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It's not often that circus folk performing death-defying stunts while dressed like fanciful Victorian aristocrats fail to draw attention, but at last week's opening-night party at FTW in River North all five senses were so overstimulated it was impossible to know where to look.
The hundreds of people who came Thursday night to check out the huge new arcade bar/entertainment center were tasked with splitting their attention between brightly colored arcade and carnival-style machines, roving servers distributing tiny tubs of poutine, and a DJ spinning 80s new-wave hits—and hey, that bartender looks like he's dressed like an extra from Mad Max! If that weren't enough there's also a 106-foot video screen behind the bar and a miniature golf course designed like a tourist's guide to downtown Chicago.
But it wasn't until I was heading to the ticket redemption store and spotted two mannequins dressed in sci-fi gear, standing next to a tub of rubber ducks that I got around to asking myself: What the hell is this place?
FTW (Internet gamer slang for "for the win") is something of a new experiment by the LA suburbs-based Lucky Strike Entertainment, which runs a mini-empire of 18 "boutique" bowling alleys throughout the country, including one at 322 E. Illinois, adjacent to FTW. The successful Lucky Strike formula is simple: take a shaggy working-class game like bowling and white collar it up by replacing shitty beer and the phantom smell of menthol cigarettes with fancy cocktails, elevated pub fare, and a dress code.
It makes sense that Lucky Strike would try to apply that same philosophy to the humble arcade bar.
In the last half decade, the potent combination of craft beer and classic arcade gaming that emerged in Brooklyn with the opening of Barcade in 2004 has become a hit, and copycats are popping up faster than Super Mario on star power. The north side's ever-growing roster of bar-arcade hybrids offer a laid back retro-feel—offering old-school pinball and locally brewed pale ales in equal measure.
But FTW only faintly resembles those places. Not as soulless as Dave & Buster's, but not as hipster-cool as Logan Arcade or Emporium, it's like a hulking Frankenstein's monster of arcade bar, upscale River North sports bar, an adult Chuck E. Cheese's, and a Vegas casino. Imagine a place where you can sip a $13 whiskey cocktail and snack on shrimp served from a dim-sum-style cart while shooting at virtual Darth Vader in a Star Wars: Battle Pod (so much for the proletariat appeal of the Rebel Alliance).
There are no quarter-munching Space Invaders or Kiss pinball machines to be found—nor are there quarters for that matter; you pay for everything with a swipe card that you load at a kiosk—and the game selection resembles Dave & Buster's. That means that there's a fairly even split between big, expensive games that are heavy on spectacle and gimmick and simplistic carnival fare like Pop-A-Shot basketball.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Nostalgia aside, Donkey Kong now feels like a Sisyphean exercise in frustration instead of a lighthearted pastime. It's way more fun to try FTW's new four-player dirt-track racing game Showdown, where you feel your car's seat jostle and slide beneath you as you smash into another vehicle demolition-derby style. Even better is Dark Escape, which bills itself as a "4D shooter." Two players climb into a booth and put on matching 3D visors while gunning down zombies. The extra "dimension" comes in the form of vibrating seats, a heart-rate monitor that measures your freak outs, and strategically placed wind machines that shoot compressed air at your face during jump scares (thankfully, the game doesn't try to simulate the smell the rotting flesh).
The food tends towards elevated pub grub. The menu has sloppy Joe sliders, portabella mushroom fries, and a fried green tomato BLT. You can get a variety of hoppy beers from area brewers like Two Brothers or 5 Rabbit, or custom cocktails that either sound like things characters from Sex in the City would order (Blueberry Smash, Cherry Blue) or Pirates of the Caribbean would order (Blood & Sand, the Deep Lady). Almost everything is tasty and pricey—although that's probably par for the course in River North.
Speaking of par, FTW's mini-golf course—City Golf 312— is fantastically designed, aesthetically at least. Each of the six holes turns familiar city landmarks into obstacles to putt over or around. Weave your ball around traffic on Lake Shore Drive or clang it off a pair of velvety red seats in the theater district, while spying a realistic replica of the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. I'm a decent mini-golfer, but wanted to throw my putter into the Chicago River after trying seven times to launch my ball to the top of a ramp in order to light up the Willis Tower.
The courses' function, in other words, doesn't quite live up to its form. But in the rest of FTW's confines, I got the opposite sense. I loved playing air hockey and driving around a virtual Batmobile, but couldn’t fathom the schizophrenic vibe of the joint. Why were gears, clocks, pipes, and other steampunky art prints stuck on the ceiling in one room and a street-art style mural plastered on the wall in another? Why is the DJ called a "chemist" when the title would better suit the bartender?
I certainly stayed entertained at FTW—it's tough not to in a place that treats boredom like an enemy that needs to be vanquished in a battle to the death. Afterward I was more than ready to kick back with some more relaxing activity—like, you know, going to a circus or something.
In February 2018, this article was updated to use the phrase ‘arcade bar’ in place of the word originally used.