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Mr. & Ms. Pac-man at Level Up

Quarters are being used for more than just parking meters and washing machines these days. For $0.25, Oregonians can escape reality and enter into the world of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Troy. They can even drink a beer while trying to get to the next level. That’s because barcades, or bars that feature classic vintage arcade games, are beginning to sprout up across the Pacific Northwest. For avid gamers and gaming novices, barcades offer a fun environment for anyone old enough to reach the start button.

Barcades are hitting new levels of popularity because of nostalgia, because people want to connect together in real life, and because it’s fun. There aren’t many things in life that still cost a quarter. Thanks to new establishments like Level Up and Blair Alley Vintage Arcade popping up in Eugene, Oregon, people now have places to grab a drink, meet up with their friends, and play the video games from their childhood.

Nostalgic games like Pong (1972) and Frogger (1981) may seem out of date but they’ve never been more popular.  Kids and adults are lining up to play these games from the ‘70s and ‘80s because they celebrate the simplicity of the past. Kids can learn the game quickly while parents and the older generation can jump back into their favorite game without much practice. For Andre Sirois, a Eugene-based DJ, this means it’s easier to socialize while trying to get to the next round of a game. “The old games are simple.  One or two buttons, a joystick, and that’s about it.  So, you can go out with the homies, drink, be social, and still play these games,” Sirois says.

Aaron Thayer, gamer, game review blogger, and author of Silicon Sasquatch, agrees that nostalgia plays a major role in why vintage games are rising in popularity. “What seems to prevent these games from dying is the level of nostalgia they impart upon people, and that’s the same for frequent gamers and those who haven’t touched a game since Pong. Many gamers, myself included, play these older games because of the memories attached to them,” Thayer says.

This is exactly what barcade owners are banking on: customers reliving those childhood moments. Level Up is the latest bar to open up its door to gamers in the college town. It’s centrally located both to the University of Oregon and downtown Eugene, making it an easy place to meet up or play a round of pinball. With only a handful of bars to choose from in the college town, Level Up offers Eugenians a place to get away from the regular bar scene and try out something new or old, depending on their level of gaming expertise.

It’s only been open since April of this year, but Level Up is already becoming a hot spot, drawing people of all ages to stop by. “Happy hour is from 3 p.m. – 6 p.m. If your kids get off of school and you get off of work, you can have a beer while your kids do their thing,” says K-I, assistant manager at Level Up. “It’s a safe place and there’s always a good vibe in here.”

Level Up also wants to reiterate to its customers that it’s not a nightclub. The space used to be occupied by The District, the troubled dance club that had a history of problems with the law. The barcade does offer daily and weekly events for patrons to enjoy. Customers will soon be able to purchase hanging pieces of artwork featured by local artists and Thursday and Friday nights cater to those looking to blow off some steam on the dance floor.  Andre Sirois also moonlights as DJ Foodstamp during Next Level Fridays. But don’t expect to hear any LMFAO or Nicki Minaj. “DJ Foodstamp is more of a turntablist. He plays the classics which is the vibe we’re trying to maintain in here,” K.I. says. The bar is open until 2 a.m. and kids are welcome to play games until 9 p.m.

It’s refreshing to see that these vintage games have a home again. With the advent of in-home gaming systems like Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s Playstation, kids never had a reason to leave their rooms in order to play their favorite games. Thanks to barcades, now people can congregate together, play against each other, and compare scores and gaming techniques. This environment encourages a more active approach to gaming, rather than the sedentary lifestyle that so many gamers have become accustomed to. “We are used to video game masturbation; that is, playing by ourselves,” Sirois says. “Barcades get us away from our computers and allow us to play games socially. Not like fake socially via a network, but in person.”

It may be 2012 but walking inside Blair Alley Vintage Arcade in the Whiteaker neighborhood of Eugene, feels like strolling through an arcade in the 1980’s. It celebrates a time when machines and video games were packed into one giant room and people came together. Located directly behind Ninkasi Brewing Company, this pinball haven offers food, dancing, and plenty of games for the whole family to enjoy.  It’s a little off the beaten path but that’s part of its charm. As owner Chad Boutin says, “It’s a speakeasy arcade.”

Arcade sign located outside of Ninkasi Brewery

What started out as Boutin’s 350 square-foot photography studio waiting room turned into a full fledged bar and arcade in a matter of months. “My friends brought four pinball machines over and I had one already. We started opening up the space for Friday night art walk and people loved it,” Boutin says.  Within three months, they added a bar, two bathrooms, increased the size of the entrance door, obtained a liquor license, and opened their doors for business. “It’s that place, when you have a friend in town, that you take them to because only a local would know about it,” he adds.

Blair Alley Vintage Arcade also offers food and has happy hour specials. Kids are welcome until 9 p.m. and all the machines are set up so they can easily be moved and played outside once the DJ arrives. It certainly has the old vibe of a classic arcade, with all of the machines lined up inside a dimly lit room and the sounds of quarters clanking in the background. “After you’ve been here 5 minutes you know without a doubt that this is a place you want to spend some time in or thanks but no thanks, I’m never coming back. Don’t you wish all your relationships were that up front in 5 minutes?” says Clark, a regular customer and part-time worker at the bar.

August, age 3, masters mini bowling at Blair Alley

Now residents of Eugene don’t have to drive out of town in order to play their favorite vintage games. Ground Kontrol, located in downtown Portland, and Shorty’s, located in Seattle, used to be the only options for barcade enthusiasts living in the Pacific Northwest. Wunderland, a family-owned nickel arcade, has franchises all over Oregon but it’s catered more to children and those under the age of 21.

Although the barcade isn’t an entirely new concept, the community of Eugene appears to be catching up to the trend. Who wouldn’t want to grab a beer, play a round of Pac-man, watch a game on the big screen, and dance until it’s time to go home? With two barcades opening over the past year and half and another console-based lounge set to open in the near future, it looks like this trend isn’t going anywhere.

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What if I don’t live in Eugene? No problem. Take your quarters here:

Barcades are popping up all over the country!  The original barcade in Brooklyn, New York came about thanks to five friends coming together back in 2004. They bridged their love for gaming with their love for American craft beer and established Barcade. Just this year, two more Barcades have opened in Jersey City, New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Over in Grand Rapids, Michigan, gamers can head over to Stella’s Lounge where they can enjoy Sunday brunch and their favorite vintage video games.  Denver, Colorado is the latest city to get on board with the arcade/bar concept. The 1up opened in June 2012 and features three lanes of Skee-Ball and multiples sets of Giant Jenga, in addition to 45 classic arcade games and 15 pinball machines. Game on!

Barcade in Brooklyn, New York
(credit: barcadebrooklyn.com)

Barcade in Jersey City, New Jersey
(credit: barcadejerseycity.com)

Barcade in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
(credit: barcadephiladelphia.com/)

Stella’s Lounge in Grand Rapids, Michigan
(credit: heinemanbarco.com)

1Up in Denver, Colorado
(credit: the-1up.com)

The women’s bathroom at Ground Kontrol in Portland, Oregon

Shorty’s in Seattle, Washington
(credit: http://www.shortydog.com)

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