Blast From The Past

Video game arcades and a new pinball parlor recreate Cincinnati's gaming epoch

click to enlarge The Place, Retro Arcade
The Place, Retro Arcade


he halcyon days of walking into a pizza place, mall or convenience store to play a round of “Pac-Man,” “Donkey Kong” or “Frogger” on video game arcade cabinets supposedly ended decades ago, but all is not lost — arcades are making a big comeback nationwide, and Cincinnati’s in the midst of the boom.

Jesse Baker opened Arcade Legacy in the semi-abandoned Cincinnati Mills (now Forest Fair Village) in 2009. Baker had always loved arcade games, and after four years of planning and finding the right games, his dream to open his own arcade became a reality. And he thinks the current arcade renaissance has a lot to do with arcades becoming less nerdy and more acceptable. 

“It just wasn’t cool for a lot of people, but now everybody plays video games, so the market is much bigger,” Baker says. “People who played video games before are now teaching their kids that it’s not weird — it’s normal.”

Arcade Legacy proffers a wide range of 65 arcade games and pinball machines to play for a flat rate, but they also have signature console game systems like Atari, Nintendo, PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii U to play.

When Baker was growing up in Cincinnati, there were a few arcades he’d hang out at, including Forest Fair Mall’s Time Out on the Court. But when that and other arcades vanished, he wanted to do something about it. 

“I just loved going to play video games and still do,” Baker says. “I wanted to bring that back to Cincinnati and give a new generation of kids a chance to play arcade games. Most kids had never been to an arcade until my place opened.”

Millennials probably don’t recollect ever walking into a Chuck E. Cheese’s and seeing arcade games — the only relation they have to games like “Ms. Pac-Man” and “BurgerTime” are filtered through gaming on consoles and computers — but for older generations, they especially remember the joy it brought, which is why Cary Chaney opened The Place, Retro Arcade in Deer Park in June after amassing 20 of his own arcade games.

“That’s the whole reason I started collecting — arcades were an integral part of my childhood and I wanted to share that with my kids,” says Chaney, who runs the business with his wife Kim. 

Named after an actual arcade called The Place that was next door to his location, Chaney’s small arcade has a passel of the “classic” arcade games from the ’80s and ’90s, but he also recently acquired his “holy grail” game, “Crossbow,” an obscure shooting game. He spends all day scouring Craigslist and other Internet sources looking for people selling these games. 

“It’s like the thrill of hunt,” he says. “I find something I want. I hardly play these games, to be honest with you. I just love to have them.” 

So far the arcade has only been a weekend business — Chaney has a full-time day job — and on the weekends he brings he and Kim’s six young children to the arcade, where they’re mostly interested in playing games on PS4 and Xbox consoles, not the giant cabinet games. 

“This really isn’t anything to get rich off of, this is just a hobby,” Chaney says. “I just do this on the weekends because I enjoy it.” Since opening this summer, he’s noticed most of his clientele seems to be 35- to 45-year-olds coming in to play (some of whom come from hours away), not teenagers.  

Chaney is a Wikipedia of video game knowledge — ask him anything about his games and he’ll tell you things like how “Centipede” was the first video game developed by a woman. 

The Place and Arcade Legacy have a few pinball machines but their focus is more on arcade games. However, Porter’s Pinball Parlor in Over-the-Rhine is a pinball-only destination with about 10 machines. Unlike the arcades, which charge an hourly or daily rate, Porter’s only accepts quarters.

Pinball’s hot again — of course, it’s always been hot. Brian Porter, aka The Wizard, opened the storefront in November 2013 as a sanctuary for the game he loves the most (he doesn’t care much for video games). Porter’s stricken with aphasia, a condition caused from a stroke that damaged the part of the brain controlling language. The incident left him unable to speak well and immobilized his right arm and hand. His machines have two buttons on the left side so he can use only one hand to play games like “Terminator 2” and “Jurassic Park.” 

Porter’s space feels like the best kind of home for pinball: Chalkboards showcase high-scores and factoids on all the games; fliers hang on a board dedicated to buying, selling and renting pinball machines. The board also announces a monthly tournament, where gamers with the highest-ranked scores on a chosen game receive a cash prize. In the ilk of Chaney, Porter knows his games inside and out — literally. (He fixes them, too.) Porter hopes to have 25 games, all priced 25 cents to one dollar per play. Porter only operates his pinball palace Wednesday through Saturday, reserving the rest of his days to volunteer at the Cincinnati Museum Center and watch football. 

Cincinnati may seem rife with arcade gaming, but one thing the city is lacking in its blossoming arcade renaissance is a bar-cade, or a craft beer bar with cabinet video games. While several area bars like MOTR Pub in Over-the-Rhine and the Northside Tavern in Northside have classic pinball and arcade games — pinball machines, including “Metallica” and “Terminator 2,” at the former; arcade games, including “Ms. Pac-Man,” at the latter — there isn’t a bar dedicated to gaming. Columbus opened the successful 16-Bit Downtown this summer; Chicago has two bar-cades; Lexington, Louisville and Cleveland each have their own. The bar-cade trend started in New York City in 2004 with the aptly named Barcade and has since spread like wildfire across the nation, giving a shot of nostalgia to those who grew up with vintage video games and those who especially like to imbibe while taking down asteroids. 

Despite not having a bar-cade yet, video games and pinball are thriving locally for a new generation to discover and for an older generation who yearns to hold onto a relic from its past.  

“I want people to come in here and play “Q*bert,” and for just a second, it takes you back to that time,” Chaney says. “Everybody can almost associate a game with a time and a place. That’s worth a lot to people — just to make you feel young again.”

ARCADE LEGACY is located at 662 Cincinnati Mills Drive, Forest Park,, 513-874-8766. THE PLACE, RETRO ARCADE is located at 4069 E. Galbraith Road, Deer Park,, 513-745-0803. PORTER’S PINBALL PARLOR is located at 1334 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-2136.

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