When people talk about the romantic grunge of New York City in the ’70s and ’80s, they tend to point to the same handful of ironically cherished neighborhoods and atmospheres — the sleazy excitement of Times Square when it was home to grindhouses and porn theaters, the rat-strewn, heroin-den mystique of the punk-rock East Village and Lower East Side. At the time, the appeal of those places was more infamous than obvious, yet the seduction of their squalor has taken on a glow of nostalgia. In hindsight, it’s not hard to see why they exude an allure of dirty-boulevard cool.
But when you reminisce about the video-game arcades that began to pop up in the late ’70s (in the wake of the success of Space Invaders, which came on the market in 1978), you have to reach a little deeper into the mindset of gritty New York chic to define what was great about them. Kurt Vincent’s scrappy and affectionate documentary “The Lost Arcade” is about the last of those venues to close down, an amusement parlor called Chinatown Fair. Located along an anonymous stretch of Mott St., it had a plain dingy white marquee that looked like it was decorating a mediocre Chinese restaurant about to go out of business, and once you entered the place, it would be stretching things to say that the atmosphere was “colorfully seedy.” It was blahly functional, with bulky video-game consoles stacked next to each other like refrigerators in a warehouse. The only hint of décor was the fire-engine-red walls.
A video-game arcade anywhere from San Francisco to Knoxville, from Cleveland to small-town New Jersey — by 1981, there were 24,000 such places in the United States — would probably have looked like a more inviting place to go. Yet in a funny way, it was the bland, dilapidated functionality of an arcade like Chinatown Fair that made it such a quintessential product of the New York of that earlier era. It’s not just that the place looked cruddy. There was an air of indifference hanging over everything about it — a sense that it wasn’t being run, it was just there, for anyone to use who happened to stumble onto it. It was like the random inner-city industrial wall that a graffiti artist turns into his makeshift canvas: Before that happens, it’s just another ugly New York brickface, but the spray-painting transforms it, giving the wall a purpose. That was the thrill of pre-makeover New York City. It was a place so rundown that anyone who chose to could turn it into their playground.
That’s what the kids did in Chinatown Fair. They had nothing but those games, and out of their obsession with them, they formed a connective community that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The most striking thing about the nostalgia of “The Lost Arcade” is that it’s not for the ’70s or even, really, for the ’80s. The movie is a ’90s nostalgia trip. The kids who mobbed Chinatown Fair and turned the place into a scene were too young to have had a jones for Pac-Man or Defender. They were battling-avatar kids, hooked on the aggression of games like Street Fighter and Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat and Marvel vs. Capcom and Killer Instinct. The strongman comic graphics of those games now look as bright and quaint as the covers of early-’60s “Doc Savage” paperbacks, and the displacement they represent is almost touching: In round after round, the kids were competing to beat each other up, and the more closely they competed, the more they became comrades. The arcade was their quarter-fueled club away from home.
Vincent interviews a number of Chinatown Fair’s loyal patrons, who keep coming back to that sense of community, and what the movie never quite comes out and says — though you can feel it in its bones — is that what they’re really talking about is the last of the pre-Internet days, when people didn’t connect digitally because there was no way to connect digitally. They weren’t part of some larger “network.” The whole network — the whole universe — was right there in that room, and that was the magic of it. Arcade video games actually had one foot in each world: digital and analog. Literally speaking, they had put a face on digital technology, going back to Pong, but they were also like pinball machines: large, heavy contraptions that had the comforting, rooted aura of something mechanical. And you had to go out of the house to play them. Until, of course, you didn’t.
The movie shows us plenty of footage from the glory days, and inside that dank arcade you can see and feel the hum, the vibration among the patrons. It’s a nightly gaming party. Chinatown Fair became a hip destination: In 1984, Robert De Niro and Meryl Street shot a scene for “Falling in Love” there, and in 1995 Ol’ Dirty Bastard shot the video for “Brooklyn Zoo” there. But the days of the arcades were numbered from the moment the Nintendo Entertainment System was introduced, in 1986. It was only a matter of time before the game experience at home became as good or better than the one offered by the arcades, and Chinatown Fair spent years whistling past that graveyard. It was an anomaly, hanging on by its claws (thanks to low Chinatown rents) long after Playland, in Times Square, has closed its doors. Vincent interviews Sam Palmer, the Pakistani immigrant who bought and ran the place, and who knew absolutely nothing about video games (to him, the arcade might as well have been a laundromat), and he talks to Henry Cen, the sleek young fellow who was hired by Palmer to maintain the machines, because he knew everything about video games.
“The Lost Arcade” has a bouncy synth-pop score built, engagingly, around the sounds of the old games, and it carries you along on a raggedy tide of ’80s-into-’90s nostalgia. But it doesn’t have the craft or momentum of a great video-game doc like “The King of Kong.” Vincent spends a good amount of time, maybe a little too much, following the post-Chinatown Fair world, in which Henry Cen sets up an arcade in Brooklyn called Next Level. He’s trying to keep the dream alive, but an “arcade” that consists of a bunch of desks outfitted with home-video-game stations is missing something. It’s not just that the old consoles were cool; it’s that the community they fostered was organic. “The Lost Arcade” is an engaging minor movie, but it touches on something that’s being lost in the age of technology that’s much bigger than video-game arcades: the feeling that there’s a reason — driving and inescapable and romantic — to leave home.