I looked up lots of things about the Salt Lake City area months before moving there: schools, housing prices, utility prices, jobs, restaurants, retro arcades.
Retro arcades? Well, yes. I’d think you would have to be completely new to the blog to know that Fayetteville, Arkansas’ own Arkadia Retrocade was quite rightly regarded by the entire family as “the happiest place on Earth”. Before or after the divorce, if we needed a stiff shot of undistilled happy, we headed up I-49 to Fayetteville to visit Arkadia’s vast collection of working vintage arcade video games, where you pay five bucks at the door and get a great big dose of happy.
Both of my boys have been weaned on the classics of the ’80s – Little C is a Q*Bert and Ms. Pac-Man fan, while E is a fan of more elaborate console quests like Super Mario and Legend Of Zelda. Finding a good family-friendly retro arcade along the lines of Arkadia on our new turf is seriously a top priority. I’ve heard a lot about Flynn’s Retrocade in Roy, Utah, but that’s further away from our current home base than Fayetteville was from Alma – it’s at least an hour’s drive north, closer to Ogden than to Salt Lake City. Much closer than that is The Atomic Arcade in Holladay, just slightly east from Salt Lake City. Online reviews were a muddled mix of positive and negative. My overall impression from a brief visit with my kids tended very much toward the negative.
Atomic Arcade isn’t an easy place to find if you’re new to the area, though when you pull up, it seems like a promising array of classic coin-ops is visible through the window. The operative word here is “seems”.
When you step inside, you immediately get a very different picture: the arcade contained probably 50 to 75 games when we visited, but I would estimate that 80% of them were out of order and powered down.
And that’s nearly tragic, considering some of the top-notch A-list and sleeper-hit titles lined up.
Particularly disappointing was the healthy selection of 1970s titles – increasingly difficult to find intact and maintain – sitting idle, dead to the world, and unplayable. The amount of dust on the non-working machines were a measure of just how long it’s been since anyone was able to play any of them.
Now, I understand that the older games, especially the pre-CPU-era ones, are especially hard to keep running, but they were sitting next to much more recent arcade games also powered down in disrepair – Virtua Cop 2, Star Trek: Voyager: The Arcade Game, and other much more recent specimens.
Overall, it was just a sad sight – far, far more non-working games than games that were playable.
There were some nice vintage cocktail cabinets there as well – Warlords was up and working, while other classic specimens were – again – out of order, including the 1978 Atari Football table and the first Solar Fox machine I’ve laid eyes on since that game was brand new in the arcades. (Solar Fox also seemed to have mated with part of a coffee table at some point, in an effort to raise its height.)
But I’m a hardcore guy and a past collector of video games. What did my kids think? Their reaction would best be described as…unimpressed. Little C was happy to play both Q*Bert and Ms. Pac-Man “for real”…but he was very soon asking when we could go. I gave E a dollar worth of quarters…and he only used two of them. He picked up on the less-than-well-kept vibe that I did.
There were two entrances, one that almost opens directly out onto busy Highland Drive (average speed limit: 40mph), with no one watching. We’d been in the arcade for nearly five or ten minutes before the proprietor noticed we were there. He didn’t really care one way or another that we were there. There were traditional change machines and an ATM on the premises; you’ll have to forgive me if the upkeep of the place didn’t make me want to stick my debit card into the slot to get more quarters. But that’s okay. The kids were ready to go; when even the three-year-old can tell this isn’t his scene, you’re officially a seedy arcade. And Atomic Arcade, truthfully, is barely an arcade – more actual arcade games would have to be up and running for me to refer to it as such.
Rating: half a star. There are some great machines at the Atomic Arcade – the best thing that could happen to them would be for them to change hands and wind up at a place like Arkadia Retrocade that would at least try to get them up and running. Atomic Arcade could be amazing – rare early Kee Games titles like Tank! and Super Bug (neither working), both Tron (working) and Discs Of Tron (not working), vintage vector classics like Omega Race, Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator and Tempest (none working), and more recent fare such as Star Trek: Voyager (also not working) – with its historic selection of classic coin-ops. But whoever’s running it would have to actually, you know, give a shit.
But Atomic Arcade is situated between two bars, and that probably reveals its real reason to exist this morning: it’s a hangout. No one really cares about the games, either maintaining or playing them. They’re just furniture. There were more ants roaming the arcade floor than there were patrons. Empty beer bottles filled the trash cans. As retro arcades go, this is one of the saddest sights I’ve ever seen. Recommendation: don’t bother with the place that proclaims itself “Utah’s classic arcade experience”.
3939 Highland Drive
No hours posted
No admission charge – all machines still 1 play per quarter