July 5, 2006 3:01 AM | Simon Carless
[We're proud to present a special extended report fom Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins, which takes a bite out of the Big Apple's video game scene, from his own inimitable perspective, summing up the history and state of NY's arcades, game stores, and gaming culture. Wanna do this for your own home town? Go ahead and contact us.]
Summer has finally arrived, and many folks across this nation are spending their leisure time by traveling. One very popular destination is New York City, and it's only natural given that the Big Apple simply has it all. You'll find absolutely everything in NYC: fine art, film, music, theater, dance, food from all corners of the globe... but what if you're into video games? It would seem that the center of the world, culturally speaking, is devoid of one single element. In recent years, New York has become home for a burgeoning creative scene, followed by some glimmer of hope for commerce, but if you're simply a fan of video games, it may feel like NYC is no home at all.
Things haven't always been this bad, and while what was once here might not be particularly impressive to some these days, at least it was something, and perhaps still worth celebrating, especially since there seems to be very little written about that era floating around the net these days. There are still a few places to go and play games, along with stores to buy them, aside from the usual retail chains, which might be of some interest for both out-of-towners and even native New Yorkers who had no idea that there's stuff beyond Gamestop.
([UPDATE - fixed link, sorry!] Click through to read the full feature, including likely the most detailed discussion of NY's game life ever typed into a computer!)
As already mentioned, there's not much info available on the arcade scene that used to be, so all I can do is recount the "good old days", back when I was a freshman in college ten years ago. Whenever I grew weary of schoolwork and needed to blow off some steam, I would make the trek to Times Square and straight to one of two favorite haunts, Playland and the Broadway Arcade. Those were the days when arcades were still arcades, not the "amusement centers" that we have today; you didn't go to have dinner or to win friendship bracelets or other cheap trinkets, you went there to blast aliens out of the sky, give the final boss a devastating upper cut, or simply to set the top score, period. And your arsenal was a pocketful of quarters, not some stupid game card that required you to do math when it came to balancing its "credit".
Playland was located on Broadway and I believe between 46th and 47th Street. The place was dingy, cramped, and seedy. So it was basically every child's paradise, as well as every parent's nightmare; ask any gamer who grew up in NYC and you'll more than likely get an enthusiastic "Playland? Man, I loved that place!" followed by "I had to sneak in all the time because my parents would have killed me if they knew I went there." It was such a bright and shining example of the arcade's glory days that looking back, it almost feels like a cartoony caricature: the entrance had a flashing red light, much like on the old fashioned police cars, and you could either get three I heart NY shirts for ten bucks or a fake ID made. In the back was some room where the real seedy types gathered to do who the hell know what, hence why I stayed the hell away. Even the walls themselves had character: faux-wood paneling and plastered on-top were pin-up posters of Traci Lords, Cindy Crawford, and assorted other "babes" from the 80s and 90s. And of course, there was the reason why people converged in its dank, smoky quarters in the first place: practically the entire history of video games to that point, all strewn about and encapsulated in torn and tattered arcade units, but still very much alive.
Nearby was the Broadway Arcade, which really wasn't on Broadway but just a block away, on the corner of 49th and 7th Ave. Compared to Playland, it was quite clean-cut and modern, and not every player smoked a whole pack while slamming the controls, but at heart it was still very much a heaven for diehard gamers, with a nice selection of then current games, which were mostly fighters, a few shooters, and some classic titles sprinkled about. And with none of the nonsense with machines that spout out tickets to trade-in for candy or cheap knickknacks. But by late 96, early 97, both were out of business, along with all the strip joints, sex stores, and other traces of "Old Times Square" that the city, with the help of Disney, managed to bulldoze away in their effort to "revitalize" the neighborhood. In its place a string of "family-friendly" or "classy" joints would pop up over the following years. The "new-wave" in arcade entertainment had begun.
The first was XS, which opened in either the spring or summer of 97 and was dead center in the heart of Time Square, on 42nd St between 7th Ave and Broadway. The place was a complete counterpoint to Playland; it wasn't some hole in the wall filled with beaten up Ms. Pac Man and Street Fighter machines, but a two-story tall complex will all the popular games of the time, as well as plenty of deluxe sit down machines, such Tokyo War, Namco's head to head battle tank simulator which utilized gigantic (especially for its time) 50 inch monitors, as well as VR rides, a bar, and an internet cafe (back when the web and email were still a novelty and not a day-to-day necessity). It was New York City's first taste of using a "credit" card to play instead of quarters or tokens, which are always a total hassle: instead something costing twenty five or fifty cents, its then 3.5 credits, but you only have 2.7 you're out of luck, unless you add a dollar to your card, which gets you 3 credits, or if you could add five dollars for 20 credits, but you may not play that many games, though after 7 pm they knock of 1.5 credits on certain.... you get the picture.
All that flash didn’t come cheap, and the prices for everything were astronomical (and unfortunately a sign of things to come). The offerings were too much for the locals, which the operators knew, so they targeted tourists, which succeeded to a certain degree but not enough to sustain long-term business. Despite their attempts at putting forth a clean-cut and safe environment, there was supposedly an incident late one Friday night in which a woman was struck down, dragged up to the second floor (via the cramped, spiral staircase), and taken into the bathroom where she was sexually assaulted (note: all efforts to find a specific report to recount details have been unsuccessful). Afterwards security was beefed up considerably, but it was too late, and a few months later, the place was shut down just a little over a year after opening. From most accounts, the place was almost always empty. Given the high cost of rent, most places barely get by in the heart of NYC, though others arcades would appear and give it their best shot...
Whereas XS tried to make arcades respectable, Barcode attempted to make them upscale and chic. It opened in either late 98 or 99, right next to the Virgin Megastore, on Broadway, near 46th Street, and from what I understand, cost 10 million dollars. The target audience was primarily the upper crust; one Friday evening, my friend and I decided to check it out, but we were stopped at the door by the bouncer and denied access. The reason? His pants had holes in them. Once again, my friend didn't have nice enough pants. To go in an arcade.
I looked inside, to check out what we'd be missing, and witnessed a sea of deluxe arcade set-ups, mostly Sega games (my favorite brand of arcade entertainment), including almost every single racing title of theirs up till that point. And the entire space was completely deserted. Where was everyone? At the bar, which was filled with men in business suits, and all staring at the "sexy" bartender, who was literally standing on the bar. She was pouring what I believe was vodka down her chest, trying to get it to run down her body and onto the one leg that was raised, with the foot hovering over a glass. Mind you that this was when the whole Coyote Ugly bar scene was really hot in the city, and since this woman was wearing really high heels, balancing precariously, high above the floor, and was perhaps drunk (though she looked most definitely like a total idiot) she nearly fell backwards, which might have broken her neck. Anyway, the place didn't last long either, despite the fact that later on they tried to change things up by making it more family friendly, with the incorporation of redemption games to win chintzy prizes or candy.
Barcode closed its door about 2000, 2001, and not long afterwards another arcade popped up, calling itself "The Broadway Arcade", despite the fact that it was on 42nd Street, near the Port Authority on 8th Ave, well over a block and half away from Broadway. This "other" Broadway Arcade was more of the same: three stories this time of assorted gaming machines, mostly large, deluxe units, such as Dance Dance Revolution which was starting to become popular in America, as well as some fighters for the hardcore set, more redemption games for the kiddies, as well as a sports bar, with accompanying sports related games for fathers and business types after work. But despite yet another attempt to wrap the arcade experience in a bright and shiny package, trouble still went down. A few doors down is the B. B. King Club & Grill, which plays host to a number of musical acts, and often after a R&B or rap performance, a fight would ensue among thuggish youth. They'd get kicked out of the establishment and almost immediately make a b-line to the Broadway Arcade to continue their fight. Violent scuffles would break on a regular basis, causing them security to beefed up considerably. But like XS and Barcode before it, despite its glitzy potential, The Broadway Arcade closed it doors a few years later to little fanfare.
Then you had Lazer Park. Located on 46th Street near Broadway, the place was smaller and far less impressive looking than the bright and shining behemoths that XS, Barcode, and Broadway was. It was just a laser tag arena, a purely average one at that, with some video games in the waiting area. The arcade component wasn't anything terribly impressive and had basically what everyone might expect: some fighting games, DDR, classic stuff, plus redemption machines, along with a Battletech set-up which was a star attraction. But in the end, it worked long enough to stick around longer than any of the other "new-wave" arcades.
Over the years, Lazer Park tried different things to keep in business. I recall in the summer of 2003, the manager brought up the idea of getting involved in the business of selling consoles and games, and asked for my opinion. I basically said that it wasn't worth the trouble, but in the end, he ended up pursuing it anyway. I can't say honestly if it was a super successful move, but I never saw many people lining up to take a game home. (It didn't really help that their selection was hardly stellar.) Another gimmick was “Super Sundays;” for $20 a person could play unlimited games from 7 pm to midnight. While Lazer Park managed to hang in there, perhaps far longer than anyone could have expected, it closed its doors this past May, after nine years of business.
So what do we have left? Not much really... There’s still the very last vestige of the old arcade scene, the Chinatown Fair, on 8 Mott Street, in the heart of Chinatown. It’s become the final true dark corner of the city for gamers to gather. It still feels (and smells) like "the good old days" to a certain extent, thought the sights and sounds are mostly attributed to SNK and Capcom games and their followers. There's a few other machines, like some classic stuff, even a few pin ball machines in the way back corner, but most of them are broken, and really, most people are there to play Marvel vs. Capcom 2 anyway. For me, the place hasn't been the same ever since the star attraction literally died. Upfront, There used to be a chicken in a booth which one could play Tic Tac Toe against. If the chicken won, he got some feed. If you won... well, I don't know, because you never won. The feathered bastard always got the first move. Okay, maybe that's just one reason. But he embodied much of what the Chinatown scene was all about, and the mood and atmosphere in general just hasn't been the same in recent years.
Anything else? A few pockets here and there. Going back to Times Square, there's an arcade that virtually no one talks about, but some folks know and have made it their spot. Located in the Port Authority, which is the major bus depot in the city, on 8th Avenue and 42nd St, is the Leisure Time Bowling Center and Cocktail Lounge, and right to the lanes is an arcade with a good number or contemporary games. The star attraction is perhaps the Daytona USA 2 set-up. The place even has its own tokens, and everything is actually reasonably priced.
Back down south in Chinatown is a tiny, hidden arcade in the Kong Man Center, located on 89 Bowery, between Canal and Hester Street, which only a select few know about. There are only about four machines, though one was busted during my visit (and I have feeling that it's always been that way), and each one is a SNK machine, with the highlight title being King of Fighters XI. When I went to check the place out, a few of the local kids were playing, and they all stopped for a second to check me out; it was clear that I was foreign territory. Right next to the entrance is a two-player Initial D set-up, and when I first arrived, I also noted a kid sitting in the first player seat, reading a manga. I wondered if he was indeed just reading or simply waiting for his next opponent. After I had seen all I had needed to see inside (which again wasn't much since there were only three active machine, though it offered me my first glimpse at KOF XI), I decided to give a Initial D a try and take my chances with the kid, It turns that he really was just reading his manga, and he let me play... perhaps he took pity on me. It would have been clear to anyone that it was my first time.
Then you have web2zone, on 54 Cooper Square, between Astor Place and 4th Street. The place is an internet cafe that has tons of PCs hooked up to allow networked play. Nothing terribly exciting... there are numerous such places across the city (I'm guessing... can't say really since I'm not a PC gamer really), until you go down to the basement. There you'll find two Japanese styled Virtua Fighter 4 Final Tune cabinets, linked to each other; each machine only has one set of joystick and buttons, so when head-to-head, each person has their own screen. Also, again since its straight from Japan, you have to sit down to play them. When I went to check it out, there must have been at least twenty folks all packed into the somewhat cramped basement, waiting for their turn. Again, its nothing, but it's at least something, especially to these folks.
Once again, back to Times Square, where someone's giving it another shot at high-scale arcade entertainment, this time a name that's had relatively great success across the nation. Just a few months ago, a Dave & Buster's opened on 42nd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, on the south side, almost directly across where the second Broadway Arcade used to be. If you've ever been to a D&B, you know exactly what to expect. But since it’s in the third floor of a New York City building, it's considerably smaller compared to than their usually spacious restaurant/bar/arcade complex. So the designers unfortunately decided to scale down the arcade component the most, meaning there's only a few games on-hand, and they're extremely pricey. But that's the case with any Dave & Buster's, regardless of location. At least it’s the home to a very new 8 player Daytona USA set-up, perhaps in the best possible condition (without a hint of burn-in on the screens).
That’s pretty much it for arcades in New York City. Pretty sad, isn't it? But is it at all surprising? As stated earlier, arcades are a dying breed all over the nation, so what would make NYC immune? Given that one can find multiple places to get excellent Chinese food and see sketch comedy live, among a great number of other things to do in NYC well past midnight, perhaps it’s not that crazy to expect to find at least a few places to play a quick round of Mortal Kombat.
Actually, if you do go out to Brooklyn, there is Barcade, which as the name suggests, is a combination bar and arcade. Come for the cheap prices on local ales. Stay for the rows of classic games, such as Super Mario, Rampage, and even the old vector Star Wars game. Unfortunately, it’s located dead center in the heart of the trendy section of Brooklyn, Willamsburg (on 388 Union Avenue to be exact), which means instead of arcade rats, the place is swimming with hipsters. And while they may look (and smell) better, their general attitude often leave a lot to be desired. At least they're easily beaten in almost any head to head game.
Plus, there's always the far southern tip of Brooklyn, Coney Island and it various arcades. You'll find a bizarre mish-mash of old and new titles. Until recently, it was perhaps the only place on the eastern seaboard where one could find the Sonic the Hedgehog arcade fighting game, though it’s been missing for a few years now. Virtually every machine is on its very last legs. In that sense, Coney Island has always felt like the place where arcade games finally go to die. Though, while it’s still breathing, I highly suggest everyone rush to the arcade at the El Dorado Bumper Cars for the last Ms. Pac Man machine left, perhaps in the entire state, that costs only a quarter a play (and it’s nice and hard, thanks to the speed injection).
So what if you just want to buy video games? You've got assorted GameStops and EB Games, but we all know that the major game retail chains are almost always a pain in the ass. (And if you think the ones in the ‘burbs have incompetent and rude sales people, you ain't seen nothing till you've been to one in the Big Apple.) NYC is the home for tons of small, independent shops where you can get rare, even unheard of records, movies, and the such. But what about games? Again, there's very little to speak of. And once more, things used to be better. Much better in fact.
The golden age of video game retail had to be about six or seven years ago. This was shortly after the dawning the PlayStation era, in which games were officially not just for kids anymore. Due to a more active, older fan-base, more money was being thrown around, and better technology gave fans a good excuse to buy into the hype. There was a heightened awareness of what else was out there, meaning that import games were finally coming to their own. At his point, the internet was not nearly as pervasive and as usable as it is today, hence there were more than a few good stores to get games.
The one that many New Yorkers knew and love (and probably still miss) was Games Express, which was on 32nd Street, between 6th and 7th Ave, right near Penn Station. It was a huge store with a vast selection. During its most thriving days, in the late 90's, they had a vast selection for every platform at the time: PlayStation, Saturn, Nintendo 64, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, plus older systems like the Genesis and Super NES, even the Game Gear and Game.com systems. Then there were the import games, for all the major systems, as well as game soundtracks, toys from Japan, anime, art books, posters... they had it all. But as online sales sites began to build steam, the selection started to dwindle a bit, though their excellent prices always stayed the same; there was always a huge selection of older games, all brand new and at dirt cheap prices. One didn't have the brave the used and bargain bins of the major outlets, or deal with the headaches of Ebay with Games Express was around. And the best of all were the sales people, who were (for the most part) bright and intelligent folks, who became your friends, and vice versa. But when they began offering cell phone activations in 2003, you knew the days were numbered. And in either 2003 or 2004, the store officially closed its doors. The reason? Why many small business end up having to shut down: the high cost of rent. Since real estate is so valuable, the owner of the building realized that they could make much more money by turning the land into condos instead of continuing to collect rent from someone selling old Dreamcast titles.
Another great indie store was Videogamesters, which was first on 6th Ave, between 13th and 14th Street. It was a much smaller store compared to Games Express, but they too offered a great selection of games for all the current and older consoles, plus imports, and had a few really good sales people on-staff. They had three television sets, one running the hot PlayStation game at the moment, the second running the one for the Saturn, and the third for the N64. My fondest memory is of the day one of the coworker’s friends came by and hooked up an old 2600 to one of the monitors. The little kids were totally flabbergasted by the site of the old Atari Spider Man and Empire Strikes Back games, which were all passionately booed, while the employee and his friend (along with myself) all grinned with glee. Though just like that other store, their landlord decided to hike the rent. But instead of just closing down, Videogamesters decided to move a few blocks away, onto 14th, near 8th Avenue. The new store was much nicer and far bigger. There was even room for a few arcade machines. But just like Games Express, as the gaming commerce online grew, the numbers of folks that would stop by the store began to shrink. It also didn't help that the location just didn't feel that prime for such a business. I believe they closed their doors in 2001 or 2002.
As nice as Games Express and Videogamesters were, they simply couldn't compare to the scene down in Chinatown. That was the primo spot to get games, especially stuff from Japan. The absolute height was around 98-99, the tail end of the 32/64 bit systems, and the coming of the next generation, primarily the Dreamcast. There were an insane number of stores dedicated to selling games; my personal favorite was on the second floor of a small shopping center, at the corner of Canal and Lafayette Street. Aside from their great assortment of import Saturn and Game Boy titles, they sold these Sega figurine key chains, and the NiGHTS one remains one of my favorite game related knickknacks (and highly coveted among diehard Sega-phile friends).
But the real action took place on Elizabeth Street. Once more, you could find games for sale literally everywhere, and not just the real deals but bootlegs. There used to be a guy who lived on the second floor of a building on Elizabeth, who set shop out his apartment. I never caught the guy's name... I don't think he really gave it out, and he was such a creep that I tried my best to avoid as much conversation as possible. His appearance was always unkempt (he always wore the same exact thing: an old dirty wife-beater) and he seemed to ooze grease. Plus the guy was constantly eating noodles. Anyway, he had a whole stash of warez, mostly Chinese PC games, though he had a slew of PlayStation games. The prices he asked for, especially for pirated games, were insane, but he sometimes had that one thing you couldn't find anywhere, plus if one was persistent, he could be talked down.
That guy was small potatoes compared to some others. In the Elizabeth Center, the underground mall where most of the major game selling has sprung from (at 13-17 Elizabeth Street, right next to the NYPD station), there used to be a lot where a guy had sold SNES games via a catalogue. You would leaf through it, and when you found something you liked, they would load the appropriate game to the Game Doctor, which was a floppy disk drive that attached to the console, and make a copy. This went on for a while before they got ratted out by the FBI; they shook up all of Chinatown, running quote a few folks out of business, including the greasy guy, but the folks at the Elizabeth Center stuck around and decided to sell games legit.
There were two primary stores there: J&L Game Trading and another somewhat nameless place that went by "Penguin Village". Again, this was the PlayStation era, as well as a time when anime and manga was starting to take hold in America, plus fighting games were still popular, so both places were constantly packed with kids playing the latest import fighter featuring Dragon Ball Z or Gundam characters. J&L was the bigger of the two, with a wide selection of domestic and import titles for the major three systems (again, the PS, Saturn, and N64). Penguin Village was smaller, and had therefore had a smaller selection, but better prices. Both also provided mods for people to play imports as well as warez, or "back-ups", so that connection was still there.
Business was simply booming for both by the end of ‘98 (each store was especially packed due to all the interest surrounding the Dreamcast which had just been released in Japan), so much so that they each had to expand. Penguin Village took over another, more roomier lot in the underground mall, which was literally just twenty feet away, whereas J&L went topside and got an actual store across the street. As fast as they had each grown, they immediately had to scale back; Penguin Village got rid of the second store and went back to just the one, which still exists today, though now it calls itself "Initial D" for whatever reason (the real name is in Chinese, hence why I'll never really know), and J&L dropped the original location and simply moved everything to the outside store, which is on 28 Elizabeth. The place is still open, even with prices on imports that are often outrageous, given that the same stuff can be found online, such as Play-Asia or NCS at more reasonable prices. I personally attribute it to tourists who aren't as in the know. Plus they still have a considerable amount of N64, Saturn, Dreamcast, even Neo Geo (and Neo Geo CD) games. And for whatever reason, a few months ago they started selling PC Engine games. It should also be noted that for both J&L and Initial D, you don't pay sales tax for anything for whatever reason, unless you pay via credit card. So if you want to shop at these stores... bring cash.
Yet another import specialist was all the way uptown, on 431 5th Avenue. User-Side was a small boutique that specialized in all things Japanese, primarily electronics like computers and DVD players, plus they had a nice selection of games. It was pretty much a very small version of Akihabara (the main electronics district in Tokyo) and unlike the places in Chinatown that had to beef up prices to cover their overhead, all the prices for games were the same exact thing in Japan. It closed sometime in the last year or so, and the reason is a mystery since game retail was not its main business, and it looked to have a very steady customer base of Japanese businessmen.
Nearby on 7th Ave and 40th Street was yet another game store, one that mostly specialized in bootleg anime, plus had a rather odd name. I believe it was Games and James. The place was small, but the prices were rather big, but that's to be expected from any store near Times Square. It died away around the time Barcode did as well, around 2001.
The final big indie game store in the city is one that many New York gamers know all too well about. Located on St. Mark's, which is the heart of the East Village (and is unfortunately becoming more and more NYU country as the years pass), it's gone by two different names over the years: Multimedia 1.0 and St. Mark's Games. The place is well known for primarily three things. First, it's immense collection of vintage hardware and games. Virtually every single game machine ever created is at the store, as well as a huge selection of games for each platform. I believe they have virtually every single Sega Master System game available. Then there's the crates all over the place filled with controllers from all sorts of systems, all tangled up, as well as marquees from various old arcade machines. The second thing almost everyone knows about them are the simply ridiculous prices for pretty much everything, especially since many of the older items and import titles are often in less than optimal condition, And the third thing is the unbelievably rude clerks. Many often wonder how it managed to stay in business despite the fact that absolutely no resident gamer could tolerate being there for more than two solid minutes, but then again, St. Mark's does have a heavy, steady flow of tourists.
So one has to wonder how they will fare from this point on; they recently changed locations, to 202 East 6th St, between Cooper Square and 2nd Avenue, and is now called VideoGamesNewYork. The place feels much like before... sorta like a grimy museum for old, dusty game systems, but its far bigger so its much easier to window shop. As for the legendary rude employees, the one time I was there, it was manned by a rather charming young woman, so hopefully the attitude didn't come along for the move.
Another place which managed to make a move was Games Express. Most are unaware of this, but shortly after the store near Penn Station was closed (and their other location in Harlem, which I unfortunately never got the chance to visit), the management took over a completely different game retail business in the financial district and made it their own. Now on 82 West Broadway, near Warren Street, its a far smaller space compared to the one they used to have, and selection is rather limited (all the games from before were sent back to the warehouse, presumably for the mail order division), but at the great prices for older games are still there. Plus it’s just nice to have Games Express back.
One new store that’s popped up, which isn’t really independent, but there’s only one of them, is the Nintendo World Store, near Rockefeller Center. You’ll find everything related to Nintendo there, from games to t-shirts and that sort of “accessory” stuff. Plus there are kiosks where you’ll find kids playing Smash Brothers while their parents do shopping, and nice display of various pieces of Nintendo hardware over the years (including the Desert Storm-torn Game Boy and pieces from the AVS, before it became the NES).
That's about it when it comes to the retail side. Again, sorta paltry, eh? Well, at least for New York City; again, there are a few other options once you leave Manhattan. I've long heard of a huge gaming store called Fordam Game World that's in the Bronx which I've yet to investigate. Then you have the Fultron Street Mall in Brooklyn. It’s a strip mall with dozens of small, independent shops, and a few sell games. Many have some truly great selections of mostly older, hard to find stuff, and the prices on most are pretty stellar. Just be wary of Game Boy Advance games; some places sell Hong Kong produced bootlegs, so just make sure that Nintendo seal of quality looks legit and not bad-Kinko’s grade photocopied.
Given that New York City is the home for so many things, which therefore spawn entire subcultures dedicated to them (you've got people who spend practically every waking moment to their passions, whether it be Asian cinema, improvisational noise-punk ensembles, or arty-farty gallery hopping to name just a few), one might be wondering if one exists for video gaming given the lack of resources. Does anyone ever throw any parties, and if so, does anyone ever go to them? And if you're from out of town, can you go? Again, there's not much.
There used to be a place called Game Time Nation on 111 East 12th St, between 3rd and 4th Avenues. Similar to an internet cafe crossed with a karaoke bar, but instead of renting out a PC, one could rent out a couch and a large screen television to play consoles games for a few hours in the evening. It was actually a very nice space, and the home for special gaming related events, plus it was in a prime neighborhood (near several college dorms, filled with young kids, and some of them just had to be gamers, right?). But I guess it wasn't enough since it's been closed for a little while now.
Some are well aware that in on the west coat, primarily in the Southern California, you've got a very active community of fighting game players that organize and meet up to play on assorted message boards. The one that instantly comes to mind for most folks is shoryuken.com, which holds a yearly tournament called Evo. Each year the best players across the country (and even those from other sides of the Pacific) gather to face off against another, and the event has been slowly gaining steam in terms of popularity. It was announced earlier this year that the tournament would be spread across the country: semi-finals would take place on both the west and east coast, in Los Angeles and in New York City. Once word got out, many in NYC became instantly excited; finally a chance for their skills to be on display, and on the competitive stage. Then recently came the announcement that the east coast semi would happen in Stamford, Connecticut. Naturally, many here were both disappointed and confused, since no real formal explanation was given for the change. Some will content that its not that far a distance, but the fact that it was supposed to be in the Big Apple, and all of sudden not, says something. Again, no one really knows the reason, but given the difficulties that others have faced when dealing with video games, its perhaps safe to say that its more than likely something related to costs. So, given that fighting games are just as popular in NYC, you would think that a tournament could be easily assembled here, right? Well for that to happen, there needs to be an organization to help whip one together.
There's only one NYC based group of players that I know of, Empire Arcadia. They're quite the curiosity, since they seem to be the only group that goes around playing games with any sort of sense of "group presence." The most interesting part is where they play, especially when you consider the lack of any real competitive event out here, at least in comparison to out west. What they basically do is offer themselves (perhaps for a monetary fee?) to gaming companies who wish to introduce a product to the public by providing a band of expert players to fully feature its qualities. Basically, it’s playing games as a service. I'm not certain how they conduct business, if it is a business per se, or what they're really all about. One look at their website (http://www.empirearcadia.com/) offers a rather cryptic display of their mission statement, which is all about "representing the true Gamer Community and Culture", as well as assorted press releases. They have developed a name for themselves, though I've only encountered them at one gaming event; you could tell who the ringleader was because he was the guy wearing the NES PowerGlove.
Another organization that's dedicated towards encouraging and empowering the New York gamer's community is New York-Tokyo, which hold regular events in the city about every month or so called Gamer's Nite Groove. The GNG mission statement, from what I can gather, is a hope to re-create the same vibe among gamers that exists in Japan. And how's it working thus far?
Each event usually has a game company as a sponsor, so there's one key game as the highlight, often something which is yet to be or has just been released. Though recently they tried something a little different: a special Tetsuya Mizuguchi night was held, with all his games being celebrated. The GNGs often take place at very swanky locales throughout the city, and the Mizuguchi event was no exception. A very trendy eatery in Willamsburg (again, the uber-hip capital of Brooklyn) was the stage, where in the back the game Rez (the favorite of folks who run the event, it’s always their regardless of the featured game) was projected on massive 40+ feet high screens, one on each side of the room. For a fan of the man's work, it was truly a site to behold, and the event itself felt like something special, which the GNG strives to provide. But what about the people? Did they appreciate the display and the games on-hand?
Truth is, not really. The GNG events are fairly heavily publicized, but they seem to get the same twenty or so people, time and time again, and while they qualify as part of the NYC gamers’ scene, they all seem very much blasÈ and bored. Perhaps it’s understandable given that Rez and the rest of the games on-hand were not something that's up most audiences' alley (as evidenced by how everyone removed the featured games from the DSs and PSPs on-display and replaced them with their own games), but why were they there again? Maybe because they're that bored for anything game related? But again, given the small number that actually showed up (in the event's defense, they do get a higher number at most other events, simply because their games are more mainstream, plus its usually nearer the weekend... the Mizuguchi event was on a Tuesday, which is an odd night for most everyone, especially the younger set), one has to wonder if they're worth bothering to cater towards. Maybe everyone just knows that video games, as an interest, are sorta dead in the Big Apple.
But is it malaise in the end? Of course not, people want to play games, they just can’t. And why? What’s been the one thing that has crippled all attempts to get a video game scene going on in the NYC? Money, of course. Everyone knows how expensive the city can be, and entertainment is not cheap, or at least its not meant to be around here. You can’t get much these days for fifty cents, and that most certainly includes a game of Pac Man. And people have unfortunately come to accept that fact. Again, it doesn’t help that games don’t have a home here either when it comes to the creative and publishing side, so there’s no spill-off, but that’s a whole different issue…
And that's how it stands. If you're from out of town, come for the rich food, incredible art, and wonderful people. Just make sure to bring your own games.
[Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor - you can contact him through his website.]