This visit has been a long time coming, in more ways than one. Aftershock Classic Arcade is a new game room that’s actually been around for over 20 years. Confused? Sure you are! That’s why I’m here to tell you all about it.
Here’s the rundown: Aftershock Classic Arcade, located at 1444 E. Washington Avenue in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, is the latest iteration of Aftershock Retrogames, a business owned by a gentleman named Brad Van. Brad opened the first version of Aftershock on the north side of Madison back in 2000, and ran that arcade for a few years. He then moved it to a storefront on the hip and bustling State Street in the middle of downtown Madison, which he shared with a business that offered LAN PC gaming. Unfortunately, that location closed, and Brad took to placing many of his machines on location and acting primarily as an operator. Over the years, he partnered with other businesses, running game rooms in a number of different locations such as pizza restaurants and retail stores, with varying degrees of success. Through it all, Brad continued to search for the perfect avenue to share his huge collection of arcade machines with the public. Finally, in 2020, he found a large space right on Washington Ave (the main artery that leads directly into the heart of Wisconsin’s capitol city), and in January of 2022, finally opened Aftershock Classic Arcade.
Now, before I get any further, let me get the full disclosure out of the way: Brad and I have been friends for at least 20 years, if not longer. We met when I visited his original location and became fast friends as we are both huge video game nerds, artists, and children of the ’70s and ’80s. I was just dipping my toe into the arcade collecting scene, and over the years Brad and I have bought and sold games to and from each other and helped each other out wherever we could. Even though I lived almost 2 hours away, I made trips to Madison at least once or twice a month to hang out. I was at the closing night party of the original Aftershock (a whole arcade on free play with all the volumes turned up, rock ‘n’ roll cranked throughout the building, freely-flowing beer and piles of pizza, and eventually, Brad’s well-known sludge-rock band Droids Attack playing an impromptu set), and I spent lots of time at his State Street location (including the night he finally got his Dragon’s Lair machine running with the then-newly-reissued laserdisc and enhanced ROMs, and he put it on free play so I could spend 4 hours running it through the wringer until I had played through it two or three times). As you may know, I am a professional tattoo artist, and I did both of Brad’s full sleeves of arcade artwork (with the exception of two pieces that were done by Madison tattoo artist Matt Cooper). If you read issue 3 of the Retro Game SuperHyper fanzine, you may have seen them; and, in issue 4, I did an entire interview with Brad as we discussed what it’s like trying to survive as an arcade operator, with a couple pictures previewing his new arcade space.
So yeah, we go way back.
After all that time, and with a lot more gray in our beards, we’re still friends. And it was with this history between us that I was very excited to finally see his latest endeavor.
Let’s start with a quick video tour!
(Note: This was my first time filming with a GoPro and my first time editing a video with Adobe Premiere Pro — hopefully I’ll get better at both!)
Despite my past days spent hanging around Madison a lot when I was younger, I actually had not been there in around 15 years. On top of that, I was feeling bad that I hadn’t been down to see Aftershock as soon as it was opened. So when an opportunity finally opened in my schedule to make the trip, I jumped at it.
The new Aftershock Classic Arcade follows the currently-popular business model of the “barcade,” with a full bar attached to a large arcade. (Don’t worry though — Aftershock is family-friendly too.) The entrance leads directly into the front room, where not only the bar is located, but also some of the arcade’s rarest and most popular games. It’s here where you’ll find not only good ol’ Pac-Man, Galaga, and Defender, but also some of the crown jewels of Brad’s collection: Chiller, Death Race, Discs of Tron, Star Trek SOS, and an astounding DECO BurgerTime.
Should you decide to belly up to the bar for a drink and a snack, however, the gaming doesn’t have to stop. There are two monitors built directly into the bar with control panels beneath them, which run JAMMA games that can be regularly swapped out. When I was there, it was In The Hunt and Final Fight ready for action.
The centerpiece of the bar is an oversized replica of an Atari 2600 — but one suitable for placing your drink upon.
Clearly, this is not a bar with an arcade attached as an afterthought — this is a bar as envisioned by a gamer.
Crossing the throughway next to the bar leads to the arcade proper: an appropriately old-school labyrinth of around a hundred games, all in excellent condition. Brad hand-restores a lot of the cosmetic details of his original cabinets, and creates attractive custom cabs for games that are not original with his own marquees, bezels, CPOs, and sideart.
It may not be immediately noticeable, but the lighting rig on the ceiling is actually a giant Pac-Man maze! Normally lit up in blue, the colors can be changed for holidays and special occasions. This month (June), it’s displaying rainbow colors to celebrate Pride Month, because everyone is welcome here at Aftershock.
About a dozen pinball machines anchor the center back part of the arcade (in addition to a few in the bar), a choice selection including Twilight Zone, Black Knight 2000, and Monster Bash.
Continuing past the pinball and past a replica of the animatronic clown from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (no, seriously), we enter the back corner, which houses some larger cabinets, a couple more cocktail tables, a cool Asteroids mural, and of course, that ol’ Dragon’s Lair machine.
The DL machine is no longer running the laserdisc, of course — it’s pretty hard to find any LD games running original hardware these days — instead, it’s running the game off a much more reliable Dexter board, which is pretty standard among arcade operators now.
The arcade’s lineup is a great mix of well-known classics side-by-side with lesser-known titles, giving all of them equal chance to be seen and played. I spent time with favorites like Gyruss, Elevator Action, and Robotron, and also played some machines I’d never tried before, like Sky Kid and China Gate. And I know Brad has dozens more machines in storage that haven’t even hit the floor yet.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Aftershock offers a great beer selection and a full range of spirits and cocktails, as well as solid bar snacks like giant soft pretzels and some great locally-made pizzas from Madison’s own Pizza Oven. Honestly, between the awesome game lineup and the down-to-earth bar, I could have spent all night here. I actually can’t say that about many other arcades I’ve been to.
Although it’s been open for six months now, Aftershock is still a work in progress. In-house high scores are recorded via an online site, but plans are in place to display them on monitors throughout the arcade. Brad is working on restoring a couple of Skee-Ball machines and a crane machine that will be available to enjoy soon. And of course, there’s the ever-present daily list of games in need of maintenance.
While I was there, we made a few fun videos playing some rare and favorite games together, which will be featured on Aftershock’s Facebook and Instagram, and we discussed possible future collaborations on projects like t-shirts and podcasts. Brad and I are both idea guys who always have something cooking. The great thing about the new Aftershock is, I know Brad has expressed some of the ideas it incorporates — like a bar with built-in games — to me as early as his first location. He’s kind of like Nintendo: never throwing away an idea, and hanging onto it until it becomes a reality. And as Aftershock has fought tooth and nail to stay alive in various forms over the last 20 years, and “barcades” have finally become quite popular in the past decade, it’s clear that Aftershock is an idea whose time has finally come.
I’ve been to a lot of arcades, and Aftershock ranks as a world-class place that deserves your attention. Brad is a real video game fanatic and a big kid at heart — who better to support with your tokens?
Aftershock Classic Arcade is located at
1444 E. Washington Ave, Madison, Wisconsin, 53703.
Open 11am-10pm Sun-Tues, 11am-Midnight Wed & Thurs,
and 11am-1am Fri & Sat.
Phone (608) 819-6119.