Phoenix arcade bars highlight resurgence of retro gaming | Phoenix New Times

These Downtown Phoenix nightspots cater to the retro gaming crowd

Stardust Pinbar and Cobra Arcade Bar in downtown Phoenix are two hubs of Valley nightlife — and game play.
NBA Jam Tournament Edition and The Simpsons arcade machine at Cobra Arcade Bar. NBA Jam is a staple at Cobra and is a favorite among visitors.
NBA Jam Tournament Edition and The Simpsons arcade machine at Cobra Arcade Bar. NBA Jam is a staple at Cobra and is a favorite among visitors. Stella Subasic/Cronkite News
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In the heart of downtown Phoenix, modern spaces are bringing retro gaming back to life, drawing patrons of all ages.

Leading this trend are Cobra Arcade Bar and Stardust Pinbar, establishments that have successfully merged vintage video games with a modern bar atmosphere. The combination has captivated locals and tourists, transforming downtown Phoenix into a destination for nostalgic entertainment.

Marcus Boykin, Cobra’s assistant general manager, has witnessed this transformation firsthand since the bar’s inception. “We hit the ground running,” Boykin says. “From our soft openings in January 2016, we’ve had lines out the door on weekends, and it hasn’t slowed down since.”

The idea behind Cobra Arcade Bar is simple and unique: blend a bar with an arcade filled with classic video games. The bar’s co-owner, Ariel Bracamonte, an avid collector of arcade games, has amassed a large collection over the years.

“He had this concept of combining a bar with a video game arcade,” Boykin says. “And then he just got with a couple of investors and here we are.”

click to enlarge The inside of a game bar.
A vibrant bar scene surrounds classic arcade games and creates the perfect blend of nightlife and nostalgia at Cobra Arcade Bar.
Stella Subasic/Cronkite News

Cobra, located in the heart of Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row arts district, was a pioneer in its area. “There was nothing like it downtown when we opened,” Boykin says. “It was the whole concept of video games and bars, like that’s just every kid’s dream.”

Boykin said the bar features a rotating selection of games, which get cycled out regularly.

Some of the classics, like NBA Jam, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga and Street Fighter are favorites, but the owner also introduces new games to keep things fresh for patrons. “(Bracamonte) amassed a lot,” Boykin says, “a few warehouses just storing them.”

For many, the experience is enhanced by an authentic token system, evoking memories of a past era, “just like it was back in the 1980s arcade,” Boykin says.

click to enlarge The inside of a game bar.
Inside Stardust Pinbar, pinball machines line the walls and visitors can sit down to enjoy food from Ziggy’s Pizza next door. During the day it’s a family friendly establishment and after 9 p.m., Stardust is a club for adults 21 and older.
Stella Subasic/Cronkite News

Cobra’s success has inspired similar ventures, including Stardust Pinbar, known for its extensive collection of pinball machines. Bracamonte opened Stardust in 2019, focusing on implementing a Davd Bowie theme.

Stardust’s entrance mimics a speakeasy, where visitors enter through Ziggy’s Pizza and go through a freezer door to enter Stardust.

Though Stardust Pinbar offers a more family-friendly environment during the day, it transitions to a club in the evening, allowing adults to indulge in the nostalgic nightlife scene.

The rise in popularity of retro gaming and pinball machines is also evident in the success of Firebird Pinball, run by Kris Bliznick and Leslie Newell. Their passion for pinball machines began when they lived in Tucson. Bliznick was a mechanical engineer working at a solar company, and Newell was a journalist.

They transitioned from hobbyists in the early 2000s to business owners in 2010 and have become the go-to service for pinball enthusiasts in the Valley. “We had our second kid, we both quit our jobs at our professional jobs and started the business, sold the house and moved to Phoenix,” Newell says.

They offer on-site and in-home repair services, including full restorations and artistic additions for all brands, makes and models of electronic arcade pinball machines.

With retro gaming making a resurgence in modern spaces, prices for machines, new or broken, have increased. “I used to be able to get a broken machine for $100 or $300 or $500. Now you can’t find a broken one for under $1,000 or more,” Bliznick says.

“Every year from 2008 to 2012, I’m like, this has to be peak. It’s going to have to come down, and it didn’t. And then COVID exaggerated it even more,” he says.
click to enlarge The hidden entrance to a game bar.
The hallway that leads to Stardust Pinbar, mimics a hidden speakeasy entrance.
Stella Subasic/Cronkite News

Bliznick and Newell helped set up a few pinball machines for Bracamonte when he first opened Cobra Bar Arcade and Stardust Pinbar.

Cobra Arcade Bar has become a destination not just for locals, but also for tourists. “We get a lot of out-of-town visitors, especially during events like (Fan Fusion) and the Super Bowl,” Boykin says.

Even in its eighth year, the arcade remains vibrant and popular. “We’ve been here eight and a half years now and are still kicking,” Boykin says.

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