For gamers of a certain age, and sometimes of a certain geographic origin, there’s a quasi-mystical feeling surrounding video arcades. Rows of game cabinets along the walls, maybe some simulator-style games like Pole Position or G-LOC, they were places that kids could hang out and be social that wasn’t the local rec center or YMCA. The Lost Arcade tries to document the story of the last classic video game arcade in New York City before, during, and after its inevitable closure. In that respect, it mostly succeeds, though its narrative thread in the last twenty minutes or so isn’t as engaging as the rest of the film.
The Lost Arcade begins with the early history of a place called Chinatown Fair, located in New York City’s Chinatown. What started as a tourist trap below a high-end Chinese restaurant, complete with ticket redemption games and chickens that danced or played Tic-Tac-Toe against patrons, slowly became a video game arcade with the explosion in popularity that came about during the late ’70s and early ’80s with titles like Space Invaders and Pac-Man. While it never became the hot hangout the same way other arcades in Times Square were, what it did have was a very solid local crowd that kept the place open. When the big arcades died out, Chinatown Fair stayed open and picked up those gamers who no longer had a place to go.
For most of the film, The Lost Arcade is like an oral history of Chinatown Fair in particular and the New York City video game scene in general. In the heart of Chinatown, the people of the community each have their unique struggles, but you see how the games bring them together. You hear about the early formation of what would later become competitive game groups, an embryonic form of the eSports that abound today. You learn the small stories of the people who worked there, who played there, and who in their own ways lived there. They testify to a time when “multiplayer” was no more than two people at once, in close enough proximity that you could tell when they were feeling the pressure by literally seeing them sweat.
It’s the last part of the film that things seem to drift in terms of focus. The original Chinatown Fair closes eventually, as all things do, and the space gets taken over by a guy who seemingly tries to create a Dave & Buster’s-style arcade with some video games and some ticket redemption games, almost regressing to its original iteration even as it uses the latest games available. You hear his optimism about the space, and yet can’t help feel a little cynical about the fact he’s using the name without recreating the community. You hear the disappointment from the regulars who used to come there years ago and understand that they’re trying to process that the place has changed.
This documentary is not a grand sweeping view of video game history. Rather, it is a series of stories, a microcosm of a certain time and place and the people who passed through it briefly as the world changed around them.
The Lost Arcade is the debut film from director Kurt Vincent and writer/producer Irene Chin and features a soundtrack by composer Gil Talmi. Previously available for viewing at film festivals and special screenings, the film can now be viewed at your leisure on a variety of digital platforms. It’s worth at least one viewing by gamers of every generation.
[Featured Image by Jesse Garrison/The Lost Arcade]