Once the refuge of the nerd, the otherworld of video games is now accessible to nearly everyone. An untold number of hours are spent gaming on home computers, on cell phones during el rides, and, increasingly around these parts, at bars stocked with classic arcade cabinets. We called a couple of authorities from the indie gaming realm to help us assess two of Chicago's arcade bars.
Long before 25-year-old Philip Tibitoski cofounded the indie gaming startup Young Horses Inc., his father planted the seed of his programming future.
"My dad bought me a Sega Genesis when I was, like, three," Tibitoski says. "Maybe he bought himself a Sega Genesis, I don't know." Tibitoski started playing side-scrolling adventure games before he was tall enough to peer over the controls of an arcade console.
"I used to get my hair cut at this barbershop that had a Double Dragon machine; I played when I was waiting my turn," he says. Tibitoski poured quarters into 90s fighter arcade games—The Simpsons Arcade Game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time—and at home he'd play every system and game he could get his hands on. Between the release of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in 1998 and the original Halo in 2001, something clicked. "I started to look through the credits and be like, 'I wonder what programmers do?'"
Tibitoski found out at DePaul. In the summer of 2010 he teamed up with 18 other students enrolled in the school's Game Experience program to make Octodad, an adventure game about a cephalopod masquerading as a human father. Octodad helped introduce its creators to the indie gaming scene, and in 2011 Tibitoski and nine of his pals formed Young Horses; the sequel to their debut, Octodad: Dadliest Catch, was released in January for PC, Mac, and Linux, with a Playstation 4 version due soon.
Given his background it's not surprising that Tibitoski regularly hits up arcade bars. He's been to Wicker Park's Emporium Arcade Bar about 20 times since it opened in 2012.
When we met at Emporium one February evening, he gravitated toward the Indie City Arcade cabinet. Featuring 13 games, it was built last year by a group of local programmers (Tibitoski had a hand in it), and it's the bar's only free gaming option. That's not to say he didn't frequent Emporium prior to the cabinet's installation. "As soon as Emporium opened I was excited, because there were a lot of games I hadn't played in a long time," he says.
The bar has brought in even more games since it expanded last summer, adding a second room.
Tibitoski wastes little time sidling up to Defender, Galaga, and Double Dragon. Part of what he loves about video games is that the individual interactive experience changes over time—for example, suffering through Double Dragon today is a tad different than when he played it at his childhood barbershop. "And I've found that I'm a lot better at Terminator 2 than I used to be. Better hand-eye coordination."
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Unlike Tibitoski, Trinket Studios programmer Ben Perez wasn't raised on side-scrolling multiplayers—he was drawn to the 80s era of gaming. And at Logan Arcade (which moved into the old Logan Hardware space after the record store relocated a few blocks west) Perez sticks to that ritual, heading for games focused on high scores rather than conquering levels.
"I sort of missed the whole 90s arcade scene. Instead, I grew up playing Galaga as a kid on NES," he says. "Tonight I played the classics: BurgerTime, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, Marble Madness for the first time. I like to mix it up. Play my favorites, then a few new ones."
Perez, 26, cofounded Trinket with Tom Eastman (president) and Eric Huang (artist) when the trio bailed from developer Wideload Games not long after its acquisition by Disney in 2009, opting instead for the autonomy of the local indie-designer scene. Perez, to his surprise, discovered success with the mobile game Color Sheep—and believes the popularity of on-the-go gaming contributes to the recent uptick in arcade bars.
"I think a lot of mobile games that are limited to touch interface fall back on the classic mechanics of older retro games, which probably helps bring people into arcade bars" he explains. "It's a limited engagement—you play for a bit, and you're done. And then you hang with your friends."
Perez, who graduated from DePaul in 2009—and is acquainted with Tibitoski—says he doesn't frequent arcaded bars as much as he'd like. That's mostly the result of being consumed by his team's first PC console release, Battle Chef Brigade, a game described as "Iron Chef in a fantasy Tolkienesque world, with mixed-in elements of a brawler like Streets of Rage."
When we asked Perez, who's something of a beer connoisseur, to pair beers with classic arcade games, he didn't hesitate. "You either match the name of the beer with the game, or you match the flavor of the beer," he tells us. "Right now I'm drinking La Fin du Monde. It's a little bit stronger, so it'd be a good pairing with the last game of the night or something apocalyptic, like Defender or Asteroids."
And it wasn't much of a chore getting Perez to dig deeper into the philosophy of pairing beer with joysticks.
"IPAs are a favorite of mine, too. If you're playing a really hard game, an IPA might be a good match. A little bitterness in your game, a little bitterness in your beer."
In February 2018, this article was updated to use the phrase ‘arcade bar’ in place of the word originally used.