Anchorage lacks arcade scene, offers alternatives

Late one night, rain was falling hard on the streets of Shanghai. The promenade led to a shopping center and upon entering, the booming bass of Asian pop bordered on deafening and the flashing cabinet lights punctuated the neon glow. In rows, people faced each other, accompanied by shouts that either relished victory or lamented defeat. Around one cabinet, bodies massed in excitement. Player 1’s face contorted, beating on the controls in front of him, his enemy doing the same on the opposite side. A loud exclamation from the crowd signaled that the game was over; a winner had been crowned.

Whether it’s a crowded floor in Asia or a small dive in Alaska, the lifeblood of arcades is not only the games, but the overall experience. There are no true contemporary arcades in Anchorage, but there are alternatives.

Friendly Fire was re-opened by Stewart Seugafala in late 2010, and patrons can pay an hourly fee or buy an all-day pass. It has a pool, TV, Wi-Fi, a supply of comic books and, most importantly, 20 stations with LCD monitors and Xbox 360s.

The atmosphere is close to that of an arcade, but not exactly. It promotes interaction with fellow players, but the set-up of the facility resembles home gaming. Recently host to a Best Buy “Halo” tournament, the venue relies on the same thing that traditional arcades do – community support.

“Gamers like to play, but sometimes they don’t think about what it takes to support a place like this. You need to have loyal people to keep the doors open, and even then we operate on a very small profit margin,” Seugafala said.

It’s possible to save up for a console, but players miss out on the social experience of competing with people in real life arcades. For proprietors like Friendly Fire, the benefit of having consoles as opposed to arcade cabinets is variation. A console like the Xbox 360 can switch from being a military shooter to a fighter with the press of an eject button and a swift disc change, but when it comes to arcade cabinets, most are constructed to play a single game.

Another spot in Anchorage focuses extensively on “old school” arcade games. Kato’s Cave, started in August 2011 in a small spot next to a Jewel Lake gas station, has the largest collection of arcade cabinets in Alaska; included is “Donkey Kong,” “Galaga,” “Pac-Man,” “Joust,” “Street Fighter,” as well as others.

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“We wanted to give back to the neighborhood, provide kids the opportunity to live out the kind of experience we had when we were young,” said Kato Smith, the owner of the business.

The ratio found between Friendly Fire and Kato’s Cave in terms of cost is directly proportional to the expense of the games themselves. While Friendly Fire might run a little higher in terms of per-hour enjoyment, their games are brand new titles, whereas Kato’s Cave offers old school games at equally old school prices, making the value into a ratio of what they present.

Some businesses define “arcade” differently.

“I hate to call them it, but some people’s ideas of arcades are ticket pushers. You buy tokens and then you get tickets to buy cheap toys with,” Smith said.

Facilities like this still exist as “arcades” in Anchorage. The Dimond Center in particular has seen turnover from video game arcades to prize venues. What was once a real arcade with stand up consoles for games like “Soul Calibur” or “Time Crisis” is now primarily a Chuck E. Cheese-like ticket mill, with only a handful of video games and a “Dance Dance Revolution” cabinet.

“You purchase tokens, get tickets, and use them to redeem prizes. Video games consume tokens, too,” said long-time employee Angel Rivera.

While still a fun place for kids, it’s definitely not the same kind of atmosphere offered at a retro arcade. No venue in Alaska succeeds at replicating the exact nature of a contemporary arcade, but the alternatives still offer something for those interested in the experience as a whole.