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Published: Friday, 3/2/2012


Where are the video games, Chuck?


Chuck E. Cheese.

For many parents, just mentioning the name brings fear and panic, but for me it's cause for pained nostalgia.

Robotic rat Chuck E. Cheese and its chain of Pizza Time Theaters were founded by Nolan Bushnell in the mid-1970s. If Bushnell's name triggers only vague familiarity, I'll spare you a trip to Wikipedia. He is the man credited with bringing the video game Pong to the masses. He also founded Atari.

And Bushnell wanted a place for kids to play his coin-operated games, which at that point were most often found in pool halls, back rooms in bars, and other places families didn't frequent.

So he developed the concept of a family-friendly pizza parlor with a robotic animal band that also happened to feature video games. Lots of video games.

"We were running out of locations" to place arcade games, Al Alcorn, a former executive at Atari, said in Steven Kent's well-researched The Ultimate History of Video Games. "… Malls weren't interested in letting us open arcades. So Nolan figured, 'OK, I'll go into food service.' "

When Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications in 1976, the media company acquired the rights to Chuck E. Cheese as well. Two years later, Bushnell left Atari and bought back the rights to the franchise for $500,000. During the video game boom of the early 1980s, his California-based Pizza Time Theater prospered, spreading nationwide.

But by the video game crash of 1984, the company was nearly bankrupt and Bushnell sold the chain to his corporate rival, Showbiz Pizza Place Inc., now CEC Entertainment Inc. Chuck E. Cheese's, as it's been rebranded, rebounded and continues to thrive, appealing to pre-teens with its mixture of indoor play equipment, Skee ball, and kiddie motion rides.

But Chuck E. Cheese's isn't what it once was … or what Bushnell intended it to be. While attending a recent birthday party, I counted only 15 arcade games. It used to be that a typical location would feature 100 or more machines.

Video games' lack of importance at Chuck E. Cheese's mirrors the demise of the arcade, which by the mid-1990s was all but gone from neighborhoods and malls.

This column is really a note to say how much I miss the arcade. The smells. The sounds. The sights. The tokens. Even the bad music blaring on the jukebox.

I was such an arcade game junkie growing up that I would wear roller skates just so I could play a wide selection of games at a popular rink. I almost never skated.

Video games were part of my youth and my life, and malls will never be the same without them.

And after my recent visit, neither will Chuck E. Cheese's.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734. Follow him on Twitter: @bladepopculture.

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