Documentary - The Lost Arcade

When Steve Taylor-Bryant watched a documentary about a New York gaming arcade, he found The Lost Arcade is about more than just the games...

I was never the biggest gamer. I never went to arcades or played arcade games like Donkey Kong, so when The Lost Arcade came across my desk at /G-f Towers I was like "Really? You want me to review a documentary about a gaming arcade?" But, having watched the trailer and realised that the place looked like the arcade in Season 1 of Mr Robot, I decided to give it a go.

The Lost Arcade is an intimate story of a once-ubiquitous cultural phenomenon on the edge of extinction, especially in New York City, which once had video arcades by the dozen. These arcades were as much social hubs to meet up and hang out as they were public arenas for gamers to demonstrate their skills. But by 2011, only a handful remained, most of them corporate affairs, leaving the legendary Chinatown Fair on Mott Street as the last hold-out of old-school arcade culture. Opened in the early 1940’s, Chinatown Fair, famous for its dancing and tic tac toe playing chickens, survived turf wars between rival gangs, increases in rent, and the rise of the home gaming system to become an institution and haven for kids from all five boroughs. A documentary portrait of the Chinatown Fair and its denizens, The Lost Arcade is a eulogy for and a celebration of the arcade gaming community, tenacity and Dance Dance Revolutionary spirit.

A bit like watching Mr Robot in a weird way, everyone who watches this will get something different from The Lost Arcade. Perhaps, if Nate McKenzie watched it, you’d get a review about the pop culture nostalgia of the place and the time or, if the Defective Inspector watched it, he’d be engrossed in the retro gaming aspect of it.

What I found at The Lost Arcade was a story that was less about gaming and more about community. If you’re of a certain generation, you will all have one memory from back in the day of where everybody was together, all your friends in one place, and nothing else mattered. For me this was the youth club at RAF Rheindahlen in Germany. You could turn up any time of day or night and find your friends already there. There was no prior organisation for meeting up, no need for social media or phone calls. You just turned up and someone you knew would already be there – it was a place you belonged. I’ve written about this time in my life before. It was a simpler time, a time when I was at my happiest. For everyone involved in this documentary by film-makers Irene Chin and Kurt Vincent, they got that feeling from this arcade, the Chinatown Fair in New York.

For a lot of people in the documentary, it’s about the closure of something important to them. For geeks and gamers it’s a cultural thing. For me, it’s about the end of an era for all of us of a certain age. Some in the documentary talk about missing the games themselves, others miss the camaraderie, some find that the no longer have the sense of purpose that the Fair provided. For me, I’ve never been to the place, never even been to the States, but I got a real emotional reaction from watching the film that made me reminisce of my own youthful days. Whilst there’s certain characters, like Henry Cen and Hokuma Hokura, that the documentary spends more time on, I didn’t buy into their individual stories as such, instead I bought into the greater loss of the many.

From a technical angle, the documentary itself was incredibly well made. The cinematography was highly evocative, the interviews engaging and the narration was pitched just right for the audience, informative but not overly detailed. Couple this with the fact that it was wholly funded through crowdsourcing and The Last Arcade should be a must watch for anyone interested in documentaries anyway.

But I also felt an emptiness at the end of my time with The Last Arcade; that my life was somehow not as rich as it could have been because I had played no actual part in this essential cultural story. I can only hope that future generations learn that it’s not necessarily the dollar you need to chase, it’s the family. And that, whilst everyone had a great time at the Chinatown Fair over the 70 odd years it was open, the fact it could still be closed and that nothing could be found to replace it should be a lesson to us all that we need to protect those things that make our life a little bit sweeter.

As I said at the start I’m not a gamer. I don’t miss Donkey Kong, or games that remind me of Tron. I don’t even miss Tron. What I do miss though is walking into a room that was a teenage equivalent of Cheers for me, where everybody knew my name. And where, for a split millisecond of my life, everything was easy.

Image & synopsis -

The Lost Arcade documentary opened in San Fransisco on 5th August and opens theatrically in New York on 12th. It's coming out on VOD in September.
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