There's scene in Tron Legacy where Sam Flynn (played by Garrett Hedlund), on a quest for his long missing father, ends up on the doorstep of the video arcade which was the focal point for the first movie and the location from where his father first got sucked into the digital world of malicious programs, light-cycles and radioactive frisbees. As Sam enters the arcade, he finds a forgotten wasteland of old-school arcade machines wrapped in dusty plastic. He flicks a breaker and everything roars to life. The rest of the scene isn't quite a 1980s-style music montage, although the juke box does start blaring the insanely righteous "Separate Ways" by Journey.
Okay, even back in the 1980s I thought Tron was a ridiculous movie and Tron Legacy was only slightly better (see my review here). But if you're from my generation – meaning you were raised during the 1970s and 80s – this scene may have struck a chord as this was the aptly-named "Golden Age of Video Games." This was when the video arcade would've been a keystone to your young existence, as much as today's coffee bar or hookah lounge. It was a place to entertain yourself, but also engage in a little social networking before pocket-sized smart devices made that into a both routine and strangely solitary process. Regardless of gender, background or which school clique you were lumped into, the arcade was the great equalizer. The star athlete might suck at a game where the outcast was brilliant. A boy might've smoked a girl at Galaga, then had his ass handed to him when he challenged her to knock-hockey. I remember plenty of times as a teenager where I played video games alongside schoolmates who otherwise would've had nothing to do with me.
With the rise of home gaming, arcades became less popular and all but vanished from our cultural landscape. The last true arcade I can recall from my hometown was the megalithic Game Works – but even it vanished over a decade ago. Yet amazingly, arcades are making a comeback, appealing not only to tech-savvy young people but to the nostalgic older set who are probably less concerned with video game domination, more with just reliving some fond memories from their sophomore year in high school.
My friend David and I recently drove to Portland to check out one of these arcades, after it was lauded by King of the Geeks, Wil Wheaton. Called Ground Kontrol (no doubt after the iconic "Major Tom" songs by David Bowie and Peter Schilling), the arcade is located in Portland's Chinatown and has the classic arcade atmosphere down pat. Located in a nondescript two-story building (arcades always seemed to have a penchant for taking over old auto supply stores and empty banks), it includes a nice bar/lounge area and a cool balcony filled with pinball machines. Ground Kontrol allows in minors up until 5 p.m., but after that it's adults only. The interior is appropriately dark, highlighted with soft blue lighting and a futuristic chandelier borrowed straight from Disneyland's Voyage to Mars attraction, circa 1977. Everything's priced at a quarter or fifty cents, which is much closer to the traditional fee for video games. (Should I mention that in my hometown there were actually plenty of arcades that only cost a nickel? Nah, maybe not...)
David and I stayed for a couple hours and, as I did when I was 16, reluctantly went home when my money was depleted, still surprised by how these venerable games could be both addictive and frustrating to play. It was also nice to see that the arcade is still a gathering place for people of all kinds. Some were younger than us, a few were clearly on their lunch break from white-collar jobs. Some had piercings and green hair, while others rocked their business casual wear. But, as it was in the 1980s, everyone was equal among the glitter and noise of the arcade.
If you're in the Portland area, I'd recommended you check out Ground Kontrol. It's only a few minutes walk from the city's other relic-from-another-area, the amazing book-opolis known as Powells. Grab lunch at one of the numerous Chinese restaurants in between and you can make a day of it.
Related Information: Images of Ground Kontrol on my Tumblr page.