The more things change, as the saying goes, the more they stay the same. It’s an axiom that certainly applies to arcades, given the renewed popularity in recent years of both vintage games and the retro establishments that house ‘em.
To wit: The games that your parents dropped tons of quarters into back in the ‘80s when the nation was gripped with
And while it may have taken a while, the trend eventually reached the Valley. Hence the rise of such spots as StarFighters in Mesa and Captain Cutaneum's Arcade 85, as well as the annual ZapCon every spring (the latest edition of which takes place on April 29-30 at the Mesa Convention Center).
That’s not to say that newfangled entertainment centers or family-friendly arcades like Dave & Busters, which boasts state-of-the-art games, haven’t also been doing well. Just ask the proprietors of Tilt Studio in Tempe, which opened in 2016 and proved to be a big hit. Old favorites like Golfland-Sunsplash in Mesa or Castles ‘n’ Coasters, both offering a mix of old and new, have also stuck around for several decades.
Needless to say, there are more arcades around the Valley than ever where one can engage in virtual heroism for the price of some quarters or the swipe of a cash card. As such, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best arcades to be found in metro Phoenix.
First, a caveat: This list is focused on places with straight-up arcade games instead of console-based gaming systems. In other words, we’re excluding spots like 8-Bit Brewery in Avondale or The Pig's Meow. Wonderful choices all – and worthy of a visit — but decidedly oriented more toward gamepads than joysticks.
So hit the one-player button, and let the games begin.
Once upon a time, mom-and-pop pizzerias across the Valley hosted arcade games aplenty for patrons to play after hastily wiping all the excess grease from their hands while a cheesy rock soundtrack blared from the sound system. Such a scene has sadly become a thing of the past, except at this for the game room at this uniquely shaped throwback pizza place in Mesa.
The back room of the A-frame structure (which was built the '70s as an old Village Inn Pizzeria) contains more than a dozen vintage arcade units like Choplifter, Galaga '88, and Asteroids. The owners have also decorated the room with various bits of Pac-Man memorabilia and other video game ephemera. It may not be as flashy or frenetic as other places around town, but it's definitely one of our favorites.
Captain Cutaneum's Arcade '85
Pretty much everything about Captain Cutaneum's Arcade '85 is, well, cute. According to its backstory, patrons who walk through the doors of the Gilbert arcade are passing through a time warp back to (you guessed it) the year 1985. As such, everything inside hails from that specific time period or earlier, ranging from its multitude of old-school games (including such gems as Turbo, Star Trek, Jungle Hunt, and Tank) to the movie posters on the walls and the music blasting from a vintage stereo. The place is the brainchild of local dermatologist Ruskin Lines, who has his practice next door and wanted a space that re-created the arcades of his youth. Here’s the catch: it’s only open on select Fridays and Saturdays during the cooler months of the year. Those who are interested in checking it out can e-mail Captain Cutaneum to be notified the next time the portal will be open.
Play 'n' Win Arcade
Per the religious-themed Kevin Smith comedy flick Dogma, the almighty God supposedly travels from the realm of the hereafter to engage numerous games of Skee-Ball for fun. And while this (somewhat) blasphemous claim is likely untrue, we're willing to bet that if Heavenly Father somehow, in fact, descend to earth to get in some Skee-Ball shenanigans, he'd probably head for this glitzy arcade located inside the UltraStar Multi-tainment Center adjacent to Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino in Maricopa. Around a half-dozen versions of the ball-tossing hallmark of arcades everywhere are among the various electronic distractions housed inside the Play 'n' Win, each spewing streams of tickets. Things skew more towards the redemption variety (including such popular titles as Bejeweled, Haunted Manor, and Go Go Grand Prix), but there's also plenty of other games ready to suck down your dollars, like Deadstorm Pirates and the adrenaline-inducing Super Bikes 2.
Boredom is probably a rarity at The Grid, considering the fact that the Mesa game bar is packed wall-to-wall with distractions aplenty. There’s an IKEA-brand bookcase full of board games, bands and DJs on the weekends, a full bar, pool table, and a dozen gaming stations loaded with emulated versions of old-school consoles like the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis. The centerpiece of the establishment is its quirky collection of 18 arcade games that take up most of the floor space.
The Grid’s selection includes both old favorites (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Moon Patrol, Tron) and newfangled titles (Initial D Third Stage) alike, not to mention many curiosities. For instance, you can play Emergency Call Ambulance, an ultra-rare driving game produced by that’s a cross between Crazy Taxi and Trauma Center, or the homebrewed Asteroids clone Gravitrex Plus. There’s also a custom Neo Geo cabinet with more than 160 different SNK games and a pair of digital pinball machines. The crown jewel, however, is Killer Queen, the massively addictive and action-packed indie arcade title that can be played by up to 10 people and is like a cross between Joust and Contra. You’ll probably have to wait a bit before getting a go on it, as it’s the most popular game in the joint.
Dave & Busters
Everything seems bigger at any of the three Dave & Busters locations in the Valley: its ginormous floor space, its selection of high-end and high-tech games (including a towering, interactive edition of Connect Four and a ginormous version of that vexing merchandiser Stacker), and its drinks mixed up at multiple bars (top-shelf cocktails with heavy pour are in abundance). And then are the pimp prizes available for those patrons who can score a sufficient amount of tickets, including gaming systems, cocktail ware, and even home appliances. Helpfully, there are paper buckets available to tote your winnings, which, along with all its swanky and flashy games, give D&B a casino-like feel. Besides, where else can you go on an undersea roller coaster simulator like Typhoon or fight a knight with a virtual sword before getting in 12 frames of gutterball action via the upstairs bowling alley?
This two-story arcade and entertainment center at Arizona Mills in Tempe features close to 150 games available for play, particularly those of a high-tech, redemption-oriented, and carnival-style nature. And that mix includes rail shooters aplenty (such as The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Transformers: Human Alliance, and Monster Eye), as well as any number of fighting games (SNK vs. Capcom: SVC Chaos, SoulCalibur 2), racing titles (Need for Speed: Carbon, Mario Kart Arcade GP 2), and, of course, rhythm games (Guitar Hero Arcade, Dance Dance Revolution).
There are also more than a dozen old-school arcade titles up on its second floor, including Battlezone, Thunderblade, Crossbow, Rampart, and Majestic Twelve. Fans of pinball, however, are likely to dig the row of 20 different machines located nearby, all of which help put the “tilt” in Tilt Studio. The lineup features both new and old favorites alike, some which date back to the ‘70s (better known as the heyday of pinball), including Hot Doggin, Silver Ball Mania, and Bobby Orr Power Play.
Cobra Arcade Bar
The games at this popular arcade bar are always changing, owing to the fact that co-owner Ariel Bracamonte has a personal collection of more than 100 different titles at his disposal. And while there’s only room for 40-ish games, what’s there at any particular moment is definitely
A longtime favorite for generations of local families and joystick Jedi, the iconic King Ben's Castle that dominates Golfland-
You can also find a few rare Japanese imports scattered around the joint, including Arcana Heart 2 and Guilty Gears XX. And if the kiddos ever want to have their birthday party up on the second floor of the castle, be sure to fulfill their wishes, since it will give you access to the collection of old-school games that are only available during private functions. Just don’t try sneaking up there like you’re Solid
Castles 'n' Coasters
One of the reasons that Castles 'n' Coasters
The older crowd, however, heads up the stairs to the balcony, where classics from the past 30 years of gaming history take up almost every inch of wall space. There's a collection of blockbuster Bally/Williams machines adjacent to one another, including Defender, Robotron 2084, and
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Stepping through the front door of StarFighters is like falling through a warp zone into to the heyday of arcades. Pretty much everything at this 4,000-square-foot Mesa establishment is of throwback nature, from the array of circa 1980s plastic toys and vintage phone booth (remember those?) displayed in the foyer to the neon
In many ways, StarFighters is a museum and shrine to arcade history. There are rather Paleolithic contraptions like Boot Hill or Space Invaders, old-school vector graphics games like Red Baron and Space Duel, and such legendary titles as Super Mario Bros. and Galaga, Centipede, and Spy Hunter. A host of rarities and gems are also afoot, including Sea Wolf, Crossbow, S.T.U.N. Runner, and even