West End Girl – Arcade Report
A bright afternoon in March – International Women’s day apparently, but I am not in the West End to go shopping or do lunch – I am here to check out some of central London’s arcades.
I start at the Trocadero, possibly the most famous amusement arcade in London. I pass the souvenir emporiums to get to the Funland arcade – the entrance is unfortunately not looking its best as there are major building works going on over several levels outside. There are massive sheets of white plastic and scaffolding all around.
Once inside, I am immediately struck by the huge scale of the arcade. On Level 1 there is someone playing Time Crisis 4 and a couple of young teens playing Dance Dance Revolution. Their exhausted mother has pulled up a chair and watches. I notice a funny old Screwball machine, amidst the top of the range videos. This is a theme I notice again and again. Well-loved classic games are interspersed with the very latest technology. I am struck by the level of product knowledge that has gone into the placement of the games. I smile in recognition of some of the machines I have written about in the last 12 years of trade journalism: Derby Owners Club, for example.
The arcade is almost deserted, but it is 3 o’clock in the afternoon and sunny outside, so this is to be expected. I would say that roughly half of the customers I see in the arcade are Japanese. A couple of youngish Asian guys are tapping furiously on Tekken 6 and Street Fighter IV. They clearly know what they are doing. I wonder at the dated graphics and realize that the pleasure of learning the sequences of these games never really fades. There are rows of these games, beautifully maintained and a testament to great game design.
There is one old guy, playing Electrocoin’s Oxo Club but gaming really takes back stage at the Trocadero. There are squadrons of cranes which are sparsely but interestingly filled. One Barbercut has a row of tubes inside, filled with 2,000 redemption tickets.
For the rest, it reads like a Who’s Who of video releases. The very latest Elevator Action and Vulcan, for example. A massive deluxe Deadstorm Pirates, four Super Bikes on one level, another four elsewhere and a massive Simuline 3D/4D motion theatre, 4 Dead Heat linked over there. Rows and rows of immaculately presented top of the range arcade machines. Only one problem – nobody was playing them. With one exception – Outrun 2.
The most action I saw was at the pool tables where there was a small crowd of youngsters. There seemed to be good security, with guards patrolling all levels. There were other staff drifting around as well – but the ratio of staff and customers was probably one on one. There was a member of staff on the redemption counter, which at first glanced appeared to be filled with really cheap plastic prizes. As I looked closer though, I noticed a Playstation 3, an Xbox Arcade, even a folding bike and some football shirts and –bizarrely – some saucepans.
Then I notice something interesting – a couple are having a great time on a Deal or No Deal from Play Mechanix/ICE. I noticed the same thing in Brighton, this game is a real player attraction.
Given the sheer number of machines at the Trocadero, you would expect to see some out of order or in disrepair but amazingly, I only see one Andamiro dance machine clearly in the process of being repaired. But there is nobody about and no sign to avoid the area.
Overall, I am impressed by the selection of games and the facilities, which include a café, bar, dodgems and bowling alleys. I can imagine how buzzing the place must be at the weekends. But the place is dark and labyrinthine and I am relieved to be back on the street in the fresh air.
From there it is a short stroll into Chinatown where I see the Play 2 Win arcade on the corner of Gerrard St. This is nicely presented, with signage in English and Chinese outside. It is mostly an adult gaming arcade with a couple of Cromptons 10p pushers in the entrance. There are customers playing Project’s Find the Lady and Magic Games on a £70 jackpot. There is a pool hall attached but that is quiet. In total, there are perhaps 5 customers in the arcade.
At the other end of Gerrard street I see a BetFred betting shop. It is bright and modern and mostly filled with Chinese males of all ages. There must be five times the number of customers in there, compared to Play 2 Win.
From here, I head to Wardour Street and the Las Vegas arcade. The first thing I spot is a notice on the signage indicating that the basement (currently housing a pool hall) is To Let. There are perhaps three players in here, two on the £500 jackpot machines Stars and Stripes and Mega Bars. One player seems to be playing two Magic Games II at the same time. There is a Brent’s X Factor crane at the front, 2 pinballs; Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean and some video including Virtua Tennis 3. This looks like a good selection to tempt the after-work crowd but the place looks a bit tired.
Time to go down Old Compton Street to see the Play 2 Win. I pass the chichi bread shops and the tiny Italian deli and the famous gay bars. Play 2 Win is no more. The frontage is bare and building work is going on inside. I walk over and talk to a guy having a cigarette outside. He confirms that in 2 weeks it will be a new Leon upmarket wholefood restaurant. I am not surprised. He tells me that there is an arcade on Wardour Street if I need one.
Time to hop on a tube and make my way to the South Bank. I head up to County Hall past the crowds milling around the London Eye. There are no queues for the Eye but plenty of people taking in the sunshine and sitting outside the many cafes along the river. There is some event taking place on a big patch of grass, which I discover to be related to International Women’s Day. In short, the place is busy.
There is also a crowd in and around MDonalds as I head into Namco Station but once inside the arcade an eerie calm descends. There is not a single person playing a machine in the massive selection that circles the bumper cars. There is a big Hillbillys Shooting Range, a Camel Prize Racer from Elton a Cromptons Luxor and all the latest video but the place is deserted.
Downstairs the place feels like a club. There is a fantastic bar area with karaoke and leather armchairs and sofas dotted around. It looks like a great place for a night out. In addition there are ultra violet bowling lanes, where I see a group of about three guys. I also see a family of 3 with a little girl playing Outrun 2 downstairs. Apart from that there is nobody there. I am impressed that the café is a Costa Coffee. I am not so impressed that tables haven’t been cleared even though there is nobody to serve.
As I leave the arcade, a few more people have walked in and there are several young guys on a driving game by the door. I take a closer look and would you believe it, it’s only Outrun 2 in a deluxe cabinet. I have only seen about 10 people playing video games today and about 7 of them have been playing that one game.
I feel a bit subdued on the way home. All that fantastic equipment sitting there and nobody is playing it. I know a Tuesday afternoon is not prime time for any leisure venue. I am sure a lot of pubs are sitting empty too. But I can’t help thinking that we are doing something wrong somewhere along the line. Those rents must be huge, the staff don’t come cheap – why are there not more people going in? Is it the dark nightclub atmosphere? Could we make arcades seem less gloomy and more enticing?
Somehow, an arcade near a beach makes sense. There is a feeling of nostalgia about them. People have time on their hands and money in their pockets to enjoy themselves. But on a busy street in a bustling city, what draws people in to play machines when they are on their way to somewhere else? I think about what was being played during the day, pool tables, Tekken, and Outrun. Games involving skill of some kind seemed the most attractive. But how to build up the skills to play some of the new games, when the price per play is so steep? I wonder whether it would be better to charge an entrance fee on quiet days and put the machines on free play to encourage people to try them out.
Other than that, my conclusion is that inner city amusement arcades need to be as trendy as a coffee bar or a wholefood café. People like to play games and don’t really care about huge themed cabinets. Could someone create something modern, fresh and attractive that doesn’t involve patterned carpets, chandeliers and dimmed lighting?
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