"The largest video arcade in the USA," boasted the website. "We've got to make it over there," I told Deputy Editor Nate Anderson over IM one morning. Galloping Ghost, an arcade located in the western suburbs of Chicago, was said to house well over 400 vintage games. The combination of proximity and the desire to while away an afternoon in a warm, nostalgic gaming haze eventually overpowered our excuses not to go, so we made the trip.
As someone who came of age in the 1980s, games such as Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Defender, and Crazy Climber have a special place in my heart. Too many Saturdays, I would hop on my bike, ride to the Aurora Mall, and exchange my paper route earnings for tokens at the arcade there. I spent many an afternoon blasting aliens, gobbling glowing dots, leaping over barrels, and dodging bird poop and potted plants while climbing skyscrapers. As the console games of the time felt like graphically inferior knockoffs of my arcade favorites, my video-gaming attention was focused first and foremost on the arcades.
The mid- and late-'80s saw a decline in arcades, and despite some intermittent surges in popularity, they've never recaptured the glory years that I remember from high school. Gaming these days mostly happens on a console at home, on a smartphone or tablet, or at food-and-gaming behemoths like Dave & Busters. Though shrunken in numbers, arcades like those of my youth still live on in scattered locations.
Galloping Ghost, located in Brookfield, Illinois, about a 25-minute (best case) drive from downtown Chicago, is one such place. $15 gets you all of the gaming you can stand until closing time at 2am—no quarters needed. And hold onto your receipt, as it will get you back in should you choose to head across the street to Tony's Breakfast Cafe (now open 24 hours) for some nourishment.
Galloping Ghost resides in an unassuming brick building on a commercial section of busy Ogden Avenue not far from the Brookfield Zoo. Upon entering, my senses were assaulted by the beeping and blooping of hundreds of cabinets. I noticed the large fans circulating air heated by a couple hundred vintage consoles. "What's the heating bill like in the winter?" I later asked owner "Doc" Mack. "Cheap," he replied.
The wall behind the front counter is populated by pixel-art characters from popular video games. A small fridge offers up carbonated beverages and sports drinks. Under the counter are candy bars. And as I scanned the dimly lit interior, I saw little more than wall-to-wall consoles resting on well-worn gray carpeting. Stools and chairs are scattered around the aisles in case you want to take a load off while getting your game on. Many of the consoles have placards perched on top with record high scores, both worldwide and for Galloping Ghost.
Walking up and down the aisles, I examined the consoles. Some of them looked the worse for wear, with chipping or fading paint and burned-in monitors. Others resided in generic-looking cabinets, or their appearance didn't square with my memory of how the consoles looked; Mack later explained that they often cannibalized parts and cabinets to keep the games alive. Some cabinets housed two titles, like Pac-Man Jr. and Super Pac-Man. And alongside smash-hits like Galaga were less-popular sequels like Galaga 88 and Galaga 3; for every Centipede, there was a Millipede. It was beautiful.
Arcades and barcades
Independent, rather than franchised, arcades have had a bit of a resurgence in recent years, driven by the realization that "beer + videogames + nostalgia" can be a winning combination. "Barcades," as they are called, have sprung up all over the country. One barcade, the Emporium, played host to the Ars crew last fall. Its excellent beer list and solid game collection made it a great place to unwind after two days of meetings.
But you won't find beer at Galloping Ghost. "There's too little focus on the arcade" at barcades, Mack told Deputy Editor Nate Anderson and me during a recent visit. "When you inject alcohol into it, it muddies it up a little bit." That's why you can't buy anything stronger than a Mountain Dew there. But as I looked over row upon row of cabinets, I knew I wouldn't mind.
The games are loosely grouped by genre. There's a room full of fighting games, including more versions of Mortal Kombat than I knew existed. The back row of the arcade consists of shooting simulators, and one of the middle rows was apparently the early-'80s nostalgia section. It was there that I found the cabinets I spent much of high school pumping quarters and tokens into: Gorf, Ms. Pac-Man, Tempest, Donkey Kong, Missile Command, Bump and Jump, Frogger, Zaxxon… the list goes on. "People come through the door [and] you can tell it's their first time," Mack told me as I marveled at the selection. "It's an old friend you haven't seen for 20 years."
Nate and I spent some time getting reacquainted with some of our old friends. I quickly found that, while my Q-bert skills were rusty, I still remembered the patterns I had memorized for Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac-Man (although my reflexes weren't as quick as they were 30 years ago). An epic 1942 battle with Nate ended in victory for me.
I drifted from cabinet to cabinet, not having to worry about digging through my pockets for another quarter or visiting a change machine for more tokens. Not having to pay for each game had one unanticipated side-effect: walking away from a game in progress. My first shot at Donkey Kong Junior resulted in two deaths on the first screen, so I cut my losses and moved on to Defender sequel Stargate.
Most of the games were in excellent shape, but there were a couple in need of some TLC. Sometimes the joystick didn't work all that well, a button needed to be mashed really hard, or a trackball wouldn't spin very smoothly. And some of the games on the floor were powered down. Given the sheer abundance of old titles, the disappointment of finding a game in less-than-perfect working order was always tempered by the joy of spotting another long-lost friend.
This old cabinet
Getting the arcade open was a challenge on a couple of levels for Mack. First up was finding a location. "We went to other places and other towns," Mack explained. "They said 'you're going to have kids hanging out there.' And there were problems back in the '80s." It's also a big time commitment. Although he has a small handful of staff, he's there almost every day of the week.
Brookfield, where Galloping Ghost is located, has a limit of only six coin-operated machines per building. In winning approval for the arcade from the city, Mack stressed the educational aspect of Galloping Ghost. "We teach people how to wire their machines… If somebody brings something in, instead of us just fixing it for them, we show them and let them fix it." Those classes have paid off, not just for folks who have a cabinet or two in the basement, but for owners of other area arcades who have attended weekend repair clinics.
Toward the back of the arcade is a repair room littered with old boards and CRTs. What do you do when a CRT dies, I asked Mack. "There's a TV repair shop down the street we use," was the reply.
Cabinets can also be pilfered for parts. For instance, the monitor for Galaga 3 started its life inside a Ms. Pac-Man cabinet, judging by the burned-in image of the first-level maze. And sometimes getting games running can be a real pain—or really expensive. Take King of Fighters XIII: "when this came out, there was nobody in the US who had it," said Mack. "The board by itself is $8,000, so I spent the $8,000 to get it… imported it from Japan."
"About 14 months later, the home console [version] came out," he continued. "They added two new characters, so nobody wanted to play the arcade version anymore and we were left with an $8,000 door stop."
So he dropped a PlayStation 3 into the cabinet so gamers could have the most current experience. But gamers can be fickle. "It's not as popular in the competitive scene… I'm actually swapping it back to the original arcade hardware," Mack said. "It's nice to have more characters, but it's about being the true arcade experience." King of Fighters XIII was also one of the few machines in the arcade with an LCD instead of CRT.
Having spare parts and extra cabinets allows Galloping Ghost to give some games special treatment, as well. "[One version of] Mortal Kombat didn't get an arcade release," Mack said. "So we did a full custom cabinet and side art. We really made it look like an actual cabinet release [and] held tournaments on it."
Developer NetherRealm heard about Galloping Ghost's custom Mortal Kombat cabinet and commissioned Mack to build one for Injustice: Gods Among Us. "We made one for here and one for their office," Mack said.
With all of the rare and obscure titles at Galloping Ghost, I wondered if there were games Mack wanted but couldn't find. "It's all out there," he replied. "There's always stuff I'm looking for, and sometimes I'll come across it, but I don't want to spend that much money." His patience usually pays off, however: Nemesis took 14 months to track down and buy.
A new fighter
Galloping Ghost currently has two different locations in the same building: the arcade and Galloping Ghost Studio. In between is a catering business that Mack would love to take over so he could have the entire building to himself. To that end, he has—you guessed it—a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to buy out the caterer and expand into the space. Included in the expansion plan is a dedicated pinball room, gaming lounges for PC and console gaming, and even the "Ghost Luxury Hostel" for visiting gamers.
To reach the studio, we had to walk down Ogden Avenue to another entrance. As Mack fished the keys out of his pockets, I peered through the window at even more classic games, including Xevious, Scramble, and Crazy Climber. As we walked into the studio, the first thing I noticed was a massive cabinet for a game called Dark Presence. A closer look revealed that it was manufactured by Galloping Ghost Productions. That's right—Mack is building his own fighting game.
"We had originally approached the actors from Mortal Kombat to be in it," Mack explained. "But it was way too much of a time commitment for them." Having studied martial arts for 30 years, Mack did all the choreography for Dark Presence. "The actor had to do the moves, and that footage ended up being the sprites for the game. They all had to do it in costume."
Almost all of the production is done in-house, including 3D rendering. "We're trying to create a unique game," Mac said. "We didn't want to rip Mortal Kombat off. We didn't want to rip Street Fighter off. It's more based on real fighting than those other games."
Mack walked us around the studio, including a back room with about a dozen pinball tables and a closet full of boards, carts, and CRTs. In another room, I spied Crazy Climber. Mack fired it up for me and patiently watched as I reacquainted myself with the game's odd control mechanic well enough to make it to the third skyscraper.
Wandering the aisles of Galloping Ghost was fun. Hearing Berzerk say "stop the humanoid, stop the intruder" upon completing a level and having Gorf taunt me with "bite the dust, Space Colonel" 30-plus years after the last time I encountered one of those cabinets in an arcade almost made the trip worthwhile by itself. After four hours spent in the 1980s, I emerged blinking into the sunshine of 2014. Gaming has come a long way from the arcade's heyday, with immersive stories and rich graphical experiences reaching heights undreamed of when I was a teenager in suburban Denver. But sometimes it's good to revisit the past, when game mechanics were simpler and plots nearly nonexistent, if only to marvel at how far we've come.