While working on my end-of-2016 post earlier this week I realized I had not visited Arkadia Retrocade this year. This injustice will not stand, I said to myself. Wednesday morning, I hopped in my car and made the four-hour drive to Fayetteville, Arkansas.
I’ve written and podcasted about the place before (and even sold them some of my arcade cabinets), but in case you missed it, Arkadia Retrocade is a retro-style arcade where customers pay a fee to enter, and all games are free to play. They aren’t the only arcade operating with this business model, but they’re the last one I know of that only charges $5 for admission. Literally, for less than a Taco Bell lunch combo, you can walk into Arkadia and play on their 100 arcade games for 8 straight hours. The only thing you can get from Taco Bell for $5 that lasts 8 hours is indigestion.
Some people do not understand the allure of visiting and hanging out in retro arcades, especially one that’s a four-hour drive away from home. On the surface, it’s difficult to explain. On the surface it’s a place full of old arcade games, mostly from the 1980s. If it’s the games you’re interested in, you can install RetroPie on a $35 Raspberry Pi and play every single game Arkadia owns in the comfort of your own home for free. But what’s funny is, each time I go I play fewer games, to the point where it’s not about the games at all. But if it’s not the games, what is the draw? It’s easy to say nostalgia, until you realize many of the arcade’s regulars weren’t even alive when these games were created. Pac-Man is 10-15 years older than most of the employees.
After roaming the arcade for a couple of hours on Wednesday and returning after dinner, I took a seat at the arcade’s bar — the snack bar, that is. There, Arkadia regular and Retroist alum Vic Sage served me a Coke in a glass bottle. Over the next few hours, Vic and I chatted about everything from old toys and games to the state of the arcade. Luca and Rhi joined in on a discussion about Rogue One. Tomas, a kid I hadn’t met before, was asked if he could handle one of the arcade’s New Years Eve traditions. Andy Pickle and I shot the breeze. Later in the evening, John Monkus showed me some of the machines he’s been working on. All the while, arcade customers came and went, buying candy bars and cans of soda at the bar for less than what you would pay at the average vending machine.
I promised my wife that no matter how good of a time I was having, I would leave Arkadia by 8pm so that I would be home by midnight. I pulled out of the parking lot at 10:30pm.
Four hours on the road gives a guy lots of time to think. I can’t help but compare Arkadia to movies like The Breakfast Club and Empire Records, coming of age movies where groups of young people come together and bond despite their differences. There’s no one person at Arkadia with all the answers; everybody helps out whoever they can, however they can, whenever they can. It’s the kind of kinship you can’t buy. In the middle of it all is owner Shea Mathis, a whirling dervish of energy who is always either coming or going. If the guy’s not standing in front of you with a smile, he either just left, or is about to show up. It is Shea who built the stage for this wacky video game dream, but all the actors play an important part.
I’ve driven all over the country visiting retro arcades. I even built an arcade in my own backyard. I’ve been chasing something for a long time, and it wasn’t until Wednesday night that I finally figured out what it is I’ve been chasing. It hasn’t been about the games for a long time. Arkadia Retrocade has it figured out.