Drinking games

Bar/arcades make social gaming cool again

Pinball wizards drink and play at 1up in Reno.

Pinball wizards drink and play at 1up in Reno.

Photos by Allison Young

1up is at 214 Commercial Row. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/1upBarReno.

Video game culture is in transition—on one hand, it's the best time to be a gamer, with some of the world's most innovative technology introduced first through the gaming industry. On the other hand, gaming in public has become a thing of the past, now that arcades and computer cafes have been upstaged by affordable and mobile, technology.

For some, this means that the golden era of video games has long since passed. Arcade gaming crested in the mid-to-late ’90s, when the popularity of video game consoles meant that gamers could play in their own homes instead of spending money elsewhere.

“Arcades created video games, but as people got console games, that concept of inserting coins for lives didn’t really make sense anymore,” says Andrew Freeman, a Reno native currently studying video game design in Arizona. His expertise is in arcade games, and he cites cooperative games like Metal Slug and Gauntlet Legends as his favorites. “That whole concept wasn’t really relevant anymore when home entertainment systems happened. There’s a reason people don’t play coin-op anymore. That concept is kind of obsolete now.”

But those who were nostalgic for arcade games, and who also wanted to socialize and drink with friends, found an opportunity to create an outlet for the gamers who no longer had a place to play collaboratively. From this came the concept of the “bar/arcade,” which is exactly what it sounds like—a bar and an arcade. Popular bar/arcades such as Insert Coin(s) in Las Vegas and EXP Restaurant + Bar in Vancouver show that bar/arcades could be a successful business model when marketed to the right audience. Some arcades, like Shorty’s in Seattle, made the transition into restaurants and clubs early on to ensure relevancy in their communities.

Bar/arcades have been acknowledged, and embraced, by the gaming industry as a way to preserve an important part of the medium’s history. Nearly every major city in the country has its own version of a bar/arcade. It’s a way to draw in a nightclub crowd alongside the geeks, who can find common ground with the activities offered in one place. And of course, good food, music and booze helps.

“I think that this can be a way to get people back to arcades again,” Freeman says. “There was a time that arcades were relevant, then they became not relevant, and now they’re relevant again. I think people were feeling isolated in their homes.”

Retro gaming isn’t dead. It just needed a reboot.

Plugged in

At night, Reno’s bar/arcade 1up emits a warm glow onto 214 Commercial Row from the lit-up arcade games and pinball machines lining the walls of the bar. The club is also usually populated with people dancing and drinking, depending on the event or drink special. Sometimes people are in costume, during Burning Man or the Super Hero Crawl. Sometimes people are there for video game tournaments or laser light shows.

The term “1up” means to “get a life,” taken from the 1985 game Super Mario Bros when Mario gains an extra life. It also refers to a player’s score when two people are competing.

1up inhabits the space that used to be Red Martini and later, Wurk, before owners Ray Salaho and Freddy Mehanna, decided to change things up. Inspired by the success of Insert Coin(s), they decided to bring that dynamic to Reno. 1up held a one-year anniversary party on Aug. 24 to celebrate the year since opening last August.

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“We were just sitting here one day, and looked around and thought we needed to set a new crowd,” says Jason Brown, a gamer himself and the supervisor at 1up. “So far, the community response has been pretty good. People call us and ask us if we have certain games.”

The game selection is fairly diverse, featuring standard fare like pinball machines and an air hockey table—“always the most popular game,” says Brown—but also notable choices like the classic fighting franchise Mortal Kombat, first-person shooter Time Crisis, Miss Pac-Man (often hailed as the best Pac-Man game), racers Cruis’n and Hydro Thunder, shoot ’em up Centipede, and maze puzzle Rally-X. The consoles, some of which are around 30 years old, are rented from local companies Tru-Tronics and Starcade Amusement, who also maintain the machines. The club also has classic and modern video game consoles, such as a Nintendo 64 and a PlayStation 3, that are used for tournaments.

Gaming comes through in other elements of the bar, including a large-scale original Nintendo controller perched above some tables and chairs, Tetris patterns stenciled onto the walls, and a Pac-Man shaped bar in the center of the room.

Despite the décor, the bar’s events aren’t always gaming-themed, but they try to incorporate gaming whenever possible.

“Sometimes we have themed drinks with game names, or we’ll rename a shot like the Yoshi or Green Lantern,” Brown says.

It’s also the one adult-only arcade in the city. According to Classic Arcade Game Locations, a website that tracks arcades nationally, there are 10 local establishments with original arcade machines, many of which are in casinos but are open to people under 21.

Some criticisms of local arcades on Yelp and Reddit have noted that arcades tend to attract more men than women. But Freeman thinks that the nightclub element of bar/arcades diversifies that population. 1up’s events tend to draw a mix.

“Nowadays women make up about half of the demographic of gamers, so it’s definitely not how it used to be,” he says. “I don’t think a lot of women are nostalgic for those games just because it hasn’t always been a welcoming environment for them. That’s not to say that there haven’t been arcade gamers who are also women, but honestly, women tend to gravitate toward games with better story and graphics. … It’s also kind of a hipster thing now for younger gamers to be into those kinds of retro games, so the dynamic is totally different than how it was when I was a kid.”

Friendly competition

Carlee Rowe, a Truckee Meadows Community College student passionate about arcade games, is pleased that Reno has a place where adults can socialize and also geek out together. She’s been to 1up several times during special events like the Super Hero crawl, and she’s currently bidding on a vintage Donkey Kong machine on eBay.

“Arcade games are familiar to people in their 30s,” she says. “I grew up going to my local arcade with my brother when we were kids, and it’s what really got me into gaming. I made so many friends that way.”

She also thinks that bar/arcades can help dispel negative notions about gamers.

“There’s kind of that stereotype that gamers are antisocial, but it actually started off as a collaborative activity,” she says. “Arcades are proof of that.”

Freeman agrees. “It’s nice to have a place where adults can go to play games without a bunch of kids around,” he says. “The people who are nostalgic for those things can relive childhood memories, but it’s a hobby that is best enjoyed with peers.”