This is the first in the series of Arcade Road Trip 2018 blog entries about a day-long trip I took to three modern video arcades in the midwest on August 2, 2018.
There are a few arcades in the United States that are probably on all video game enthusiasts’ lists of places to visit before they die: Funspot/The American Classic Arcade Museum in Laconia, New Hampshire; Ground Kontrol in Portland, Oregon; and Galloping Ghost in Brookfield, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. I have been to all of them — a couple of them multiple times — and they all offer something different. They are also probably the most famous arcades in the country, so I feel like if you’re a fan of these Arcade Pilgrimage articles that I write, today’s installment may be one that you’ve been hoping for.
Galloping Ghost’s claim to fame is that it’s the largest video arcade in the US, if not the world.
Although Funspot/ACAM has held that designation for decades, GG passed it up in sheer number of games on the floor quite some time ago. Their approaches and offerings are somewhat different, though, and both are equally exciting places to visit for their own reasons.
Whereas ACAM has only original, dedicated machines and proudly displays nothing made after 1988 (and still manages to be an enormous collection), the mantra at Galloping Ghost seems to be “anything goes.” Yes, GG has its share of original, classic, and rare dedicated cabinets, but they also go beyond that late-’80s cutoff and offers loads of games made in the JAMMA era and beyond, all the way up to more recent machines from the 2000s-2010s. They also have some prototypes and rarities that will make you think “how did they even get this?” and one-of-a-kind machines that you literally will not find anywhere else.
I first visited Galloping Ghost in 2012. At that time, they “only” had about 400 games on the floor. Unfortunately, I only spent about 30 minutes there as I was a bit pressed for time, but I did get to play some great titles and took some photos, shown below.
Above: Galloping Ghost circa April, 2012
When I started this blog in 2016, I considered using those few photos and my brief experience for an Arcade Pilgrimage article. But in the years that have passed, GG has expanded their collection to well over 600 machines, and a lot more interesting items, so I had wanted to get back there anyway. To really do GG justice, I knew it was worth a return visit.
Upon arriving at Galloping Ghost and entering the front door, you pay $20 at the counter for full access (you may come and go all day with your receipt), and all the games are either on free play or have credit buttons installed. I started walking around to get an overview of the place, figure out where everything was, and decide how to attack it. Below is a video I took as I walked, giving you an overview of the entire arcade.
The first thing I thought was, “Let’s hurry this up and dive in!” Further exploration revealed many gems that got me excited, and my feeling turned to, “I may have to cancel the rest of my plans — it’s gonna take all day to play everything!” But the walkaround continued…and continued…and continued. There are corners, nooks and crannies, multiple side rooms, all crammed full with games. Games I knew well, games I hadn’t seen or played in 30 years, games I heard of but never got to play, games I’d never even heard of (well, not too many of those).
Soon my elation turned to feeling overwhelmed. Suddenly I had no agenda. I literally didn’t know where to start.
I had to take a step back and organize my thoughts. There was no way I was going to play all my favorite games AND revisit some that I rarely get to play AND try out all the games I had never played. What I realized is that an arcade this size can be many different things for different types of gamers, and you have to decide what you want out of your visit.
This is what I mean by that: Of course they have to have the famous classics like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Frogger, Joust, Tetris, and so on. Older folks who remember the heyday of arcades might be here and say “hey, I used to play this back in the day,” or casual gamers might stop by to see what it’s all about (or perhaps their hardcore gamer friend or significant other dragged them here), and they’ll enjoy the heck out of those games, while the other 80% of games are completely unknown to them and therefore hold no interest. Other gamers might come here to play specific games only; for example, there is a whole room of shmups (*SWOON*), and a bullet-hell fanatic could spend all day here working on a few specific games he or she is trying to 1CC, and ignore the more common titles right around the corner.
So I realized that I didn’t drive almost four hours to Galloping Ghost to play Ms. Pac-Man. There were two types of games I wanted to experience that day: games I haven’t seen in decades, and games I have never played. Once I narrowed it down to those priorities, it was no longer overwhelming and became the playground that an arcade should be.
Despite the ostensible chaos, the games are actually more or less organized into sections. Many series are lined up in a row, such as all the Street Fighter titles, all the Mortal Kombat games, and the Gradius series.
Some rows are all a certain manufacturer, like all the Williams titles, Bally-Midway titles, or a few Exidy games all grouped together.
There’s a row of driving games, a corner of Star Wars games, and some laserdisc machines near each other.
One of the rooms has a number of very rare ’90s titles, and there are some massive (and more recent) Konami games such as Silent Hill The Arcade and Metal Gear Arcade. Now of course, there are stragglers from each genre strewn about the arcade, but for the most part, there’s at least an attempt at some cohesion.
So, enough jack-jawing: let’s play some games! You’re probably asking, after all this, what’s the first game I played?
I couldn’t resist hopping into Solar Assault, the black sheep of Konami’s Gradius/Salamander series with a unique behind-the-ship view. It’s an experience that can only be had in the arcade, not only because it’s a rad cockpit cabinet, but also because Solar Assault never came out for a home console. A fine choice to kick off my day; I didn’t complete the game, but played at least four credits’ worth.
From there, I played a little Gradius II and Mappy in the shmup room (see what I mean about stragglers?), and then I had to go visit my old favorites, the laserdisc games.
I played every single LD game they had: Cobra Command, InterStellar, Dragon’s Lair, Dragon’s Lair II, Galaxy Ranger, Time Traveller, and Deathstalker. Seeing functioning laserdisc games again was an amazing thing that hit me right in the feels.
I hadn’t seen Cobra Command in an arcade since I was 8 years old. I was awful at it back then, and I’m not much better at it now. The machine here did not start on the New York City level, however; it started in a level of green fields with geese flying through the air. I got blown up by the first wave of enemy choppers and didn’t make it anywhere. Still, just seeing and playing a Cobra Command again was like reuniting with an old friend, and I had to take lots of pictures.
Inter Stellar Laser Fantasy by Funai, however, was an altogether new experience for me. I have never seen this game in the wild and was eager to check it out. It’s the type of LD game that has standard video game graphics overlaid against laserdisc backgrounds, and the game is sort of standard Galaxian-esque left/right shooter fare. Nothing too impressive, but fun nonetheless.
I also don’t think I’d ever actually played anything by Funai, either, so there’s that crossed off the list, I guess.
I had to take a crack at Dragon’s Lair and DLII, of course; I’m well familiar with both of those. I did okay at DL but had to work a bit at remembering my way through DLII; I didn’t finish either of them but I always enjoy playing both.
Sega’s Galaxy Ranger was another first for me; the sequel to Astron Belt, it’s another game I’d never seen in person before, although I had played Astron Belt once or twice as a kid, and it’s a very similar game. The interaction between the video graphics and the film footage is pretty convincing.
A little bit of Time Traveller really brought me back to the ’90s. Sega’s sleight-of-hand “holographic” games didn’t last too long in the arcades, but I was shocked to make it through a few levels as easily as if I had just been playing it at the mall last week.
Then there’s a game called The Spectre Files: Deathstalker. I knew nothing about this game when I saw it here, but I found out what a fascinating project it really is.
Deathstalker is a full-motion video game where you play a detective investigating a haunted house. The movie plays out and you must make multiple-choice decisions at certain junctions, just like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. There are branching paths and multiple solutions. The movie is cheesy and yet somewhat ambitious, clearly made in the ’80s, and yet the cabinet’s presentation is modern, with a flat LED monitor and crisp computer graphics. What’s going on here?
Close examination of the cabinet’s marquee reveals the line, “‘Lost’ Laserdisc Restoration by Galloping Ghost Productions.” I know that Galloping Ghost has created a couple of their own games in the past, but I hadn’t heard of this project. A little more snooping turned up GG’s reveal video from last year annoucing the game.
It’s 40 minutes long, so if you don’t have time, here’s the short story: The Spectre Files was a game in development by Brian F. Colin at Midway during the laserdisc arcade game fad. Apparently, they tried to use the practically dead-in-the-water CED format instead of laserdisc, and between that and the decline of LD games’ popularity, the game was shelved. GG owner Doc Mack and Colin worked together to resurrect the game, and it’s now a working, playable machine. How totally kickass is that?!
Moving on from my laserdisc fanboyism, I then spent some time on other games I’d never gotten to play.
Funnily enough, I had just been thinking about how I wanted to try Taito’s Night Striker, and here it was.
Monster Bash by Sega is a game that I remember seeing at a local pizza parlor when I was maybe 7 years old, but never got to play; I also completely forgot the name of it in the subsequent years, and had trouble finding info about it. Well, that curiosity was finally satisfied after all these years.
As a teenager, I was a big fan of Judge Dredd comics. When the Sylvester Stallone movie came out in 1994, I was so disappointed in it that I kind of backed off from anything relating to Judge Dredd for a while, so I don’t even remember Midway’s arcade game coming out. Well, the game is pretty great — it’s a scrolling beat-em-up with digitized graphics — and it’s another rare find.
Kick, by Bally-Midway, is another one of those games I’d seen as a kid but never tried. Actually, Kick came out in 1980, and a follow-up, KickMan, in 1981. I don’t know if there’s much difference between the two.
Of course, as an absolute Metal Gear fanatic, I had to try Metal Gear Arcade — one of the only Metal Gear games I’ve never played.
…unfortunately, I couldn’t really figure out what I was doing, or maybe it wasn’t working properly. There’s an assault rifle with a lot of buttons and a thumbstick, you can change your view from first-person to third-person, but I couldn’t seem to figure out what the hell I was doing.
This would be a good time to bring up the fact that the “entry fee with unlimited free play” business model that many arcades are using now can be a good thing. If you try a game and aren’t feeling it, or you get blown up within ten seconds, you didn’t waste a quarter on it. Likewise, you can continue on a game until you beat it, and you don’t feel like you’ve spent too much.
The other large-scale Konami beast, Silent Hill The Arcade, was unfortunately not running at all. But I did duck into its dark, draped cabinet and grab a quick photo of part of its control panel.
Look — I can’t even tell you about all the other games I played. I did play some old favorites (I always have to take Donkey Kong for a spin no matter what), and I discovered a lot of games I didn’t know about. Let’s just look at some more pictures, shall we?
Here’s an interesting item: In The Hunt, installed in a converted Data East cabinet. They used the unique curved shape of the Data East marquee to create a water-filled diorama. Hilarious idea, but unfortunately, it’s gotten all moldy and gross.
One thing that you may have noticed is that there are a lot of JAMMA games put into generic cabinets, and custom-made marquees. Many of these games probably did not have dedicated cabinets, and most of them are actually Japanese games, which would have been found in sit-down “candy cabs,” like the Sega Astro City or Taito Egret, in game centers over there. It’s clear that at Galloping Ghost, the priority is not always on perfect presentation, but on getting games out there and playable.
At first, I was a little surprised that an arcade that offered so many Japanese games wouldn’t have a single Japanese-style candy cab in the entire place. But thinking about it, the space constraints would make that a hindrance, as there would have to be room for stools for players to sit at, thereby using up more valuable floor space than an upright machine. With that in mind, I’m still glad that so many games are being made available to play, even if their housings aren’t so pretty.
Speaking of valuable floor space, that’s the only other negative about Galloping Ghost — there are almost too many games. There are corners where you literally have to turn sideways and squeeze between machines to move, and the rows are so packed full that if someone’s playing a game, you probably won’t have room to play the game behind them. But again, it’s obviously all about making as many games available to the public as possible, and that’s an honorable mission.
Most of the games are in good working order, although as with any arcade — especially one of this size — there are machines that are down, and I did run into a couple control issues (Elevator Action’s joystick wouldn’t move up, and Monster Bash’s wouldn’t move down). Keeping over 600 games in working order must be exhausting though, so the fact that 95% of what I played worked perfectly was a pretty damn good track record.
Eventually though, I had to quit. I had further plans for my day, and even though I could have spent all evening working my way through the rows and really squeezing every bit of value out of my 20 dollar cover charge, I felt I had had enough. Luckily, nobody enforced (noticed) the fact that I had been parked in the 2-hour street spot around the corner for more than 2 hours, and my vehicle was left undecorated by any citations. As I drove away, I spied a building a couple blocks down the street with the name “Galloping Ghost Productions” on the window, with a bunch of machines inside. This must be their workshop where they get their classics working, put together their JAMMA cabinets, and develop their in-house projects.
So what did I take away from my second, and more thorough exploration of Galloping Ghost? They really love games, and they want you to love them too. The arcade hobby may not always be about perfectly-restored collectors items to ooh and ahh over and touch only with white gloves — often it’s just about the playing experience, as it should be. As much as I played, I may or may not have played $20 worth of games (that would be 80 games at a quarter apiece), but if I didn’t, it didn’t bother me at all. I don’t mind giving them 20 bucks to support their work, because I really appreciate what they do here and I would make the 4-hour drive to visit again.