What future can an arcade expect to have when the gaming systems under this year’s Christmas trees came packed with cinema-quality graphics splashed across huge flat screens rumbling with surround sound and Web connections that link players around the globe?
“The stand-alone video game is dead. Dead,” said Alan Kerns, owner of Arcade Amusements, better known as the Manitou Arcade.
Even so, Kerns forecasts a steady future for his arcade. One that is based primarily on the past.
The Manitou Arcade is a scattering of century-old buildings in the heart of Manitou Springs crammed with everything from Skee-Ball and other carnival-style games to an army of quarter kiddie rides to pool tables to pinball machines and classic arcade games. It is perhaps best known for its penny arcade — a room alive with antique games made of wood and metal and even cloth that blink and sing and can be played for as little as a penny.
Kerns’ father, Jack Kerns, was known as Bingo Jack around Manitou in the 1930s because he ran a for-profit bingo parlor out of what is now an arcade building. Slowly, as bingo became restricted by laws, he shifted into coin-fed amusements, such as pinball machines. “I grew up playing a lot of these games,” said Kerns, now 60.
He started working for his father at age 6, and saw the rise of pinball in the 1950s and primitive electronic games creep onto the scene in the 1960s.
He saw the first video games — classics like Asteroids — of the 1970s grow into the golden age of video arcade culture in the 1980s, when his family’s arcade rang with the theme music of Pac-Man and Frogger. Things quieted in the 1990s as home video game systems became more sophisticated, and looked like they might fizzle in the past decade as home gaming systems exceeded the arcade machines’ graphics, sound and connectivity.
No one now seeks out the Manitou Arcade for the latest games.
“Video games lose money for me now. I used to make sure I had the latest and best. Now I almost never buy them, they just sit there. If I had to rely on teenagers playing video games I’d be out of business,” Kerns said.
But that doesn’t mean the arcade is in danger of closing.
Families are the main customers — multiple generations who try their hand at multiple generations of games. In the summer, particularly, the arcade hums with people feeding pennies, nickels and quarters into vintage mechanical fortune tellers, well-worn Skee-Ball lanes and pinball machines. The young ones love the kiddie rides, some dating back half a century.
And everyone seems to gravitate toward the vintage penny arcade, where games from another era still beep and bling.
Kerns makes no secret that he would like to retire, but he long ago steered his grown children away from working at the arcade. Anyone with the money to buy the buildings would likely also choose to turn the property into condos, boutiques or anything else more lucrative than quarters and dimes.
So what will the future hold?
Kern shrugs, smiles, then says, “You tell me.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Colorado Springs Gazette in 2010.
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