Back before consoles debuted, gamers blew into their cartridges to make them work, or DLC was a thing, the experience of gaming almost exclusively took place inside the colorful, neon-lit halls of arcades. From Pac-Man, to Street Fighter, to the later classics like Marvel vs. Capcom and Dance Dance Revolution, arcades were as much a place to play the latest and greatest new cabinets as they were a chance for gamers to connect with their hobby on a deeper level, surrounded by others that enjoyed it as much as they did.
That idea comes to the forefront of the documentary film The Lost Arcade, which chronicles the history of the iconic Chinatown Fair in downtown Manhattan that gamers called their home and knew (unofficially) as New York City’s “last arcade.”
Originally opened in 1944, Chinatown Fair grew over the decades into not just a community for New York City’s arcade dwellers, but also a safe (and sometimes necessary) home for the city’s diverse and underprivileged youth, who often were seeking a place to build friendships and escape the hardships of their lives.
The Lost Arcade tells the story of Chinatown Fair during its last week before its closing, with the film examining the lives of many that were a part of the arcade’s history on a personal level, but while also exploring arcade culture as a whole. Though arcades were naturally driven out by the rise of consoles and the expanding pace of technology that drove them to become obsolete, The Lost Arcade makes a strong case for what’s been lost in the years since arcades rained supreme, and how their spirit may still live on today.
Ahead of the film’s upcoming digital release in June, DualShockers had the opportunity to interview director and editor Kurt Vincent for his insights on the creation of The Lost Arcade and how Chinatown Fair (and other arcades like it) truly served as a home for gamers, and how their influence can still be felt today.
The full-length trailer for The Lost Arcade, directed by Kurt Vincent, which debuts digitally on June 1st, 2017.
Thanks Kurt for giving us the opportunity to chat and learn a bit more about The Lost Arcade. Can you just start us off by introducing yourself and telling us a little about the film?
Kurt Vincent: I am the director and editor of The Lost Arcade. And to me, The Lost Arcade is not just a story of this one arcade in New York, but it’s a portrait of an era: of a culture that is almost gone but represents something that will always be around, which is people wanting to come together and play games together.
To me, it’s a celebration of competitive gaming and the fact that Chinatown Fair was so diverse because of the fact that these games brought everyone together: it was a common language that everyone spoke, and continues to speak to this day.
And now to go into Chinatown Fair. What first led you to discover Chinatown Fair and then decide to create a film that would tell its story?
KV: I heard that there was an arcade in New York City – where I’m from in Ohio, most of the arcades closed a long time ago, and there’s a few “family fun center” type of arcades, but they definitely lost that sort of “feeling.” You know: they’re not like teenage hangouts.
So, when I was living in New York I’d heard that there was still an arcade around, and so I checked it out one night – it was a Friday night – and it was just thriving. It was full of people and an amazingly-curated selection of games. It sort of blew me away that in this city with such high rents and the fact that everybody plays games at home on their consoles, I was just really shocked to find it so “alive”: it wasn’t just like a “retro nostalgia trip.”
It was actually like young people that never experienced the original arcade boom or the second wave even: it was just like “new” to them and they were playing new games. And then shortly after that first visit, I actually learned that it was closing, so that’s when I was like “Ooh: I should go there and see what stories I can find, because it did represent to me sort of like “the last arcade in New York City”: that’s significant because it’s such a big city and I figured that there aren’t too many more of these places like that.
The documentary explores the iconic Chinatown Fair arcade, long regarded as “the last arcade” of New York City, during its final week before closing (and its life afterwards).
Yeah, that was actually something that I was going to ask as well: when you sort of first discovered Chinatown Fair, did you go in to this film knowing that it was going to close, or was that something that you learned during the making of the film?
KV: The impetus was that I had actually read on the Internet that there was a rumor that in a week, Chinatown Fair was gonna close. You know, “in seven days they’re getting evicted.” And no one knew if it was true because the owner and the worker were giving a lot of different stories, but it was enough for me to just show up with a camera and start meeting and talking to people. Because I figured if it was the last week of it being there, someone should document it.
I had no idea that we would uncover this really rich community and subculture. I just figured we’d come out with a short little web video, you know: the last moments of this place. But the more that we met the people and learned how special the place or important the place was to these people, there was more to tell.
A clip from The Lost Arcade featuring photographer Anthony, who captured the arcade’s last moments in New York City. (Video via IGN)
It seemed like this project kind of came together pretty quickly, as you mentioned. How long was the film in production and did it take to make?
KV: So once we filmed that first week – and then it closed seven days later – we filmed just a few days in the arcade and then we were left with this question of “Well: what do we do with it?”
I had some of the guys there and through talking to them I realized that Sam Palmer (the owner of Chinatown Fair before its closure) was this like really important figure there. And so, we decided to launch a Kickstarter and that led to us getting some initial funding to start exploring the stories, finding the characters, and what we wanted to do.
So then, Henry Cen – the manager of Chinatown Fair – shortly after the closing went off to keep the community alive and he opened an arcade in Brooklyn (called Next Level). So, we started filming that story and we started editing thinking it was this arc, and then all of a sudden, we found out that Chinatown Fair was gonna reopen.
Every time we thought we were “done” with the story or thought we had a handle on it, it just completely shifted. But all in all, it took like three and a half years of work, during production – I’d say like four years from here, so it’s been pretty crazy.
Aside from the history of Chinatown Fair itself, The Lost Arcade also explores the stories of many of the arcade’s regulars and the community that thrived there.
One thing I was curious to ask as well was sort of your own personal history with gaming before The Lost Arcade. Did you have any connection with games or were really into them before making the film?
KV: Yeah, I’ve always liked games: I always have. I’m 34 and I grew up with a Nintendo Entertainment System first, you know, sort of a “taste” of gaming. But I’m like very casual and just enjoy getting together with friends and playing.
That’s kind of what brought me to the arcade in the first place: just sort of that feeling when I was a kid playing. But as an adult, at the time that I started shooting the film, I didn’t own any game consoles or anything, or a PC. I wasn’t gaming at all.
So, it was more or less just me drawn to this really unique place and I just sort of connected with these people and how authentic the place was. And that’s rare in today’s culture: just a really important community center, and it became an important story to tell.
Yeah, for sure, and I think that was definitely one of the things I noticed about the film was that it was almost just as much about the arcade as it was about the people that went there and the community. That kind of leads into the documentary, where we get to see a lot of people tied to the arcade – like Sam, the owner, or Akuma, their employee – and we get to learn about their backstories. What drew you to their stories to sort of represent Chinatown Fair in the film?
KV: We started realizing pretty quickly that everybody had ended up at Chinatown Fair for similar reasons. We just told the stories that we connected with, like Akuma: we had real personal relationships with Akuma, and Anthony, and Henry.
And so those are the stories that we focused on. I guess it’s not the most objective approach, but I don’t know: those are the types of films that I love. I like really personal stories. And so, I wasn’t gonna spend a lot of time with people we didn’t really get along with or find interesting, so that’s kind of how the story developed.
Games like Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom, and others were some of Chinatown Fair’s biggest draws among its fighting game community.
As the film has been out theatrically for a little while, what has been the reaction to the film from gamers, the fighting game community, or arcade-goers that have seen it?
KV: Oh yeah, I mean we’ve shown the film all over the world and arcade-heads and serious competitive gamers have come out to watch it. And of course, the competitive scene in New York, they’ve all come out to see it. Yeah, I mean they’re all so happy that somebody is showing the world the value of their passion.
Gaming – it’s less so now – but there’s a still a bit of a “stigma” connected to video games with people saying “it’s a waste of time” and all that. So, we’ve gotten a lot of really positive feedback from people just saying like “thank you” for doing such a nice job of showing the depth of this community and what it means to us. It’s kind of like giving a voice to these people.
One of the things too while watching the film was also the way that it gives brief glimpses of some of the arcade classics like Street Fighter, DDR, Marvel vs. Capcom – some of the “mainstays” of the arcade scene. Did you have certain games in mind that you wanted to highlight through the film, or were some of those suggested by the people that you filmed? How did those games sort of wind up having a part in the film?
KV: Yeah, I mean Street Fighter was just like so overwhelming the game played at Chinatown Fair. It sort of defined that scene more than anything other. The original Chinatown Fair of course had other scenes around DDR, racing games, and all that, but the fighting game scene dominated the original Chinatown Fair.
Among all other games, the Street Fighter franchise was always the most important. So early on, I realized that Street Fighter was an important sort of “character” in the film. And then obviously at Next Level, Henry totally formed that arcade around fighting games. And then towards the end of the movie, you see Chinatown Fair sort of evolve into a rhythm game arcade.
Chinatown Fair was not only an arcade, but served as a key community center for young adults in New York City from wildly diverse backgrounds.
One thing too towards the end of the film with Next Level opening in Brooklyn is how the film touches on streaming and more modern developments in gaming. Do you see that as sort of an extension of the spirit of arcades and the way that they helped to form communities?
KV: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you can’t fight technology, you know what I mean? I mean, you can, but it’s a losing battle.
I love how streaming – you know like Twitch – is a great platform because it’s so community-based and it’s giving a voice and a table to connect people through their chats and their participation with the streamers themselves. It’s a really cool platform.
And to see someone, like the Spooky guys streaming at Next Level – which is sort of like this “new” thing: it’s like combining the digital with physical. That I think is amazing: I hope we see more things like that, bringing people together and forming real communities that can also foster the community in real life.
I think Twitch has definitely helped Next Level’s business – I don’t know how much, but I mean I was at a Street Fighter V tournament a couple of months ago and they’re still streaming them every Wednesday nights (at least they were). There were probably 60 people there that night, and I only recognized five people.
I think with Street Fighter V coming out it brought in a new crowd, but I think a lot of people found it because of streaming. So, yeah: I think the future is definitely gonna be bringing people together online but also in real life, which is really cool.
While the original Chinatown Fair closed in 2011, the arcade returned in 2012 under new management, with a new community coming to experience the arcade since its reopening.
Yeah, and when I was watching the film too I think it kind of reminded me of a similar situation that happened with record stores. I think record stores and vinyl places and things like that were also very community-focused, but technology kind of drove them out in the same way that arcades did. So I don’t know if maybe you saw any similarities with the arcades with even cinema, where there is also a lot of relation with that, to what happened in The Lost Arcade.
KV: Yeah, we met a lot of people who found parallels to various cultures: the record stores, bookshops, and cinemas. Actually, I think that gaming is pretty well-suited and that the future of arcades has potential.
People are always going to want to play games against each other. It’s just more fun to do it side-by-side: that’s one of the reasons why barcades, are like…I mean there’s like a “Golden Age” of barcade. 15 years ago there was none, and now there’s hundreds – I’m in Columbus, Ohio right now and there’s like four barcades here, and that’s insane.
It’s getting easier and cheaper to produce video games, and that’s gonna keep getting better. So, I think you’ll see more and more independently-produced video games made by people that aren’t sort of hindered by the economic scale that the big producers are: you know, they gotta make hits. They gotta spend money on their games and make massive hits that will be sold online to millions of people.
But, there’s also a whole sector of people that want to play games like Killer Queen or Rerave that those games are made for the arcade and they don’t need to sell a million titles. So, I think the barcades are gonna keep the arcades alive – and I think that there might be more arcades that are gonna pop up. Not just barcades, but real live arcades with indie games and fighting games and music games. I’m optimistic.
The Lost Arcade draws a special focus towards the communities and people that kept the business alive through the decline of arcades in the 90s and 2000s, and shows what has been lost (and kept alive) from traditional arcades today.
In the film, we saw both the opening of Next Level in Brooklyn and the reopening of Chinatown Fair under new management. Have you kept in touch with either of the locations since making the film, and how have they been doing?
KV: Yeah, I have. Yeah I still stay in contact with Lonnie (the owner of Chinatown Fair after its reopening) and Henry actually, and I stop by both their arcades every once in a while.
Chinatown Fair is continually evolving. Lonnie’s doing a really good job of bringing in new games – they’re not all new games, he’s actually bringing in a lot of funky, cool Japanese arcade games. Some of the games I don’t know if there’s any other places to play those games in America.
He’s got this really awesome game that you flip a cable – I forget the name of it – but it’s awesome and kind of a cult Japanese game. And it’s been well – it’s very much a rhythm and music game scene, and there’s actually a pretty good racing scene as well. He’s got the newest Initial D, and it’s really awesome. So he’s happy, and his two grandsons are actually old enough to start working and helping out at the arcade, so if you walk in you might see Jonathan and Jessie behind the counter.
And then Next Level. So Henry moved to Brooklyn after Chinatown Fair because the rent was cheap – and a year ago he actually had to move locations because the block he was on is like gentrifying. There’s like a fancy coffee shop across the street and some restaurants, and the landlord was raising the rent. So, he had to scramble and he ended up finding a location in Sunset Park off on 4th Avenue, and it’s a smaller location but it’s also closer to the train, and he’s very happy.
He says it’s actually been increasing business and it’s easier for young kids to get to. He’s seeing a lot of youngsters coming in and playing card games, which he’s also selling there. Street Fighter V came out and that also was really great for business. They’re both still open and it’s awesome.
That’s awesome. As my last question, what do you hope audiences – whether they’re gamers or non-gamers – take away from watching The Lost Arcade?
KV: I hope they recognize that the scene at Chinatown Fair and Next Level are uniquely diverse, and that is very rare, especially that no one set out to “create” that either. It wasn’t sort of “designed” to be that way, and it’s all because of the ownership being really open-minded and chill and letting people be themselves: and the other thing is that it’s video games.
I hope people realize that video games are not just a waste of time, and that they can be very meaningful – the experience of playing them together can be very meaningful – and it transformed these people’s lives. And that’s something I had no idea: I did not know any of that. So I hope people connect with that.
The Lost Arcade will release digitally through iTunes, Amazon, Steam, and other on-demand streaming services on June 1st, 2017.