For those who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, video game arcades were where kids and teenagers glimpsed the technology of the future. They were also a bottomless money pit for all but the most obsessively skilled gamers and a source of moral panics for older generations.
These days only a handful of genuine arcades still exist—the onetime kings of electronic media now mostly relegated to their tombs. PC Magazine ran an eerie photo montage of abandoned and disused arcade cabinets that seems to hearken to the apocalypse. And the Verge declared “the defining feature of a real arcade is that there aren’t any left,” and even among modern arcade enthusiasts “everyone seems to agree the arcade is dead.”
But San Francisco and other major cities have had an arcade renaissance. Ars Technica explains that there’s “a whole generation of Western game players [...] looking to capture something that’s missing from much of modern gaming.”
Modern arcades are mostly hybrid facilities that offer food, drinks, music, and event promotion alongside vintage video-game cabinets. Here and there you’ll also find longtime business that installed games decades ago as a side hustle and never removed them.
If you want to know where to get a game on beside the new Wreck-It Ralph sequel, consider dropping your quarters here.
The prototypical modern arcade game experience, Brewcade leans on its customers’ predilection for both drinks and nostalgia. The site’s ad copy spells it out obliquely: “There’s something about being an adult and playing video games that’s even better than when you did it as a kid.” For example, a 60-ounce pitcher of Anchor Steam.
Presently, Brewcade has about 20 vintage cabinets on tap, ranging from Moonwalker to Time Crisis 2 to the classic Whac-a-Mole routine. But the special “multicade” cabinets are modified to host multiple titles, verging on roughly 200 more.
The Emporium is probably what kids of the ’80s imagined arcades of the 21st century would look like, as the industrial cool design and glowing black lights appear to have honed a latter-day idea of an impending future.
Diversity is important for keeping quarters pumping and drinks pouring these days, so most of the roomy Emporium space is taken up with pool tables, a bar, lounge spaces, and a titanic TV that’s only sometimes used for gaming.
The facility also hosts dozens of pinball machines and arcade cabinets. The fare ranges from deep nostalgia ’80s titles like Dig-Dug and Q*bert to compulsively playable Capcom ’90s beats-‘em-up games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Simpsons. The X-Men cabinet here is even the deluxe six-player version.
508 Fourth Street
On the other hand, SoMa’s Coin-Op works as hard as possible to push a profoundly vintage vibe, right down to the defunct televisions mounted on the bar. Best of all, the arcade pushes a more relaxed and intimidation-free vibe than the pulsing intensity of a place like Emporium.
Although Coin-Op emblazons the phrase “focus on the classics” on its site—it does feature antiques like Donkey Kong, Frogger, and even a Tetris machine—more recent fare like Dance Dance Revolution and Fast and Furious Drift have snuck into the lineup to help dilute the old-school atmosphere a bit.
The bar menu does boast some undiluted yesteryear Americana, though—corn dogs and Frito pies included. There’s also fare like quinoa-tots on offer, because after all this is still San Francisco.
The New Mission Alamo Drafthouse acts as a de facto pop-culture museum, preserving some of its original early 20th century movie palace decor and enshrining the remaining stock from Paradise Lost, one of San Francisco’s last great video rental stores.
It also stocks a handful of retro arcade cabinets ready for your coinage.
Coen brothers fans take note: A pinball machine based on The Big Lebowski, which adapts that movie’s hallucinatory erotic dream music video sequence, is located on the second floor. The machine is so popular that when it once went out of service, a Reddit thread was created to keep fans abreast of its prognosis.
Try to follow along: Free Gold Watch is a screen printing outfit, but the principle attraction here seems to be that the space is stocked with dozens upon dozens of pinball machines, ranging from the new Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast to a comparably venerable Hot Line table from 1966.
Starcade at Century Theaters
Westfield Mall, 865 Market
Once, multiplex movie theaters stocked extensive arcade collections, all the better to lure adolescent moviegoers into dropping more cash after hitting up the concession stand.
Now most theaters have long since done away with their arcades in favor of more lucrative foodie-based uses for the space, which makes the Westfield holdout an intriguing artifact.
In this bolthole sized room, we see the lengths gone to by late arcade game manufacturers to create large and elaborate experiences with special equipment difficult to reproduce on home consoles, including the surprisingly popular and profitable Terminator: Salvation shooter from 2010, which remains the only thing notable about the franchise’s most dreadful installment.