Photo by Chris Casella

The King of Quarters

Our quest seems just like a mission on your average arcade level.

Stashed away in an old grain mill, just off the intersection of Olentangy River Road and King Avenue, we find about 70 vintage video games and pinball machines that comprise the “original” Arcade Super Awesome. It’s a place you’ve passed a million times not knowing that inside is John Geiger’s life’s work. It’s a veritable time machine.

Half the space serves as Geiger’s present and future. Tracermedia Interactive, a software company he founded 18 years ago, is where he spends most of his time coding and running the business. The other half though is a maze of pristine arcade cabinets, cocktail games, and pinball machines that faithfully vaults wanting travelers back to a particular bowling alley or mall, Pizza Hut or amusement park, or perhaps a Dairy Queen from their youth. I don’t see the Double Dragon that from when I was 12 and would ride my bike to the UDF, nor the Congo Bongo that was the highlight of a trip to Ground Round, but never the mind, this is Geiger’s vision, and his past is vivid and dynamic.

“Down the street from my house growing up, the Dairy Queen put in an arcade,” remembers Geiger. “They would always rotate in new games. One of my goals when I started collecting was to have every game that was ever in there. It was dark, with a bunch of 15 year old kids, smoking cigarettes, and doing things they couldn’t get away with anywhere else. They eventually shut it down because back then arcades were always a bit seedy.”

On the day of our second interview Geiger is psyched for his recent procurement of a Journey cabinet (on the collectors’ list of “holy grail” games), though he’ll need to either ship from, or travel to, Wisconsin to make it a reality. In getting to know Geiger and his intentions, one finds that he’s more art collector and historian than reclusive obsessive or Donkey Kong savant. Sure he’s got a checklist—the search for complete sets and rarities is indeed important—but crafting the perfect arcade has always been the goal. It’s something he refers to as a “disease.” Arcade Super Awesome is his ideal gallery, a portal to the golden age of arcades.

“An arcade in the truest sense is that confluence of ambient light, video games, pinball, and music,” says Geiger. “Once I had assembled that I drank a few beers and laid on my back to admire all the machines turned on, I was back in time, in that place, but realized what I was missing was the people. It wasn’t an arcade without the people.”

In 2009 he started inviting those “people” and made Arcade Super Awesome a community—a family-friendly, BYOB, Mecca for any wannabe Marty McFly needing to go back in time. The crowds flocked whenever Geiger opened the doors, his collection became celebrated by notable icons in the field, and the absolute genesis of the current Columbus arcade boom was formed.

Catch the Wave

It’s a Wednesday night in late September and the newly minted Arcade Super Awesome atop Old Towne East’s Yellow Brick Pizza is brimming with the curious eager to try a round on the Killer Queen (see page xx) which is set to free play. There’s a group watching from the fringes trying to cut in when a player resigns for a beer. Owner and neighborhood impresario Bobby Silver basks in a hive of his own design. With discreet lighting, psychedelic murals, kowabunga paint lines befitting a roller-rink, modern art, and infinity mirrors, he made sure selfies are optimal and encouraged. Silver and Geiger set out to raise the bar, to plant the germ of a culture in permanent place. As a collaboration, it’s Geiger’s time machine on full tilt.

Arcade Super Awesome is unique in that the video games are at a minimum. Pinball rules the space. There’s a reason after the city’s first wave of “barcades,” which cater to the Pac-Man or Street Fighter nostalgia, that Geiger has shifted his focus. The decision, when you hear Geiger explain it, becomes nearly philosophical in scope.

“Seeing the social and the cultural side of pinball, there was just something more to it,” says Geiger. “I love the video game world, but it is one person vs. the video game. When I started watching pinball I saw that there was a lot more interaction. It’s deeper. The game play is deeper, the design is deeper. As machines they are just fascinating.”

Indeed, there’s always been a love for pinball, and arcades for that matter, which has traveled the whole of the Midwest. Chicago has always been ground zero for coin-operated machines—being the birthplace for Midway, Gottlieb, and Williams—and it sent legal, and for a long while, illegal, games of chance, but eventually skill, in a trail through the Rust Belt. That an arcade revival is huge is Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, makes sense. Ergo the nostalgia for pinball at Arcade Super Awesome.

As far as a cultural tail, Geiger cites the three elements of pinball that will keep it relevant and growing; those being luck, skill, and knowledge of a game’s design and maximizing points. If the arcade is about experience, then pinball is about getting a different experience and outcome for every single quarter. As much as I hate the band Kiss, the Kiss pinball game is worth as many quarters as I can shove into its slot.

“The pinball era that I collect was a renaissance of engineering and design,” says Geiger of the pinball machines he curated for play at Arcade Super Awesome. “It’s like …And Justice For All by Metallica, where Metallica had the technology but they were still raw. Master of Puppets is awesome, but it just wasn’t as refined yet.”

No Quarters?

In the beginning it was easy. Geiger talks about his first love, a now-battered Mr. Do, which he lugged from campus house to house during college. Back then, when the arcades were dying, you could find Centipedes in alleyways or Defenders for $25 at fairground auctions. Now you’re lucky to get a Dig-Dug for under three large. But does that history cheapen their value and necessitate the “free play” model? Until Geiger and Silver find an adequate manufacturer of Arcade Super Awesome tokens, the quarter is the dominant currency.

“I have nothing against free play,” says Geiger about his peers’ penchant for giving away the “experience” for free. “But I value the quarter as a contract. When I was young I would dig through old cushions to find quarters and then take that quarter as far as I could in a game.”

We both reminisce about allowances squandered trying to make it past a few screens of Dragon’s Lair. That system and exchange, Geiger claims, has really never died, it’s just evolved. The arcade as we know it today is a Dave and Buster’s with games as thrill rides and extended phone apps. Somewhere the idea of community and culture evaporated, something the current wave of arcades may not be able to perpetuate. For one, the market for classic arcade games has dried up, therefore the social culture of “barcades” gravitates towards drinking rather than gaming. Geiger will be the first to admit that he’s green when it comes to the world of “barcades,” for him the games come first.

Despite the limiting factors that have come with the boom, Geiger continues to forage. The hunt is endless. Cathode ray monitors cease to be made, Atari vector games are rare, and eventually these machines break beyond repair. Geiger is more concerned with curating and preservation. With those who can fix and maintain these aging machines few and far between, it’s been Geiger’s passion to educate about restoration, to catalog what remains, and keep what’s left around for many years after the “barcades” stop making money. But that doesn’t stifle Geiger and his quest to make Arcade Super Awesome a destination that transcends the “barcade” model. He’s already courting world record holders to visit, planning Killer Queen tournament nights, and collaborating on events with the Columbus Ohio Pinball Association (which is gaining members by the day). As Geiger echoes “trends and nostalgia have a tail,” one he predicts will stick around for a while, if only because Columbus is a fertile place for both.

“There’s definitely a bubble to the “retrocade” nostalgia, but I do think that the “arcade” is something that will be around for a number of years,” concludes Geiger, “especially with pinball and Killer Queen. Both of those bring the social aspect to the front. It’s good for bringing people together to play games and interact in this sort of environment.”

For more information about the “original” and “new” Arcade Super Awesome visit arcadesuperawesome.com.

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