Insert Beer to Continue: Craft beer, cocktails, and nostalgia are reinvigorating the modern arcade

Bar arcades like Up-Down in Uptown Minneapolis draw all kinds of gamers and beer fans // Photo by Jordan Johnson

Bar arcades like Up-Down in Uptown Minneapolis draw all kinds of gamers and beer fans // Photo by Jordan Johnson

“Pinbot circuits activated”

Up-Up-Down-Down-Left-Right-Left-Right-B-A-Start

“Finish him!”

If you were born between 1980 and 1990, these sayings were probably—and maybe still are—part of your lexicon. Even if you didn’t grow up stomping Goombas or trying to rescue April from the Shredder, you might have gleaned the language from an older brother or cousin. For those of us weaned on scrolling screens, those earworms seemed to occupy the body. At the beach, for instance, if we dunked a friend underwater, we’d cap off the victory by saying, “Toasty!” And there was no shortage of onomatopoeic blips and zaps that echoed from our backyards as we ninja-kicked and shell-shocked.

Walking into Up-Down in the Lyn Lake district of Minneapolis on an unusually warm night in September, I’m immediately baptized in a sonic nostalgia. Intermittent whoops and hollers—a level-up? a new high score?—resound throughout the large, open space. There’s the “cha-ching” of slotted tokens. The crack and roll of Skee-Ball. And the unmistakable blip, blip blip and ptzew! of games like “Galaga” and “Pac-Man.”

Skee Ball is one of the classic arcade games that taps into the nostalgia of childhood at Up-Down // Photo by Jordan Johnson

Skee Ball is one of the classic arcade games that taps into the nostalgia of childhood at Up-Down // Photo by Jordan Johnson

The greatest attraction, however, isn’t the scrollers from the days of yore; it’s “Killer Queen,” which was released in 2013 and boasts being the only 10-player arcade strategy game in the world. The two-monitor system sits awash in the purple haze beaming down from the “This Must Be the Place” neon lettering. (That’s a Talking Heads song for you youngsters.) Two teams of five post up and chatter tactics. Onlookers crowd around to watch and side-seat strategize. A few minutes into a new game, someone shouts, “Nice kill!”

With all this hoopla—add to it “Mario Kart” on a projector screen and the giant Jenga setup on the patios (yes, plural)—it’s easy to imagine getting carried away, wandering down Nostalgia Alley for hours. Which is why Tilt Pinball Bar, a mile to the northeast, offers a more focused (dare I say refreshing) experience.

Though no less consuming in sound and flashing color, and with a maximum capacity of only 80 people to huddle around 22 pinball machines, Tilt feels more manageable. John Galvin, one of the three owners and operators, says they wanted the space to be more family-friendly, which is why they open at 11am, and are only 21+ after 9pm.

He sees all kinds of people coming in, from pinball enthusiasts to neighbors to couples killing time before a concert downtown. They also host tournaments, leagues, and attract pinball die-hards. Galvin, whose father worked in the coin-op business for over 30 years, cites his collection of 50-plus machines, all in various states of functionality. The surplus allows Tilt to swap out machines if one breaks down. You’re not likely to see an “Out of Order” sign for more than a day or two.

The machines vary in age and style—though, fear not, ‘80s babies can still hook up to the nostalgia drip with “Bride of Pinbot” or “The Addams Family.” The oldest machine currently on the floor is “Cow Poke,” which dates back to 1965, and the newest, “Star Wars LE,” was released in 2017 and installed at Tilt in August.

“I don’t like to sell them or get rid of them,” Galvin says, “it’s a problem. We’ve got the ‘Batman’ machine, for instance, which is the limited edition version, which is upwards of $10,000. There’s even a super-limited edition that was offered for $15,000. Some enthusiasts and collectors will cringe and say, ‘You can’t put that game on location and let it get beat up on!’ But I don’t know any other way. I do it for other people to see and enjoy. That’s how Tilt Pinball Bar came to life.”

Galvin, who sports a Surly hat and jeans, quit his career in finance to help his father ease into retirement. The coin-op industry has changed over the years, with traditional arcades going extinct and countless articles over the years declaring the arcade dead. But spaces like Tilt and Up-Down are trending all over the country. There’s Emporium in Chicago, the Ground Kontrol in Portland, Oregon, which has expanded multiple times, and the Brooklyn-based Barcade chain, which has all but consumed the Northeast with locations in Philadelphia, New Haven, and Jersey City.

Pinball machines at Up-Down // Photo by Jordan Johnson

Pinball machines at Up-Down // Photo by Jordan Johnson

As an avid pinballer himself, Galvin understands the allure of the combination from the customer perspective. “For me personally, I love pinball, but I love it even more with a beer.” And adding craft beer and cocktails into the mix can provide a major source of revenue for entrepreneurs looking to reincarnate the arcade scene. As evidenced in the decline of traditional arcades, $10,000 machines don’t exactly pay for themselves with 25-cent plays.

“It’s not ‘this is what’s hot right now, let’s throw these games in a bar and make some money,’” Galvin says. “For me, it’s a passion.” He sees more enthusiasm than nostalgia, more craft than feeling. The no-frills space invites players to not just whack the ball with the bumpers, but rather learn how to strategize, master ball handling, and maximize points.

By showcasing over a dozen local breweries, curating a custom cocktail list, and offering a chef-driven snack and hot dog–centric menu (Carrie McCabe-Johnston, one of the owners, oversees the kitchen at Nightingale)—all in a sleek and modern space with globe lights—Tilt is elevating the arcade into the “craft” realm.

Galvin looks forward to collaborating with more breweries like Sisyphus, whose Double Danger IPA is exclusive to Tilt. (“Double danger” is pinball insider language. Most games flash “Danger!,” then “Danger! Danger!” and finally “TILT!” when shaken or maneuvered too much.)

Up-Down shares a similar fervor for craft beer. To conjure the spirit of each region—they also have locations in Des Moines and Kansas City, with more in the works—they dedicate (at least) 25 percent of their taps to local beer.

All the fun and games (and alcohol) begs the question: Are these bar arcades and pinball bars just nostalgia zones with booze?

David Hayden, Up-Down’s marketing manager, does see the power of nostalgia at play with his customers. “When you walk in and see that game you played 20 years ago, that game you loved and played at arcades or laundromats or bowling alleys, that’s a magical moment.” And with collaged images of Suzanne Somers and Eazy-E pasted on the walls and “The Big Lebowski” playing on the big screen, Up-Down works to amplify that nostalgia. In fact, that is Up-Down’s pervading ethos: remember when?

But the fun doesn’t just navel gaze. Hayden says, “It’s more than just putting games in a room. We’re dedicated to creating a holistic experience for the guest.”

Part of that holistic experience is “Coins for a Cause,” where one night a month all the proceeds go to a local charity. Family Tree Clinic, a sliding-scale reproductive and sexual health clinic in St. Paul, recently received said proceeds. Last year, Up-Down collectively donated over $75,000 in cash to charities.

Immediately after I walked into Up-Down, I had to laugh. Two large men with luxuriant beards embraced each other, dry humping to try to squeeze a laugh from their flanking girlfriends. Two friends, maybe in their early 30s, rock-paper-scissored to determine who got to play “Galaga” first. The bartender with a short-shaved mohawk air-guitared Gaslight Anthem’s “The 59 Sound.” It was all too much. Everything, down to the pizza window, reeked of kitsch. But then, after a drink and an hour of full-submersion, I found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, tapping away at the six-person “X-Men” cabinet (which I used to stand in line for). My wrist began to cramp, and, as we started to die off, the guy to my left pulled out a pocketful of coins and set them out in front of the buttons so we could finish the job. And, dammit, we did it. We defeated Magneto, and walked away with a sense of accomplishment.