine again. For who have pinballs, also need to people to play, because can broke by the lack of use.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #9 Kat.Bailey 2 years ago
    @mobichan Actually followed up with him on this point, and he responded, "It _can_ hold pirated games. I _personally_ own all the games I'm interested in playing on that, so that board holds my backups."Edited June 2016 by Kat.Bailey
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  • Avatar for Nuclear-Vomit #10 Nuclear-Vomit 2 years ago
    Will the big kids shove me away after I just put in a quarter? Sniff** Still hurts to this day
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  • Avatar for Patrick-C #11 Patrick-C 2 years ago
    This was a great read, Kat. Most of all I was excited to learn that Austin's Arcade UFO is still open. Not that I had any reason to believe the contrary, but I moved out of Austin five years ago and just assumed it had closed. Now that I know it's still around I'll make sure to hit it up the next time I visit home.

    There's a place in Portland called the Pinball Outreach Project that's kind of at least in the orbit of Gamecenter, albeit for pinball enthusiasts, obviously. They're a nonprofit group of pinball fans and collectors; they have a tiny storefront in northeast Portland where you can play a rotating collection of 8 - 10 machines; the rest of them get loaned out to children's hospitals and venues like that. And they do field trips and talks for local schools. It's a really good idea and a way to take the interests of a group of collectors and do something a little more outside-looking and egalitarian with it. I think small groups of enthusiasts in small spaces are probably more or less the future of arcade gaming. The barcade thing will probably burn itself out for the most part over time as people old enough to remember and love arcades age out of going out much.
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  • Avatar for mattcom26 #12 mattcom26 2 years ago
    Absolutely fascinating article, and a great example of why I read USgamer.
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  • Avatar for Mega_Matt #13 Mega_Matt 2 years ago
    Fantastic article Kat!

    We just had a barcade/restaraunt open in Salem, MA last week called Bit Bar. I'm likin' it a lot so far. It's in the old jail if anyone is familiar with the area.
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  • Avatar for Dave-K- #14 Dave-K- 2 years ago
    Great article. Myung is the nicest guy, glad he is keeping the dream alive.
    @mobichan@Kat.Bailey re:shmupmeets June 2016 by Dave-K-
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  • Avatar for mobichan #15 mobichan 2 years ago
    @Dave-K- Great blog. Thanks for the heads up! :)
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