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Now Open: An Anime-Themed Lounge in Downtown Phoenix

The entrance to Hi-Score Club in downtown Phoenix.EXPAND
The entrance to Hi-Score Club in downtown Phoenix.
Benjamin Leatherman
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Cobra Arcade Bar co-owner Ariel Bracamonte admits that Hi-Score Club, the recently opened anime-themed lounge a few doors down from his popular downtown Phoenix joystick joint, didn’t turn out exactly how he first envisioned it.

But that’s not a bad thing, he says.

“Pre-COVID, we were going to do this Japanese arcade over in Tempe and line the walls with import games,” he says. “Because of COVID, we changed things up, played it safe by keeping it downtown, brought in all this seating, and made it more of a lounge. It wasn’t what we originally wanted, but it’s still cool and we dig it.”

Local otaku and weeaboos are likely to dig Hi-Score Club, too, given the many amenities sourced from Japan’s pop cultural landscape inside the 1,400-square-foot spot at 801 North Second Street, #108, which opened in February. A handful of imported arcade games sit in one corner. The bar's drink menu includes sake bombs and themed cocktails made with Japanese whiskey while animated series like Inuyasha and Cowboy Bebop play on HDTVs.

Anime and manga also play into the décor, as the walls are covered floor to ceiling with artwork by local creatives like Joshua Rodes, Volar Gutierrez, and Jimmy Gutierrez depicting characters from Mobile Suit Gundam, Lupin the Third, Astro Boy, and a few Studio Ghibli films.

“We brought in artists who know and love anime and let them plaster everything top to bottom with whatever they wanted,” Bracamonte says.

Hi-Score Club’s curated selection of import arcade games was hand-picked by Bracamonte from his collection of more than 350 joystick classics.

It includes Bishi Bashi Channel, a cacophonous and colorful multiplayer title made by Konami that’s a rarity in the U.S., and a pair of Sega “candy cabs,” or customizable sit-down style arcade cabinets popular in Japan loaded with hundred of retro games.

Bracamonte says he’ll swap out the selection regularly, bringing in additional import games like the light gun shooter Point Blank or the Fist of the North Star-inspired boxing title Punch Mania. (He’s also considering bringing in some pachinko machines.)

“My goal is to have fun [titles] that not many people have played; games that we don’t usually have over at Cobra,” Bracamonte says.

Anime-inspired artwork by Joshua Rodes inside Hi-Score Club.EXPAND
Anime-inspired artwork by Joshua Rodes inside Hi-Score Club.
Benjamin Leatherman

It’s not the only way Hi-Score Club differs from its high-energy sister spot, Bracamonte says, as the lounge’s atmosphere is more low-key than Cobra Arcade Bar, with fewer people and more seating and room to relax.

“It's a change of pace, a change of vibe, from Cobra,” he says. “It gives people who are tired of having everyone on top of each other somewhere they can have their own little space and chill out.”

Hi-Score Club features three seating “pods” separated with plexiglass barriers and space for eight to 10 people. Bracamonte says it was designed to conform with statewide restrictions by the Arizona Department of Health Services on bars requiring patrons to stay seated, which were lifted in late March.

Lounge-style seating inside Hi-Score Club.EXPAND
Lounge-style seating inside Hi-Score Club.
Benjamin Leatherman

“When we were putting things together for the club earlier this year, we had to adapt things because the restrictions were [still being enforced],” Bracamonte says. “To be honest, it worked in our favor. People kind of like having more seating and having something different than Cobra.”

Another consequence of the pandemic: Hi-Score Club’s grand opening was relatively under the radar. “We kept things a little low-key because we didn’t want to blow things out and have all too many people here and get lit up by [ADHS]," Bracamonte says.

Now that restrictions are lifted and an increasing number of people are being vaccinated against COVID-19, Bracamonte says Hi-Score Club is welcoming in anyone and everyone.

“People can come by and check it out, even if they aren’t fans of anime,” Bracamonte says.

Hi-Score Club, 801 North Second Street, 602-595-5873. Hours are 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., Wednesday through Sunday.

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