In the late 1990’s arcades were in their death throes in the U.S. Arcade games, that once held an edge in terms of their technical ability against home consoles and PCs, were slowly but surely being usurped by better technology being released for the home. Soon, there really was no reason to actually go to an arcade, other than for the novelty. Arcade owners needed a hook to get people in the door. One of those hooks would eventually lead to some enterprising folks to launch an arcade at the “Crossroads of the World.” Whoever, gave that moniker to Times Square is an idiot by the way.
The Times Square Renaissance
Times Square in New York City wasn’t always the tourist attraction that it is today. Matter of fact it was a pretty rough and tumble place in the 70’s and 80’s. A shit hole, if you will. If you were a man, looking to score some smack, and make sweet love to a prostitute who may, or may not be a woman, Times Square was the place to be.
That began to change in the 1990’s though. Realtors always say, location means everything, and that was the one thing Times Square had going for it at the time. It was a centrally located hub, in the heart of midtown Manhattan, and mega corporations like Disney, Viacom, News Corp., started gobbling up large junks of it. The goal was to bring a certain amount of prestige back to the area, and harken back to the 1940’s and 1950’s, where manly men like Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. would hang out at the Copa Cabana and slap cocktail waitresses on the ass. “HERE’S YOUR TIP KITTEN!”
"...And then I told her, the money's on the table you ditzy broad!"
When Disney started buying up real estate, I actually remember people complaining, saying things like, “They’re going to turn the place into a theme park!” In retrospect, they had a point. In the 70’s and 80’s, New Yorkers avoided Times Square because it was packed with strip joints, hookers, and drug addicts. Today, they avoid it because it is choked with a gaggle of tourists and people dressed as super heroes and children’s characters who WILL attack you if you don’t tip them after taking their photo. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and watch this.
And I thought homophobes and anti-Semites only hung out on Xbox Live…
I’d like to give a friendly word of advice to anyone planning on visiting Times Square. That guy in the Elmo suit doesn’t actually work for the city to entertain tourists like they do in Disney World. If you find it odd that Spiderman, Batman, Elmo, Dora the Explorer, and Mickey Mouse, characters that normally don’t go together, have banded together just to amuse you, trust your instincts and avoid them. THEY ARE IMPOSTORS!
On a side note, there are days when I enjoy passing through Times Square after work forgoing the subway ride. Congestion and commercialization aside, if I’m in no big hurry, I like to walk through it just to people watch and take it all in. It is still impressive, even though it’s a major pain in the ass to traverse.
Sometimes, I’ll see Elmo, groveling for a buck, and even though I know it’s not really him, I still feel bad for the little guy just the same. I watch a lot of Sesame Street, because my daughter loves the show, and in particular, the little red monster known as Elmo. Instinctively, I feel sorry for him. His red fur caked in dirt, matted down, and stained by what totally appears to be vomit. It’s almost like Elmo has hit hard times. Maybe he fell behind on the mortgage payments on his house on Sesame Street and the bank foreclosed. Now he’s doing all that he can to scrape by. Then I realize that it’s all an illusion, and not really Elmo, but a tweaker in a costume.
The point I’m trying to make is that there is a lot going on in Times Square. There’s a lot of foot traffic and a lot to take in. What better place to open up an arcade? That arcade would become known as Barcode.
New York’s Own Arcade “Club”
On May 9, 2000, Barcode opened up its doors on Broadway and 45th Street. This was in the midst of what many people called the “Times Square Renaissance”, where establishments like the Virgin Megastore, Toys R Us and theme restaurants like the ESPN Zone were opening up in the area practically every month.
Barcode Times Square was actually based on an Australian concept of the same name, which opened locations originally in Sydney and Melbourne. The New York version would bill itself as an exclusive arcade “club”, with two floors of games, music, eclectic atmosphere, with food and drinks. Because of its location and interior snazziness, the games and drinks did not come cheap.
The exterior of the “club” fit the aesthetic of the location. It had a bright neon sign, mimicking a barcode. There really was no indication that it was an arcade. The signage simply said “Barcode”. Upon entering, you travel up an escalator to where you were met by, no joke, a burley bouncer.
Shortly after the grand opening, the bouncer strictly enforced a dress code of no sneakers and no t-shirts, but this policy was eventually abandoned. Money is money, and to turn someone away because of their footwear is pretty stupid, especially when you’re trying to sell $8 beer and $2 videogames. They really wanted to push the upscale club aesthetic, but turning potential customers away is not the best policy.
The first floor was billed as the more family friendly of the two floors. Called the “Galactic Circus”, it offered pretty much the same thing as the second floor, just no alcohol, so it was kosher for the under 21-year-old crowd.
There was a pretty decent collection of games as well. They had the staples, like pool tables, air hockey, and pinball machines. There were also plenty of 1980’s classics like Pac-Man and Centipede. Also available were your fighters like Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Virtua Fighter, Tekken, etc.… Lastly, there were plenty of large cabinet machines like Dance Dance Revolution, simulators, plenty of shooters, and racers. If it existed, Barcode probably had it.
During the early days of the club, you had a large eclectic mix of people. Many friends and acquaintances of mine who I talked to about Barcode likened it to a Dave & Busters, but it was a bit more edgier than that, and in the beginning, that was a good thing.
On any given night, you would have every conceivable clique imaginable enjoying themselves, either kicking off the night before heading to a club or a show, or stumbling in at 3 AM after some hard partying. Businessmen in suits straight from work, preppies, punks, goths, geeks, posers, bridge and tunnel, and urbanites alike could be seen in the place. It was a pretty cool that you can see some goth chick decked out in black leather with ripped nylons go against a dude wearing a pink polo with a popped collar at Dance Dance Revolution.
Also, the later it got, the freakier it became. It was not uncommon to see a couple in a photo both that were obviously porking each other’s brains out at 2 AM while shitfaced. The early 2000s was a hot time for clubs in the city, where it was not uncommon to see crazy ass shit. The drug ecstasy was all over the place and it was dirt-cheap. It was not rare to see people stumbling around Barcode while coming down from a bad dose of ecstasy and god knows what else after a long night at Sound Factory or the Limelight. Going to an arcade, surrounded by stimuli was probably not the smartest choice for these people.
The infamous Limelight
Barcode was initially conceived to be open 24-hours, an attempt to play off on the “City that Never Sleeps” vibe, but this was also abandoned after a couple of years. No use paying an electric bill and staff wages if the place was empty. This was a recurring theme over Barcode’s existence actually. After the initial launch, the place slowly but surely went stale. One could see that the club was failing. Soon the games got old and the crowds got smaller and a bit more dangerous.
There were plenty of rumors why Barcode eventually closed. Hearing about police narcotic raids on the place was not uncommon. There was also a growing problem with gang activity that kept many people away. The final nail in the coffin was a brawl on March 9, 2003 where two people were stabbed and eight were shot. In the confusion, 350 people rushed the exits where even more patrons were trampled on.
After the shooting, the club closed for a police investigation into the shooting, but it never reopened. The truth of the matter is, at this point, Barcode was probably going to close down anyway as it was no longer generating the foot traffic and sales. Even on the night of the shooting, a Saturday night mind you, approximately 350 people were in the place, which at one time, accommodated double that and maybe even more when it opened.
There is not a lot of evidence left of the massive arcade club that once was on 45th Street and Broadway. For years, the signage remained outside a now empty building. Even researching Barcode online provided very few details on the place.
Not all is lost however, for people seeking to kick back, drink a few beers and play some arcade games in New York City. On the lower east side, one can find Two-Bits Retro Arcade. Just a stone’s throw from Katz’s Deli, where you can stuff your face with a Pastrami sandwich, then walk a few blocks, get some cheap beer and play some iconic 80’s and 90’s arcade games. The place is a dive, but that’s what makes it great.
Two-Bit's Retro Arcade
Of course, there’s still Coney Island in Brooklyn. Yes, the place is grimy, but still has its charms. In the summer, there’s nothing better than strolling down the boardwalk, double fisting a couple of Nathan’s hotdogs, then hop in an arcade for a spell.
Are you in the mood to see some hipsters in their natural habitat? Then you should head on over to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Drink some decent beer and watch some guy in tight jeans, a cowboy shirt, and Civil War general’s facial hair, play Pac-Man. The place is starting to get popular with tourists though, so the crowds can be a bit overwhelming at times.
Of course, there’s a Dave & Buster's now in Times Square, but I would give that place a pass. If you’re in the city, get off the beaten path and the tourist traps, venture out and explore to get you’re arcade fix. Who knows, you may also get to see a couple fucking in a photo booth. That’s a memory that will last a lifetime.
Here’s a few more links to cool arcades in and around New York City if you like to check them out.