There are just a handful of films dedicated to the subject of classic arcade gaming. Some you’ll know I’m sure (King of Kong for instance), and others which are more underground, but definitely worth a watch. I’ll be sharing a few of them with you in a future blog post at some point.
Meantime, there is a recent documentary that I would suggest is worthy of your attention. The Lost Arcade is a documentary which saw a wide digital release last month. It tells the story of a seedy looking but charming arcade residing in New York’s Chinatown area. The film takes us through its back story from an early beginning in the 1940s through the Golden Age era of the early eighties, and on into its later years spanning the 90s and early 2000s.
Directed by Kurt Vincent, The Lost Arcade shares its tale through the eyes of those that lived through the scene surrounding the Chinatown Fair arcade (or ‘CF’ as it became known). Throughout the movie, the patrons of CF describe the highs and lows of the place. It survived many changes. Bigger arcades sprung up in the early 80s around the Times Square area, almost putting CF out of business. But it hung on, and ultimately CF became the last arcade in New York City.
And this is the thing, Chinatown Fair was the last of its kind. It never really changed its business model to keep up with the times – there was no food or drink available, no t-shirts or tokens to buy – it was a pure arcade, where patrons actually put coins into machines to play them. Although to be fair, there was a dancing chicken resident in the arcade at some point – but I won’t spoil that part for you.
And yet somehow, it held on to its charm, when many others came and went. Lines of bulky arcade cabinets pushed up against a Fire-Truck red wall was the backdrop of CF, and it somehow worked. The community built around what was a very basic customer proposition, was seduced by an intangible calling. A calling that could not be found anywhere else in the city. Kurt taps deeply into this rich vein:
I kept thinking that this institution hidden in New York City’s Chinatown must have a history that needed to be shared. I wanted to create a film that would capture the spirit that hit me the first time I walked through those doors. There was a melting pot of a community that congregated there, where all walks of life came together and shared one common interest: video games. It was a microcosm of what New York was all about.
The place had its moments too. Chinatown Fair’s cult status was cemented when in 1984, Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep shot a scene for the movie Falling in Love there, and in 1995 rap artist Ol’ Dirty Bastard used the premises to shoot a video for his track Brooklyn Zoo. These presumably paid handsomely for the owner of the arcade and arguably kept the wolf from the door during some of its leaner years.
Against a backdrop of the ever-increasing domination of the home consoles, a reduced arcade release schedule, and rising overheads involved in keeping the place open, we watch as the arcade’s inevitable demise has a huge impact on the small community. The film essentailly documents the resulting fallout. Here is a community who saw the place as somewhere to connect with the outside world – Chinatown Fair was a calling to form a bond with like-minded people. Friendships and rivalries were formed, and for some, CF became a gaming focal point – and in some cases it changed their lives.
And this is the constant theme throughout the film – pre-internet, the arcades were our internet, but in the real world. Relationships and clans of disparate people from all walks of life grew in an organic way away from computer screens, and not through clicking a like button or swiping images left or right. If like me, you frequented arcades in the 80s, you’ll recognise much of the story.
The official trailer is here:
I really enjoyed The Lost Arcade, at its heart is a celebration of a New York institution that by rights should never have existed for as long as it did – heck, maybe it shouldn’t have existed at all.
But it tells a charming story that should resonate on a human level with anyone having even a minor interest in classic arcade gaming. If you’re reading this blog, this film is for you. I urge you to spend a few bucks and watch it.
The movie is available to rent or buy now on a variety of platforms. Go to the official website here for links.
Thanks for reading this week.