Stepping into The Coin-Op Arcade is like being transported back to the early ‘80s.
The first thing I saw were the old arcade games along the left wall, the screens luring me further in with crude animations of alien invaders, ripped heroes, and ultra-fast cars. A pair of pinball machines drew my gaze to the back wall, where they share a small corner with a change machine.
Only then did I realize I was standing next to a bar. Behind said bar was Brian Henon, the youngish man that owns the place. He offered me a friendly greeting as I surveyed my surroundings.
The place was dimly lit, with a single window at the front of the building providing most of the light. The cheery bleeps and bloops of nearly a dozen games reminded me of the time when arcades were the rule rather than the exception. My ears perked up when they caught the bouncy ditty that heralds the start of “Ms. Pac-Man.”
I closed my eyes and inhaled a deep, cleansing breath that took me back to a simpler age, when all I needed to play a game was a quarter, and all I cared about was getting the highest possible score.
The only thing that was different was the bar. Back in the day, my drink of choice while gaming was a cherry Slurpee from 7-Eleven, although many time travelers will appreciate the option to have a beer. For parents who bring their kids, Brian keeps sodas and kid-approved snacks on hand as well. He also has a menu that includes barbecue sliders, a jerk chicken bowl, and a tuna melt, among other things.
Hey, gaming is hard work. You can really develop an appetite.
As I munched on a freshly made tuna melt, washing down each tasty bite with a bitter 16-bit Double Pale Ale, I noticed another difference: the handmade, hip-high tables located next to each game cabinet. I glanced at my can of DPA, and it struck me that the tables are the perfect place to set one’s drink.
It’s a simple touch, but also pure genius. I wish I had a dollar for each time I kicked over a Slurpee as I tried to complete a wave of “Robotron: 2084” when I was a teen. Being able to place my drink on a table while I play frees up my feet to do other things, like support my frame as I use my hips to help navigate Pac-Man around a tight corner.
Controlling a video game with our motions is only possible with the newest generation of gaming systems, all of which are absent from The Coin-Op - as they should be. Brian’s place is no big-name restaurant chain stocked with kitschy amusement park rides. Rather, it’s a joint - a humble one-man show squeezed between a club and a crumbling brick building on the corner of M.L. King Boulevard and Houston Street. It might not be the fanciest place in Chattanooga, but Brian did all the right things with his small space.
Take the eighties memorabilia, for instance. There’s the “Nightmare on Elm Street” poster above the pinball machines, the boxes of Franken Berry, Boo Berry, and other sugary cereals on a shelf behind the bar, and a life-size cardboard standup of Jean-Luc Picard, also behind the bar. These hallowed artifacts add another layer of atmosphere to a place that already feels pitch perfect.
Perhaps you’re thinking I’ve fallen victim to a bout of nostalgia, and that my vision is distorted by a sheen of tears. If that’s the case, then I’m not alone. As I sit at the bar, a father is playing “Rampage” side-by-side with his son, who looks to be six or seven. A college-age kid is hopping from game to game, slowly emptying a Styrofoam cup full of quarters. And a half-circle of friends has formed around a woman in her mid-thirties as she tries to beat the high score on “Millipede.”
I decide to jump into the fray, as the itch to play something was becoming unbearable. As a teen, I spent a lot of time scratching the arcade itch, and became good enough at a handful of games to play them for several hours on a single quarter. One of these was “Galaga,” a shooter in which players control a small spaceship located at the bottom of a two-dimensional screen and shoot down wave after wave of alien invaders. This was the game I eyeballed as I crossed the room.
The arcade experience encompasses a number of time-honored rituals. I observed each one with the proper reverence as I prepared to play: I stepped up to the machine, slid a quarter into the slot, and then slapped the one-player button. As I gripped the joystick, I could feel the years melting away, and when the first swarm of aliens dropped, I was back in Aurora, Colo., in 1982, spending a carefree afternoon at the arcade next to the movie theater.
My goal was to beat the high score, which was just under 300,000 points. I barely made it. As the two most dreaded words in all of gamedom appeared on the screen (“Game Over”), I entered the initials that once dominated the “Galaga” and “Star Wars” machines in my hometown: DBL.
Before I left, I talked with Brian, who’s about as nice a guy as you can imagine owning a place like The Coin-Op. His memories of growing up include playing arcade games in the back of Yesterday’s on Georgia Avenue, which his father and uncle owned. The inspiration for The Coin-Op was simple: “I wanted to open a place for weirdos,” he said. “Weirdos are awesome.”
I spoke with some of Brian’s clientele, including Megan Morris, the thirty-something “Millipede” whiz, who shatters the stereotype of games being a guy thing. Not only does she own nearly every major console, but she’s decorating an entire room in her house with a “retro gaming” vibe.
I wanted to bow. “This place combines my two favorite hobbies,” she said. “Drinking and playing games.”
I raised my 16-bit in honor of her love of old games and then told Brian goodbye. He’s done something special with The Coin-Op. While many businesses in Chattanooga are busy trying to be the next big thing, he’s created a space in which people can simply relive the hours they spent in dimly lit arcades, awash in the glow of cascading aliens and immersed in an electronic cacophony, spending quarter after quarter to play just one... more... game.
For hours, call (423) 708-7492, or follow “The Coin-Op” on Facebook.
To see more photos, pick up a copy of the Hamilton County Herald.