All-Ages Arcades Back From Dead In NWA, Better Than Ever

Arkadia 3By Daniel McFaden

Two kids and one grown man occupy a bright orange couch at the back of the room playing Nintendo 64 and Super Nintendo respectively. Three girls, no older than 6, cram into the cockpit of “Pole Position II” while a college student plays Battleship with her little brother by the front windows.

Welcome to a Saturday afternoon at Arkadia Retrocade.

This is just a sampling of what has become a common scene at the arcade that opened in October at 1478 N. College Ave. in the Evelyn Hills Shopping Center.

The Saturday afternoon energy is created by the simple business plan of the arcade’s bespectacled first-time business owner Shea Mathis, a former hotel manager and native of Fayetteville.

“If I’m going to own my own business, I’m going to have fun doing it,” Mathis said. “It’s the kind of thing you talk about with your friends ever since you were little, ‘how cool would it be to own a comic book store or own an arcade or run a little movie theater?’ ”

Thanks to Mathis, a child of the ’80s can rediscover childhood favorites or introduce their own children to them for $5 a person with no game requiring the use of a limited supply of quarters. After paying, gamers can leave and return at their own leisure all day.

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Owner of Arkadia Retrocade Shea Mathis

“Evidently people didn’t know there was a demand until it appeared. There hasn’t been a legitimate arcade, at least not in this area, for a good dozen years,” Mathis said. “Arcades are coming back, and they have been for several years. It’s mainly in bigger cities.”

Mathis notes “Pinballz” in Austin, Texas, “The 1Up” in Denver, Colo., and “Ground Kontrol” in Portland, Ore., as examples of rejuvenation in the world of arcades. The only problem is many arcades today double as bars, or “barcades.”

“These guys are getting games out there, it just leaves the kids out of it and that was one of our biggest points — to recreate an old, traditional ’80s arcade,” Mathis said.

Much of what Mathis set out to accomplish with Arkadia was done simply by opening it, which he described as “an absolute, old-school barn raising” with help from family, friends and the community.

Mathis and his friends have recreated the “vibe” of an arcade through more than games. Scattered around the arcade are artifacts from 30 years ago. Among them are a book about the TV show “MASH” and an old teen-zine with Erik Estrada of “CHiPs” fame on the cover. On this particular Saturday, a DVD of the classic ’80s action series “McGyver” is playing on the television above the snack bar.

Arkadia 1The Arcadia’s collection of arcade games, which began with 55, has now grown to roughly 80, including “Pac Man,” “Robocop,” and “Streetfighter II.” The game “Tron,” one of Mathis’ favorites and a “crown jewel” of the arcade, was brought in after his brother made a last ditch drive to St. Louis to save it from being scrapped for parts.

“It’s a quintessential arcade game and in my opinion the pinnacle of 1980s’ game design,” Mathis said.

Arkadia’s rich gaming history is evident from the moment you walk in the door. One of the first games you see is “Space Invaders.” The game was new in 1978 and is the oldest working cabinet in the arcade, though Mathis said they are fixing up a game from 1976.

Since the majority of the games found at Arkadia are at least 30 years old, someone has to keep the aging “cabinets” up and running. That is a job gladly taken on by Mathis’ long-time friend Jeremy Bright, who considers the technique of fixing arcade games an art form.

“You could fit every game in here on your phone. There’s not that much memory,” said Bright, who traces his video game nerdom back to playing an “inordinate” amount of time on “Victory Road” and “Gyruss” at “Skate Place” in Fayetteville.

“The circuit work in them is amazing,” Bright said. “The circuitry hasn’t really changed since the ’70s. Everything has gotten smaller and more compact.”

While there are still games Mathis would like to add to Arkadia’s collection, he and his friends care more about what the cabinets, Nintendos and Ataris mean to those who played them when they were new 30 years ago and today.

“It’s the social setting and the experience of recreating the freedom and pleasure of just hanging out,” Mathis said, “playing video games and letting the rest of the world stay at the door.”

Categories: Family Friendly