Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A description of the Emporium Arcade Bar in Chicago

To the left, an unremarkable restaurant. To the right, the empty waiting room of a darkened walk-in medical clinic. What’s in the middle is diverting people passing on the sidewalk. They’re coming closer and peering through the windows in amazement.

Inside the Emporium Arcade Bar, everything is new - the blonde wood of the tables, the pressed silver metalwork on the ceiling, the clean slate of chalkboards listing drinks, the shining steel beer taps - except the video games lining the walls. The arcade my father took me to on Saturdays was clearly partitioned from the outside world by the cacophonous crush of sound that met you when you entered, its hundreds of machines all blasting simultaneously at maximum volume. But here the sound is a comfortable mix of current party music and friends talking happily. The air is cool and fresh and circulating. The light is soft and low.

Except the light from Tetris and Asteroids and Space Invaders, and every other game being met with a mix of motives and moods. A grown man grows visibly frustrated by DigDub, his space-suited protagonist struggling to excavate the lo-fi strata of a subterranean maze, its blocks of color forming a digitized, deconstructed Rothko. I don’t remember girls at the arcade of my youth, but there are women here. A group of three laugh and shout as they spin steering wheels that control little trucks bouncing ludicrously over an off-road course. A man on a date plays Duck Hunt, but not too sincerely (for his date’s sake). He’s holding a plastic orange gun and bending awkwardly at the knees to peer at a screen designed to rest at a child’s eye level. Close by, a face is illuminated by Galaga, fingers blurring on a fire button offering the only defense against a relentless and oddly geometric alien onslaught that hasn’t broken formation in decades, forever dropping in the same synchronized unison and predictable increments.

We all remember so many of these games. The token machine turns a creased dollar bill into golden coins that clink as they’re dispensed. A boxing game - Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out - is my choice. The smooth plastic joystick is yielding. I dispense easily enough with Glass Joe and Pistol Hurricane, doubling their cartoonish forms over, but I struggle against the massive Bald Bull. He’s moving too fast. I’m taking virtual damage while desperately hoping to recall his weakness - body shots? uppercuts? - when I’m knocked unconscious. Bull’s pixelated face mocks me from the screen.

A smiling, long-haired guy spots my notebook. “If you’re writing an article,” he says, “mention they need a Frogger machine.”

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