My name is Akil. I'm a college student aspiring to be a information security specialist.
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Meet Me at the Arcade was a panel discussion held at New York Comic Con last week. The panelists that participated were Seth Killian (Capcom Special Advisor), Henry Cen (co-founder of Next Level arcade), Norman Burgess (longtime Chinatown Fair regular), Jamin Warren (journalist and co-founder of Kill Screen Magazine), and Kurt Vincent (director of the upcoming documentary ARCADE).
Moderator Tal Blevins generally led the conversation by proposing questions or topics, which the panelists would then take turns answering or discussing. Below I’ve paraphrased most of what was said, based on notes I took during the panel. These are not direct quotes, as this is not a full transcript.
What did the panelists have to say about Chinatown Fair’s legacy and the importance of arcades?
Seth Killian: Chinatown Fair was my home arcade for a long time, even though I didn’t live there. Any time I passed through New York, I made sure to stop in.
ON HOW THE ARCADE WAS ABLE TO SURVIVE FOR AS LONG AS IT DID
Henry Cen: Competition kept the arcade going after everything else closed. Also, the Canal Street station is huge. It’s one of the largest in the city.
Norman Burgess: It was a combination of easy access, the amount of learning you could do, and the fast pace.
SK: The arcade was full of friends playing games. It made you feel at home. It was convenient for any schedule. You could walk in at any time of the day and stay for 20 minutes or you could spend the entire night.
ON WHY ARCADES WERE SO POPULAR IN THE 80’S
HC: Consumer tech was behind. Consoles closed the gap.
Jamin Warren: There was a great cultural allure to arcades at that time. People perceived arcades a certain way. There was also a performative element to playing in the arcade. Everyone in the arcade could watch you. Now, online play is replacing that.
SK: Public performance was definitely a part of what I liked. I was young back then, and I liked to be able to walk in and beat up on big, older scary-looking guys. It felt good to take someone’s money send him to the back of the line. It was a way for me to sort of say “in your face” to these older guys. Playing in the arcade doesn’t let you hide from your commitment. Every game is a money match. You made effort to be there. You can’t just laugh it off. You DO care about how well you do, as opposed to online, where you can just shrug it off and instantly start another match. Playing the same people over and over, you eventually build up mutual respect and then friendship. Online doesn’t really capture any of this.
ON HOW MUCH MONEY A PLAYER COULD MAKE BACK IN THE ARCADE’S HEYDAY
HC: Nothing. You had to be good just to preserve the quarter you put in the machine. We were kids, playing on our allowance. I would scout for two hours before even playing, so when I was ready to play I knew what to expect. Being cheap made me good at the games.
ON FIGHTING GAMES BEING THE STALWART OF ARCADES
HC: They aren’t. Redemption games actually make all of the money. In Japan, the first floor of an arcade is all redemption games, and Japanese redemption games are different than ours. Even the crane machines in Japan take skill; they are a puzzle. You can’t just drop the claw in and come up with a prize. You have to poke it out. I didn’t know. I lost $50 trying to just grab with the claw. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right? A Japanese lady came up to me and motioned with her finger, telling me, “Poke! Poke!”
Kurt Vincent: Chinatown Fair kept the fighting game scene alive.
HC: You can’t invite a scary dude to your house, but you can play him at the arcade.
SK: Online play was bad for so long. You get an immediate connection to the other players at the arcade. Back to Henry’s story about Japanese crane games: Justin Wong got addicted to crane games while he was in Japan. He won so much stuff that he had no way to get it all back home. It wouldn’t fit in his luggage. He eventually found a crane game that was full of suitcases, and he won a suitcase from the crane game to carry home all the stuff he had won playing crane games.
JW: Fighting games speak a language that most people inherently understand. You’ve got two people beating each other up; it’s like boxing. Amazing comebacks are easy to see, even as novice.
KV: Each match in a fighting game takes about 5 minutes. This is the perfect format for an arcade. You get another in a short amount of time.
NB: The arcade was a place where you shared your passion for these games. You had an entire community there built around them. The community helped you to learn and grow as a player. The games pitted mind versus mind. You can’t get that online. You don’t get together and talk to each other.
ON WHY TOKYO ARCADES ARE DIFFERENT
HC: Asian people are born to play video games. The myth is that Daigo was born in an arcade. Mago got shipped over in a box from Korea. The reality is that you can get the newest technology faster in Japan. You order direct from the arcade machine manufacturers who are in Japan. Also, Japanese apartments are small. Nobody wants to stay at home. They want to go out to play.
SK: I would hold American arcade owners feet to the fire regarding just doing a bad job as a business. They would have broken machines. You’d come back the next week: still broken. Two weeks, three weeks: still broken. That’s just too long. Machines would steal your money. The problem is that many operators came from a vending machine background. They thought that it would be easy to sit back and let the machines collect the money for them. The operators dropped the ball. They didn’t support their own business, and they didn’t support the community. Customer service is instant in a Japanese arcade. If there’s a broken button, you raise your hand, a technician comes over and swaps out the panel on the spot. People come back for that amazing experience every time. Sure, you could play at home, but you’d be missing something from that really good arcade experience.
JW: Coin-op amusement had a tortured past. Pinball was banned in New York City for a long time. The seediness of arcades was alluring to kids. They were full of cigarette-smoking twenty-year-olds. People were just looking for a return on investment.
ON THE SOCIAL APPEAL OF THE ARCADE SCENE, REPLETE WITH ITS CAST OF CHARACTERS
NB: You invested you time and money. You found likeminded people. Eventually, you speak to each other and share ideas. You formulate relationships and friendships. Your passion would help you get knowledge.
ON WHY COUPLES WOULD MAKE OUT IN CHINATOWN FAIR
HC: It was reclusive and L-shaped. People on streets can’t see into the back of the arcade. It was also free to enter. No one in to there to play games cared, so they could do it without anyone watching. Besides, the girl would always be waiting for the dude to finish. By the time he was off the game, she’d just be like “Let’s just do it here!” Also, on the subject of American arcade maintenance, there were always weird converted cabinets. Sometimes, you’d have to play Street Fighter on a Mortal Kombat 5-button set-up. There were kits to play Street Fighter 2 on an MK layout. I liked when MK machines had a 6-button layout. You could use either medium button to block, and you’d still have a block button when one broke. You have to be meticulous with repairs. Distributors wanted to charge a ton for parts. Once the machines were out there, parts were the only way they could make more money off those cabinets. They sold cheap crap that broke often. Parts were a big moneymaking scheme for Happ. Happ buttons were complete garbage.
JW: [Referring back to the previous topic] Arcades were social. The games were acts of escapism. In playing these games, we become more ourselves. Real friendship results from this. Even spectators get involved in the community, too.
SK: You had your cast of characters. There were good guys, and there were villains. In the game, you play a part in that conflict. You’ve got different archetypes among players and whole communities. Some arcades had their own house rules. “We don’t do that here” kind of stuff.
ON THE FAMOUS TIC-TAC-TOE-PLAYING CHICKEN
HC: There were actually two chickens, one that danced and one that played tic-tac-toe. I cleaned its poop, I fed it, and I clipped nails. It was well cared-for. We let it loose, and it ran around the arcade at night. The tic-tac-toe chicken was entertaining. The dancing chicken was lame. The chicken had an attitude; sometimes it wouldn’t play. Customers would complain. They’d tell me that the chicken is not playing. I told them I couldn’t control it. I didn’t have a little chicken whip. If it didn’t want to play, then it didn’t want to play. Wo Hop [the restaurant across the street] took an egg from the chicken each week. Sometimes we saved eggs for a long time to use as stink bombs. Around the year 2000, animal activists protested outside the arcade. The owner eventually gave the chickens to them. They were moved to a farm.
KV: There was a photo montage of the chickens on the farm hanging in the arcade.
HC: There are actually three tic-tac-toe-playing chickens in Las Vegas right now.
ON WHAT INSPIRED KURT TO FILM AT CHINATOWN FAIR
KV: I moved to NY, inspired by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I tried to find a cool arcade. Eventually I found Chinatown Fair. “Holy shit! This place is amazing!” Then I heard rumors that it would be closing. I needed to film it. I figured it would probably be a short film. There was an entire society and so much history inside. It had been there for so long. It was the end of era, the last arcade in New York City. So, I started filming. I wasn’t able to find too much archival footage, with a few exceptions. Ol’ Dirty Bastard filmed a music video inside Chinatown Fair. The owner was very private.
HC: [matter-of-factly] He wanted money.
KV: He wanted $100 to film. He asked how long I needed. I told him two hours. After two hours he stopped me and told me to pay more. I ignored him. From that point on I kept avoiding him while I was filming.
ON WHY HENRY IS CONTINUING THE BUSINESS WITH NEXT LEVEL
HC: I want to continue because I was bored. I like drama. All I had to do was open a store and the drama would come to me. We need a place to practice… but not my house. I like to have all these various talents intermix. If people didn’t keep coming together, there would be too much rivalry. I want to foster camaraderie instead of rivalry. Not too many Chinatown Fair customers come to Next Level. Teenagers and weird, smelly people don’t come. Chinatown Fair was too affordable. You also ran the risk of getting mugged.
KV: The story didn’t end at Chinatown Fair. Next Level attracts people from all five boroughs and Long Island. It has filled he void. It’s packed on Fridays. It preserves the Chinatown Fair feel, yet is totally different.
HC: Manufactures produce huge games now, and they’re expensive. They charge absurd prices for Street Fighter and Tekken. It cost about $30,000 for a pair of Street Fighter 4 boards. You’re talking about the price of a car for about six months of play. The good thing is that today, you can charge a buck. You can’t make money on a quarter a game.
SK: AOU, the Japanese arcade game expo, this year was depressing. All of the games involved gross 3D glasses. In the USA players would break the glasses. Manufacturers need to capitalize on social aspect of arcade gaming. Capcom does a lot of live events, like Fight Club and Fright Club. They are a way to bring people together for a lasting, memorable experience. That shared experience still there, and it is an advantage that arcades still have.
JW: We work to bring arcades and that experience to people that might not have noticed it. We bring arcades to MOMA and SXSW. We take that beauty and bring it elsewhere. It’s sort of like “the arcade is dead, long live the arcade.”
Q: Henry, you’ve rebooted the business. What did you change?
HC: There’s no tolerance for anyone disturbing the players. Having an entrance fee ensures enthusiasm for gaming. There’s no loitering, heckling, or homeless punks. There’s no starting trouble. I enforce the rules to the max, unlike Chinatown Fair. I want to make fighting games more competitive. I buy the best equipment.
Q: Do arcades need to have a wider variety games outside of fighters and shooters?
NB: We as consumers have to express what we want.
JW: Will Wright says that good games should be easy to learn, but difficult to master. Different arcades have different mentalities, based on the curator. Barcade [in Brooklyn] is more about drinking craft beer.
Q: Does Next Level have anything outside of fighting games?
HC : No. I don’t like ‘em. I did get In the Groove so I can work out.
Q: How does one start an arcade?
HC: You need a quarter-million dollars. It’s not viable in NYC due to real estate. And in the suburbs, you have less people.
Q: Regarding eSports. Could Street Fighter ever be the premier competitive game? I feel that the ceiling on high-level Street Fighter play is too low. Can it ever get legitimate, like StarCraft?
SK: There’s no question about the legitimacy of Street Fighter already. PC has had some advantages. PCs can inherently stream, hence StarCraft. But the Internet and YouTube help to grow fighting games, as well. There’s a lot more money from sponsors selling peripherals on PC, e.g. graphics cards and processors. Both console and arcade missing that level of sponsor support. EVO had more viewers than any competitive game ever. There’s more potential for Street Fighter because anyone can see and get it. Street Fighter will get there soon.
Then Kurt showed a work-in-progress trailer for his movie ARCADE.