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From Fighting Games to Family Fun: NYC's Chinatown Fair Arcade Ain't What it Used to Be

Chinatown Fair was once a haven for New York City's fighting game enthusiasts and classic arcade fans. Now it's something else entirely.

We don't talk much about arcades anymore because honestly, outside of Asia, how many arcades are left that are even worth talking about? Arcades as a viable business have been dead for ages, with many either transforming into indistinct family fun centers full of neon lighting and copious amounts of skee-ball, or just outright closing altogether. For someone like me who grew up around arcades and loved them, it was a painful, yet seemingly inevitable thing. The market for arcades was dead in the States, and with the booming console and PC markets taking over all things gaming, there didn't seem to be much point in resuscitating it.

This is what Chinatown Fair used to look like just a couple of years ago.
This is what Chinatown Fair used to look like just a couple of years ago.

And yet, a few stubborn hold-outs continued to exist. For a long time, one of those stubborn hold-outs was Chinatown Fair in New York City, a sort of dank, musty hole in the middle of Chinatown that housed a more-than-decent cross-section of modern arcade games (DDR, recent fighting games, etc.) and some genuine classics of all shapes and sizes--not to mention a chicken that could purportedly play tic-tac-toe, if the sign above the place was to be believed. (I never saw the chicken, personally.)

It wasn't a large place, nor a particularly well-kept place by any means, but it was a sincerely cool little spot, especially if you dug competitive fighting games--and, specifically, being called any manner of awful names by the teens and 20-somethings that frequented the place while playing fighting games against them. Though, to be fair, that was a minority. Most of the people I met there during my few visits were pretty friendly.

Last year Chinatown Fair went out of business for all intents and purposes, due to a rent dispute with the building's owner. The place was never really a money-maker, exactly, but it was popular among that small segment of people who would really want to go out to an arcade to play Street Fighter IV before it was technically even out in North America. For a while, it looked like the place would just be dead and gone altogether, but then new ownership stepped in and vowed to rescue the place from oblivion.

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that such a rescue came with a number of important and unfortunate caveats. Gothamist and The Verge were both on-hand for Chinatown Fair's soft-opening yesterday, in which the new owners offered a brief chance to check out what the new incarnation of Chinatown Fair would look like. According to various accounts and photographs taken at the event, it looked a lot like the "arcade" at your local movie theater.

Gone were the old fighting games and, in fact, most of the stand-up arcade machines of old. Instead, they were replaced by unwieldy basketball games, knockoff DDR machines, and, perhaps most tellingly, noted cash-grab coin-sucker Guitar Hero Arcade.

For what it's worth, the new owner, Lonnie Sobel, doesn't appear to be some callous business man, unyielding in his desire to turn the place into a cash machine with no reverence for its past. In fact, he says that some of the old machines are just out for refurbishing, and should return soon. He even specifically said that fighting games would be featured again in the near-ish future.

This is that same section of the arcade today, as photographed by The Verge's Joshua Kopstein.
This is that same section of the arcade today, as photographed by The Verge's Joshua Kopstein.

Unfortunately, Sobel also said some things that are pretty worrying. When asked for a reason regarding the current lack of fighting games, Sobel said as follows: "The bottom line is, there's just no really great fighting games out, so that's why we don't have any."

Here's the thing. Chinatown Fair is the first place I ever got to sit down and play Street Fighter IV against non-journalists. It was my first real experience in a competitive, social environment, and it's something I remember vividly. Not just because of the shit-talking teenagers and the weird smell that permeated the room, though that stuff definitely sticks in the mind. More importantly, this is an experience I remember because it was like something out of my childhood. It had nothing to do with the newness of the game, but rather the reminder of what it was like to go down to the local arcade as a kid and have at whatever competitive games there were. I may have gone to Chinatown the first time to play the latest stuff, but on my few return trips, I went to play the old stuff, too. There are tons of great fighting games out there, and no shortage of people still willing to play them, given the opportunity. The big new stuff might be a crowd draw, but the regulars didn't just play the big new stuff. There were people playing Neo Geo games, old Marvel vs. Capcom games, and even some other random, more obscure stuff I'd never seen before. People who went played whatever was there.

The other issue comes from Sobel's willingness to describe the place as "a cross between Dave & Buster's and Chuck E. Cheese." That's a direct quote. No, this doesn't mean that Chinatown Fair is going to start serving shitty pizza and install a ball pit, but it does exemplify the more "family friendly" nature of the place.

There is nothing wrong with having a family friendly gaming venue. There are tons of them all over the place, and they cater to lots of people every day who want to earn tokens by playing skee-ball, then use said tokens to buy giant fuzzy dice or plastic vampire teeth. The problem is that there are tons of places just like that, and so very few left designed to cater to people who aren't looking for something family friendly.

Not to moan too loudly here, but where are we, the lovers of poorly-lit, probably moldy rooms filled with old ass, yet still functioning arcade machines to go? Chinatown Fair was a rare treat. It was a throwback that offered something more than just the usual slate of modern arcade games. Now Chinatown Fair is just like all the other family fun centers, and appears to offer little more than just the usual slate of modern arcade games.

Goodnight, sweet chicken, wherever you may be. (Probably dead, actually.)
Goodnight, sweet chicken, wherever you may be. (Probably dead, actually.)

I'm perhaps the last person that should be romanticizing arcades. I've been sounding the arcade death knell since before I even started writing professionally about games. It's a simple fact of modern economics that the arcades of old aren't going to appeal to a modern mass audience--if they did, they wouldn't have all died out so brutally in the last decade and a half. But, I'd always hoped that, especially in a place as diverse as New York City, that there would always be room for at least one place that was so unapologetically old school in design, a place that evoked the wonderful feeling of being in a place that felt more like a crudely-built clubhouse than a typical place of business.

It remains to be seen exactly how Sobel will evolve Chinatown Fair over time. Maybe he'll make good on the promise to host a true cross-section of the games the old patrons loved, and the stuff aimed at families. If he does, then at least some small nugget of what made Chinatown Fair so great will live on. The only thing that is certain is the sobering truth that the Chinatown Fair people originally fell in love with is dead, and won't be coming back.

Alex Navarro on Google+