In 2004, the first arcade-themed bar, Barcade, opened in New York City, combining alcohol with cabinet video games of yore. The concept of selling nostalgia spread like wildfire, and soon practically every major city had one — Chicago alone has several. In 2013, Ohio got its first “barcade,” 16-Bit in Columbus. Finally, Buckeyes could play Pac-Man and guzzle ’80s-themed drinks while reliving their wardrobe-challenged youths.
Last summer, 16-Bit opened an outpost in Cleveland and finally (finally!) Cincinnatians got theirs last month, when 16-Bit opened inside Mercer Commons on Walnut Street, a residential area sequestered and a bit off-the-beaten-path from the rest of Over-the-Rhine.
Clocking in at more than 4,000 square-feet, the OTR location is the biggest 16-Bit yet, with a sprawling layout featuring a centralized U-shaped bar and games. Because it’s basically a bar with video games, you must be 21 to enter, and if you drink, you play for free. But once a month they host “Shorty Day,” where for a few hours during an afternoon, kids are allowed in to play games and stare at a pixilated portrait of Kelly LeBrock and wonder who the hell she is (she’s the hot chick in Weird Science).
For thirtysomethings who might remember a time when you could walk into Pizza Hut, the mall and ShowBiz (before it became Chuck E. Cheese) to try to beat the high score on an assortment of video games, 16-Bit is a shot of much-needed nostalgia. It allows you to wallow in the ’80s and ‘90s for a spell, integrating old technology with the new — flat-screen TVs show old-school cartoons and movies in hi-def, and there’s a corner where you can sit in front of a flat screen and play Nintendo, Atari, Sega and other obsolete platforms. About 50 different games stand on the hardwood floors, but because these games are all originals, they break easily. On any given visit there’s probably going to be at least a couple of unusable games with the sign, “F*ck, we’re as bummed as you are” taped to the screen.
If you’re more serious about gaming than drinking, don’t come here on a weekend night, because you’ll have to wait a long time to play anything. Afternoons are usually less crowded, although the two times I’ve been here, my favorite game, BurgerTime, has been occupied. Pretty much every genre of gaming is represented: fighting (Mortal Kombat, Punch-Out!!), shooting (Duck Hunt, Area 51: Site 4), classics (Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and its sequels), sci-fi (Centipede, Asteroids Deluxe, Galaga, Defender), driving (Out Run, Spy Hunter, Final Lap 3) and destruction (Rampage). Besides video games, they have a few pinball machines, including Monopoly and AC/DC, but it’s not a part of the free play — it costs 50 cents per game.
Instead of playing the games you know, venture into more obscure and innovative games like Crystal Castles (not the band), which uses a trackball. Battlezone has a periscope-like viewer, Gyruss allows you to view the action in 360 degrees, and a rare Budweiser-branded Tapper (later versions were renamed Root Beer Tapper) involves serving beer to irate customers.
Arcade games are aesthetically pleasing, and so is the rest of 16-Bit’s design. Visages of Michael Jackson, LeBrock, Han Solo, Spock and Hulk Hogan grace the wall in back, but if you look closely you’ll discover the images are made out of tiny, square pictures of things like Tab, Kirk Cameron, Miami Vice, Howard the Duck, My Little Pony, Eddie Murphy, Cabbage Patch Kids and Ferris Bueller. It’s rather stunning, and it probably took a long time to generate each one.
Also etched on a wall is the saying “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass ... and I’m all out of bubblegum,” which is a quote from the 1988 John Carpenter film They Live (great movie; see it).
Now that you know what to play, here’s what to drink. If you buy any kind of booze, you automatically get free play — but it doesn’t seem to be strictly monitored. The bar has at least 20 types of rotating drafts — no food, though — with an emphasis on local and regional beers ($2 off all drafts during happy hour). You can get beer everywhere, but you can’t get a Molly Ringwald (cucumber vodka and grapefruit syrup) or a Kevin Bacon (bourbon and bacon, naturally) at just any bar. Their New Wave cocktails are mixed with the right amount of nostalgia: The Gloria Estefan has Squirt in it, and the 25-ounce Game Over is an apt name for a drink containing eight different liquors and Hawaiian Punch.
To keep the memories going on a daily basis, attend one of their weekly events. They screen a retro movie every week on Wayback Wednesday, and Thursday entails all things Beastie Boys. It might not the ’80s or the ’90s anymore, but 16-Bit makes those decades feel new again.
16-Bit Bar + Arcade
Go: 1331 Walnut St., Over-the-Rhine
Hours: 4 p.m.-2:30 a.m. Monday-Friday; noon-2:30 a.m. Saturday-Sunday.