Greetings again from the darkness. Webster’s definition of “arcade” is how director Kurt Vincent chooses to start his documentary. While video arcade is the most widely used version, it was the alternative description of the word “passageway” that caught my eye.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, video arcades were seemingly everywhere … peaking in 1981 with 24,000 locations throughout the United States, with the largest venues being in Times Square. Rather than take on the collapse/transformation of an industry, Mr. Vincent instead focuses on one particular NYC arcade – Chinatown Fair. The video footage shot inside the arcade prior to its closure offers up an intimate look at the atmosphere; a racially diverse group of youngsters bonding and socializing within an ecosystem that the outside world didn’t understand (or care much about).
Placing your “next” quarter in line on the cabinet may have guaranteed you an upcoming time at the controls, but this can be viewed as the Land of Misfits with the gamers flocking to groups of their kind. These were the folks who didn’t fit in with the more physically active groups at rec centers and on playgrounds, but instead thrived on the late night gatherings amidst the electronics beeps and flashing lights.
We meet Sam Palmer, the immigrant from Pakistan, who owned Chinatown Fair for decades. This father figure often hired his most loyal players to help run the place, and we hear the personal stories from a couple of these – one (Akuma Hokura) who was rescued from a life on the streets, and another (Henry Cen) who later opened his own competitive arcade in Brooklyn. It’s perfectly accurate to describe this as a social community, and maybe not a stretch to call it a society unto itself.
Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Frogger and Street Fighter are just some of the most popular arcade games that finally gave way to home gaming – beginning with the 1986 introduction of Nintendo home systems. This development made gaming much more convenient for the masses, but also destroyed the social community of the local arcades.
We meet the guy who tried to re-open Chinatown Fair as a knock-off of Dave & Busters with an emphasis on family entertainment. However, as someone in the film states, “nostalgia is not really all that profitable”. Mr. Vincent’s film is a time capsule look at what made arcades work, and it’s very interesting to learn that Chinatown Fair played a role in a DeNiro/Streep film, an Old Dirty Bastard music video, and even an episode of David Letterman’s show. Going back to the opening definition, it’s easy to see how a generation used the local arcade as a passageway to finding a social life and interacting with others … something that had previously been more challenging for them.