If you thought a documentary about a grimy New York City videogame arcade would be the last thing you’d ever be interested in seeing, take note: Kurt Vincent and Irene Chin’s The Lost Arcade is one of the best films I’ve seen on arcade history. Well, the history of ONE particular arcade known by its fans as a second home where skills were honed and lifelong friendships and friendly rivalries were built. Years in the making, this look at the legendary Chinatown Fair arcade is fascinating and moving because it focuses more on the people who played and worked there than on the games. That said, there’s plenty of game footage as well as gamers playing and talking about what they love here. In fact, it’s the passion on display when these people talk about why they play and how CF became so important in their lives that keeps this flowing from start to finish.
(Thanks, International Film Festival Rotterdam!)
I have my own history with CF from many trips back in the 80’s (those dancing and Tic Tac Toe-playing chickens, and a broken Astron Belt machine looping endless plays are strong memories), but the documentary only touches briefly on those days and is more focused on the huger fighting game scene and players that cropped up from the 90’s until its closure in 2011. The notorious Playland in Times Square as well as the great arcades in New York’s Penn Station get mentioned (with archival footage, to boot) here. But the film dips downtown and shows how CF really struggled against that competition but eventually won out once all those arcades were shut down and the area became a more vapid slice of neon lit tourist traps. Amusingly enough, there’s not a whisper about Barcode, the over-priced two floor arcade/bar that popped up in 2000 and lasted three up and down years before shutting down thanks to assorted violent and not-so legal incidents.
As noted, it’s the people the film focuses on that make this special, so “meeting” the longtime second owner, a few employees, and longtime patrons really lets you see slices of their lives and how CF helped shape them into better people. Still flawed and “normal” people, but better for the bonds they created. After CF closed in 2011, one former employee decided to keep the dream alive, starting up Next Level down in Brooklyn, NY, which has become a huge player in the fighting game tournament scene. We also find out that CF gets purchased and reopened as a brighter, more family-friendly gaming center catering to a wider range of gamers. That presents a new set of challenges to the new owners, as well as some emotional moments when former regulars drop by to see the changes.
If all this and more hooks you in, you can (and should) consider pre-ordering the DVD version here. A roll of quarters for years of memories is a small fee well worth it if you remember CF as being the spot you hung out at until the wee hours. Highly recommended.