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 are trendy again and have been since the dawn of the decade. Since 2010, everything involving old-school arcades has surged in popularity, whether it’s the hullabaloo that ensued after the Internet Archive made hundreds of retro quarter-muncher titles available for play online in 2014 or the rise of game bars across the country like Eighty Two in Los Angeles or the Emporium in Chicago.
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.
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.
1329 East Main Street, Mesa
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
660 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert
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 email Captain Cutaneum to be notified the next time the portal will be open.
The Gaming Zone
930 West Broadway Road, Tempe
Local folks can get their game on at this independently owned Tempe store in a number of ways. Besides being able to buy, sell, and trade in their used titles and gear, you can also go a few rounds on any of arcade machines available for play at The Gaming Zone.
A side room at the store hosts a modest selection of titles, including old favorites from the '80s (Ms. Pac-Man and Tetris) and '90s (Battletoads, Alien vs. Predator, and The House of the Dead). There are also plenty of fighting games, too, including X-Men vs. Street Fighter, Capcom vs. SNK 2, and Street Fighter III: Third Strike.
Each game is set to “free” mode and The Gaming Zone’s proprietors charge $5 per person for unlimited play time. In other words, you can game to your heart’s delight, or until your wrists give out.
525 South Gilbert Road A-7, Mesa
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 that’s a cross between Crazy Taxi and Trauma Center, or the home-brewed 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.
Main Event Entertainment
10315 West McDowell Road, Avondale
1735 South Santan Village Parkway, Gilbert
8545 South Emerald Drive, Tempe
There are distractions aplenty at all three of the Main Events around
Like every other Main Event in North America, each of the Valley locations
Many of the games your friends have gushed about can be found here, including Spongebob SquarePants Pineapple Arcade, Star Wars Battle Pod, Alpine Racer Skiing, and The New Ghostbusters. You can also play some old favorites that have gotten a modern remix, like Space Invaders Frenzy and World's Largest Pac-Man, the latter of which features the legendary ghost-eating game projected onto a billboard-sized screen.
Dave & Busters
21001 North Tatum Boulevard
2000 East Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe
9460 West Hanna Lane, Glendale
All three of the Dave & Busters locations in the Valley go all out and over the top with pretty much everything. Its floor space is enormous, as is 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 then are the pimp prizes available for those patrons who can score a sufficient amount of tickets, including gaming systems, cocktail
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?
5000 South Arizona Mills Circle, #669, Tempe
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
801 North Second Street, #100
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 choice. For instance, Atari's classic Star Wars vector
And that’s just in the back room alone.
Out front, there are pristine versions of Heavy Barrell, Mortal Kombat II, Konami’s four-player X-Men, and Double Dragon. Like we said, Bracamonte regularly switches things in and out to keep things fresh and Cobra's clientele happy. It shouldn't be too hard, seeing as everyone's pretty stoked about the place already.
155 West Hampton Avenue, Mesa
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
9445 North Metro Pkwy East
One of the reasons that Castles 'n' Coasters ranks pretty high on our list is because of the magnificent two-story arcade located within its Taj Mahal-inspired palace. It offers one of the most diverse selections of any other amusement destination in the Valley, hands down. Where do we start? Probably on the first floor, where teenyboppers flock to spend their disposable incomes trying to win huge stuffed animals on redemption games or attempting to best their friends on any number of titles like Doodle Jump, Fruit Ninja FX, or that crazy Batman driving game.
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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4840 East Jasmine Street, #102, Mesa
Stepping through the front door of StarFighters is like falling through a warp zone into
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 an old Dragon’s Lair that’s autographed by Don Bluth, the renowned animator who helped design it. True, the place is only open on the weekends and involves a bit of a drive out to the far reaches of Mesa to get there. Both hassles are totally worth it, however, considering the quality and quantity of StarFighters’ collection.