As soon as you walk into the Neon Retro Arcade in Pasadena, California, you’re transported back in time.
Even before laying hands on a joystick, the simultaneous sounds from 50 classic games — PacMan eating dots, Qbert jumping on squares, Mario dodging barrels — hit you and bring the 1980s back to life in all its noisy, neon glory.
The classic arcade, with dozens of games lined up and people playing shoulder to shoulder, is an anomaly in a world where you can game anywhere, anytime on your phone. The ’80s gaming vibe is back with hip arcade bars (aka barcades), classic gaming consoles like the Nintendo NES Classic Edition and the popular ’80s-based Netflix show “Stranger Things,” but running a full-blown arcade as a business is still a bit of a gamble.
When Mark and Mia Guenther first opened Neon Retro Arcade about three years ago, people told them they were crazy. But the couple had already seen proof the games can bridge generations.
Mark started collecting the machines in college and began holding backyard arcade parties, where kids and adults took to the classic games.
“We knew that there was a large appetite out there to play these classics. It was really a way for us to preserve them as well. We really felt like … there wasn’t a whole lot of effort being made to make sure that they kind of stayed alive.”
The arcade has games mostly from the ’80s and ’90s that Mark has restored, including Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, The Simpsons, Frogger, Tron, Star Wars and Joust, as well as several pinball machines.
Customers are always curious about certain games.
“When people call the arcade to see if we have specific games, they always want to know if we have Centipede. They always want to know if we have Street Fighter II. They always want to know if we have Mortal Combat,” Mia says.
While people who grew up in the ’80s are an obvious customer base, the Guenthers are also working to reach a younger audience, specifically those in their early 20s. They have a couple of modern game consoles in the back of the arcade and are rotating in more ’90s machines.
“One of the trends in terms of bringing new games in — we’re seeing a lot of interest in some of the ’90s games,” Mark says. “Some of the early ’80s games appeal to maybe a more narrow demographic. And so, we’re seeing certain titles from the ’90s really becoming popular again. So, if we announce a ’90s game, it’s gonna have a lot more impact than if we announce an early ’80s game.”
Mia believes that the reintroduction of the classic gaming consoles, while competition to the arcade, is also renewing interest in playing the games in their original arcade form.
“I think a lot of the secret sauce to our success is really just people’s desire to connect with other people. With gaming, I think it’s really interesting to see young kids and teenagers come in with their families and do something together, which nowadays can be a little more difficult with all the competing forms of entertainment,” Mia says. “We’ve seen kids come in and start playing some games with other kids that they don’t even know. They come back the following week and meetup and play again. I just think that is something that is inherently special about it.”
The one thing missing from the Neon Retro Arcade is the sound of quarters dropping into machines. Instead all the games are set to free play and customers pay a $10 flat free to play for one hour. Apparently business is doing well enough that the Guenthers are expanding to a second location.
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