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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.

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.

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.)

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+
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Posted by Alex

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.

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.

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.)

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.

Edited by OllyOxenFree

Give me the scoop, Navarro.

Posted by serverfull

First...For the Achive

Posted by Sticks

boom

Posted by Doctorchimp

I still remember that last Chinatown Fair stream where they had Chris Hu on the mic. What a great night.

Posted by Grimluck343

Man that's super depressing.

Posted by iAmJohn

I was going to check out the new Chinatown Fair sometime this week. Now I won't because it sounds fucking hideous. Off to Williamsburg I go to find the Chinatown Fair guy's actual new arcade. Thanks Alex!

Posted by kollay

I see 1/2 of team Rush Hour. Chris Hu <3

Posted by Paindamnation

I love the face of the Kid in the middle. Like he won the lottery or something. Then the kid behind him like"I'm too cool to be your friend."

Edited by Megadestructo

Oh it became a Dave and Busters. Lame. And no more "chicken what plays tic-tac-toe?"

Posted by Marcness

Navarro....WHY did you reveal the truth? Do you know many Northeastern US gamers would want to cease to exist because of this news??

Edited by NMC2008

Is that place owned by Microsoft or something? -_-

Posted by Alex

@iAmJohn: I've heard mixed things about that new place. Also, it's to fucking hell and gone on the D line. Still, was thinking about checking it out next weekend.

Posted by mrsmiley

Great article, but it makes me sad. :(

Edited by SlightConfuse

for anyone looking to go to the new chinatown fair arcade to play some fighting games, its really awesome and the same feel as CF

.http://nycnextlevel.com/

Shout outs to henry Cen

Posted by lordofultima

Good thing Next Level exists. Keep the arcade culture alive! If you don't feel slightly unwelcome walking into an arcade, it just isn't the same.

Posted by AxleBro

next level is better anyway.... well its not my place to say since i didn't go to chinatown fair...

Posted by geekbot

This makes me sad. I'll be sure to light a candle in memory of your now departed arcade.

Posted by Napalm

@Grimluck343 said:

Man that's super depressing.

Posted by Zabant

Isnt the old owner who had the rent dispute starting a new-old arcade?

Posted by grendelpierat

Really good reminder of the current state of the arcade business in the US. Other then being an attachment to some existing business (ie bowling centers, restaurants, etc) there's little chance for a stand alone arcade to survive here. Even the best ones that are still around struggle to stay afloat.

Posted by HotSauceMagik

I was there a week or so before it closed. Cool place. Sounds like all the old charm is gone though.

Posted by churrific

I did play "tic tac toe" against that chicken(s) for several years. No chicken, no sell.

Posted by JJOR64

That's a great picture of Chris Hu. Like everyone else is saying, don't go there. Go to Next Level.

Posted by mnzy

No mention of Next Level makes me sad.

Online
Posted by Alex

@mnzy: I didn't mention it because I've never been there and frankly don't know much about it (IE what games they have, how the set-up is, etc.) Was thinking about checking it out in the near future.

Posted by FinalDasa

Unfortunately this is the state of most arcades. If you're lucky you get a fighting game or two worth playing but mostly you will see plenty of machines with fake guns and spit out tickets.

Moderator
Edited by mnzy
@Alex: Team Spooky on twitch streams from there every wednesday. http://twitch.tv/teamsp00ky 
Also, there has been a documentary about Justin Wong and his manager called "King of Chinatown" where Chinatown Fair pays a big role.
Online
Posted by megalowho

I need to check this out to see the difference for myself. Knew it was "reopening," didn't realize it was happening so fast. The original Chinatown Fair was a shithole and the fighting game scene isn't really my thing, but it was as genuine as it gets as far as arcades go. I put up a little blog post about my first visit on GB here.

Next Level Arcade in Brooklyn is the true successor to Chinatown Fair, but in it's current state it's even shadier than the original article. Lots of hacked 360's loaded with fighting games, pay per hour instead of per game, far fewer arcade cabinets. I can see it growing into something more inviting but it's certainly got a ways to go. They do have DJ Max Technika 3 though, so it's automatically the best arcade in the area.

Posted by KawaiiInbou

Would love to see some longer-form stuff like this from Alex. A unique style amongst GB's staff; when I'm reading it, I hear it in Alex's voice.

Posted by Alex

@mnzy: Definitely interested in checking the place out. Fortunately, it looks like several people here in the comments are trumpeting the place.

Posted by Chibi_Kaji

I was really bummed to hear this. I was looking forward to checking it out with a few friends after it reopened.

Posted by 617_jbug

Most of the fighting game players in NYC moved over to Next Level in Brooklyn. They specialize more in console fighting games but they do have some arcade cabinets and run weekly tournaments on Wednesday and Saturday.

Posted by MacEG

I feel like I just got a puppy and then someone punched it.

Thanks Alex.

Posted by ZombiePie

There's honestly nothing for Northwest California. In the North Bay your effectively stuck with using Scandia, which blows major ass. I know that there's a Starbase in San Rafael...but that's a major drive.

Moderator
Edited by VicRattlehead

Wasn't next level born out of ashes of CF?

@Alex: if your gonna go, go on a Wednesday night when big two is on, get on stream and make all the stream monster rage..

Posted by Video_Game_King

I'll just leave this for you:

Posted by FLStyle

@Alex said:

@mnzy: I didn't mention it because I've never been there and frankly don't know much about it (IE what games they have, how the set-up is, etc.) Was thinking about checking it out in the near future.

You may not know this, but the East Coast half of the EVO production team (Team Spooky) streams tournaments to thousands from Next Level every Wednesday night. It's a favourite for the Giant Bomb fighting game sub-community. Half of the time whenever you see a "Official Live Stream Thread" in the forums, that's us.

Posted by SomeJerk

If it wasn't for KOF13 I'd agree about there being no good arcade fighters.
 
Know what they did to the greatest arcade in Sweden? They put console gaming stations there. Instead of actual arcade games, a reason to go out and play and be social, you can sit down comfortably five six feet from a TV and play a standard console with a standard controller.
 
It's not all bad though, the collection of cabinets and boards and spare parts they sold made it into the hands of our many great arcade collectors.

Posted by heatDrive88

This makes me miss my local arcades real bad.

Posted by DigTheDoug

As mentioned in the Pinball Classics QL, if you are ever in New England (Southern NH) skip the Funspot and make your way to the Pinball Wizard Arcade in Pelham, NH. They have over 100 classic arcade games, another 100+ pinball machines all in working order and fantastic condition. The place is open every day for 12 hours or so.

Also, they have a Pac-Man Battle Royale machine.

Posted by Gaspar

I had a high score on their Puzzle Fighter II machine. R.I.P. (except for Next Level which a bunch of people already linked)

Posted by Pop

I think Triforce is freaking hilarious, this made me die.

Posted by Alex

@FLStyle: I'm aware now, and that's pretty cool. I mean, the point of this article was more to eulogize a place I've been several times and very much enjoyed, but I'm glad to hear there's still somewhere people can go in the city.

Edited by Phished0ne

@Alex said:

@mnzy: I didn't mention it because I've never been there and frankly don't know much about it (IE what games they have, how the set-up is, etc.) Was thinking about checking it out in the near future.

From watching Fighting Game streams, Next Level seems like a nice little place.

Oh. Chris Hu, i hope i meet you some day so i can tell you how awesome you are.

I think the future of arcades in major cities with large communities of people interested in games is to host events. Im sure Super Arcade in Walnut has seen a lot more business now that Level-Up holds their weeklies there. If you have a decent sized weekly event to draw people, you create interest in your place. I've even considered a trip to NYC for a few days this summer just to visit Next Level and experience Big Two, even though i probably wouldn't compete, and if i did it would only be me bolstering the pot and supporting the community that i love from the fringes. There is a lot of interest in the FGC right now and i think that the idea of spectating fighting games is on the rise, not only via the internet, but going there in person. So if more of the arcades that do exist can capitalize on it by trying to create communities centered around their arcades it would be a great business move. Theres nothing wrong with creating a family friendly atmosphere for your arcade, but why not shut it down early on a friday night, and let the 'adults' come in for a street fighter tourny, if you have room, keep your cabs on, someone might want to play a game or two while they are waiting for their next match. Also that "no good fighters" now comment really urks me. That shows someone who doesnt know about the community. Sure there arent as many good arcade fighters now, but when you have a community of people coming in to run a console tourny, you are probably gonna have a lot of people that also want to play some older games to keep their hands warm. There are still communities for lots of older games, even as far back as Super Turbo. So to say there are 'no good fighters' right now is just asinine.

That being said, even the fgc is moving towards cafes with room to set up consoles rather than sticking to dark, dingy arcades. But it is the future. But from what i have seen from the big mainstream weeklies ( Big Two, Wednesday Night Fights, and the Thursday Runback) the FGC prefers to say grounded in the arcades when possible, although they will goto other places if arcades arent available(shown by places like The Box Arena in San Diego that play at Frubble)

Posted by jeffrud

What's the interest in getting a few mature people from this site together to lease space and start an actual arcade? This is something that interests me.

Posted by ManaCrevice

As far as awesome arcades in the Pacific Northwest goes, I highly recommend Ground Kontrol in Portland, OR. Great selection of both new and classic arcade machines.

Posted by gaminginpublic

Actually Alex. Theres still this in Brooklyn

http://barcadebrooklyn.com/

I agree with you though. It hurts every time an arcade goes out of business. Especially when they're turned into a chucky cheese ripoff.

Posted by iAmJohn

@jeffrud said:

What's the interest in getting a few mature people from this site together to lease space and start an actual arcade? This is something that interests me.

I will kickstart this project.

@gaminginpublic said:

Actually Alex. Theres still this in Brooklyn

http://barcadebrooklyn.com/

I agree with you though. It hurts every time an arcade goes out of business. Especially when they're turned into a chucky cheese ripoff.

To be fair, Barcade is kind of terrible. I know their whole thing is being a "classics" bar, but their collection of stuff is so obvious and lame.

Posted by onan

@Pop said:

I think Triforce is freaking hilarious, this made me die.

What part? None of what he said was really "haha" funny, all of it was kind of sad. CF was a one of a kind place with a lot of disturbing shit going on there, but still a really fascinating place to visit. I'd still rather have what he's describing instead of another Dave & Busters, though.

Guess I'll need to check out Next Level at some point.

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