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Looking For Analog: Old Button-Mashing Arcades Come Back For A New Generation

Galloping Ghost, one of the largest video-game arcades in the world, sits in an unassuming, single story brick building in Brookfield, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, that seems to go on forever, each corner bursting with beeping, blinking and flashing arcade cabinets.

Owner Doc Mack says they have more than 600 games. He says he didn't set out have quite that many.

"I have a huge collecting problem that I've had since childhood so I should have seen it coming, but who knew?" Mack asks rhetorically.

Galloping Ghost is part of a resurgence of old-fashioned, button mashing arcade games. Industry-watchers say the number of arcades in the U.S. has been growing over the past five years, and that's creating demand for new, but old-fashioned games.

"The reason why people come to an arcade, there's a different social element than just playing it at home," Mack says.

He says on weekends, the arcade gets hundreds of customers, who come in from all over the country to play.

On a recent sunny Saturday, the place started filling up as soon as the doors opened at 11.

James White, a hardcore player with high scores listed on laminated sheets taped to the top of several games, says he grew up with most of the games he now comes to play.

"It brings like a blast from the past," White says.

Nearby is Erica Deitzel, who traveled from Milwaukee with her young sons for a birthday party. For Deitzel the draw is also clear cut — nostalgia.

"I remember playing PAC-MAN and Space Invaders when they first came out. Me and my sisters would play for hours, we'd bring rolls of quarters," she says.

Rebecca Lastovich, 17, is a regular at Galloping Ghost.

"I know I didn't grow up with arcades, but ... I enjoy talking with my dad about it and it's just something we bonded over."

That demand, analysts say, is being driven largely by younger people, like Lastovich.

"You're definitely seeing some Gen-Xers going for the nostalgia portion but that's not the driver of the business," says Bob Cooney, a consultant for what's called the "location-based entertainment industry."

"The driver of the business is the market that's going back into vinyl, and looking for more analog experiences."

Several indie-developers are creating new, but old-fashioned arcade games for this new market.

Earlier this year, Mack unveiled a demo of his own fighting game called Dark Presence, at the Midwest Gaming Classic in suburban Milwaukee.

Dark Presence is a 2-D, two-person fighter game, like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter, with new-age flourishes — a built-in GPS makes it so the weather on the screen matches the weather where the game is being played.

There were some technical glitches, but the Dark Presence demo was well received.

Payton Robbins, 29, was one of the first in line to play.

"It's really impressive considering that there's really nothing like this being produced anymore," says Robbins. "It's like a relic from the past, but it still looks really incredible."

Upstairs at the convention, in a room lit almost exclusively by the flashing lights of arcade games, the makers of another indie-game stood around a demo of their creation, called Skycurser.

Christopher Cruz, who did all the artwork for the game, describes Skycurser as "a horizontally scrolling shoot 'em up."

Cruz says the Indianapolis-based company is accepting pre-orders right now, and they've been getting a lot of them.

"The time's right because there's a lot of new demand and I don't think anyone is really fulfilling that demand right now," he says.

In some ways, Cruz and his partners may have done too good of a job mirroring the classic games of the past.

They say often at events like this one, they get older people wondering how they missed Skycurser in their local arcade when they were growing up.

Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow him @pksmid.

This story originally aired on NPR's All Things Considered on September 18, 2017.

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