30 November 2010

My Thanksgiving Trip/Pilgrimage To Funspot

Over Thanksgiving--American Thanksgiving, Canadian people--I traveled back to the East Coast to ostensibly visit New York, see my friends, and consume pounds of succulent turkey. But my ulterior motive, I confess, was to make a long-anticipated journey to Funspot in New Hampshire, otherwise known as the world's largest arcade.

Fellow writer John Teti grew up in the area and frequented Funspot as a child, never realizing that it would one day become an accidental mecca for gamers. So John and his terrific wife Anna and I flew up to Manchester, New Hampshire together in a plane that was only slightly larger than a mosquito.

If you've seen the documentary The King of Kong, Funspot--located in the town of Laconia--is the arcade where Steve Wiebe goes to prove himself as a true Donkey Kong contender to the eccentric community of doubters who celebrate--and verify--such things as Donkey Kong high scores. Funspot is also the place in the film where the term "kill screen" is first used. (One of Funspot's oddball patrons/score verifiers realizes that Wiebe is about to reach the Donkey Kong kill screen and begins an annoying journey through the arcade announcing to everyone that a kill screen is coming up, if they are interested in witnessing it. Despite the distraction, Wiebe admirably steels his nerves and reaches the kill screen regardless. It's one of Wiebe's many bravo-sir moments in the movie.)

If you haven't seen The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, grab the nearest pillow and deliver several hundred blows to your head/neck area. It's a terrific film for many reasons, but what I especially admire about it is how well it articulates the curious passion that we gamers have for what we do.

Because we don't always understand why we do what we do.

We simply do it.

In The King of Kong, Funspot appears to be a dingy, yellow-tinged warehouse housing a dream line-up of every incredible arcade game you can possibly think of. In reality, Funspot is a dingy, yellow-tinged warehouse housing a dream line-up of every significant arcade game you can possibly think of, only a disturbingly large percentage of those machines are in a state of disrepair. Also: there is a bowling alley on the lower floor, as well as a dearth of bathrooms. Also: there is an indoor miniature golf course. Windmills and fluorescent lights and indoor/outdoor carpet is a depressing combination. Honestly, when I saw the course, I literally had to rush out of the room for fear of losing my sanity. I thought: "This is a good place to hang yourself."

Yet nothing depresses me more than seeing an out of order arcade machine some reason. There's a place in Brooklyn called Barcade that an ex girlfriend once took me to, believing that I would enjoy it. I did not enjoy it. Seeing all of those beautiful, vintage machines covered in sticky cheap beer and sporting OUT OF ORDER signs just made me want to go screaming into the Williamsburg night.

One of the dual screens in Funspot's Punch-Out!! machine was on the fritz the day I was there, capable of only producing a flickering black and white image. That said, I still managed to reach Bald Bull, and put him down a few times. (Because that's who I am.) The Tron machine circa 1982 had a line of code--1's and 0's--literally streaming through the gameplay screen. Also: Rudy, the dummy head in the 1990 pinball game Funhouse, had his eyes rolled back in his plastic skull permanently as if he was channeling Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

For a place that proudly refers to itself as the American Classic Arcade Museum, these masterworks are generally in a sorry state of disrepair. I know these things are old, and only getting older by the day, but I learned from John that maintaining coin-op arcade machines is far less taxing and labor-intensive than maintaining pinball machines. There are simply fewer working parts to deal with. John has personally restored several pinball machines to working order, so he knows what he is talking about. Sorry, ladies; he's taken. So the frozen Rudy in Funhouse is borderline acceptable. Though John did storm away from the machine with a ball still in play, because seeing Rudy in a state of rictus was apparently too much for him to bear. But the flickering Punch-Out!! and Tron machines? Not as acceptable.

Other games faired better. Mappy, a game that stars a police mouse trying to stop a gang of cat criminals and recover their stolen loot was working well. Stolen loot included a boom box-style radio, an ancient PC, and a digitized replica of the Mona Lisa. Just what every cat criminal covets, no doubt. Our two-player round of Pengo, a game starring a red penguin who must use ice blocks to stop snow bees, went on for so long and was so dull that after a few screens I wished it was broken. Pro Tip: Pengo is a terrible game. Timber, a game that allows you to step into the role of a lumberjack--escapism alert!--who is trying to chop down trees while a kooky-faced bear hurls bee hives at you, also worked just fine.

I realize Funspot is no doubt short on staff and even shorter on funds these days. The day that John and I were there--on the Friday after Thanksgiving--all three floors were only moderately populated, with the top floor--where the American Classic Arcade Museum (of Disrepair) is housed--being by far the least popular of the three floors. Only a half-dozen quarter-wielding skulkers skulked in the Museum's shadows at any given moment.

The sad-but-true question I couldn't stop asking myself during my time at Funspot was this: Why aren't there more goddamn people here? Where is everybody, man? This is Funspot! The spot for fun! Yes, the lights were on the day I was there. But how much longer would they continue to burn?

Going to Funspot is akin to spending time with an obese middle-aged alcoholic/diabetic uncle. Everyone loves the uncle--he's funny and entertaining, even when he's discussing his latest gout flair up--but when the phone call comes that the uncle is dead, no one is going to be terribly shocked by the news. As I left Funspot, as I crossed the muddy parking lot and listened to the wind whistling through the nearby birches, I felt sad and worried. I literally was wringing my hands during the car ride home. As gamers, we need our gathering places. To use John's word, we need a mecca, and Funspot is as close to a bona fide mecca as we have. We need Funspot, and places like Funspot; we need places that celebrate where this medium has been so that we have a better, clearer understanding of where we're going.

What can be done? Consider planning your summer vacation to Laconia, new Hampshire next year. Lake Winnipesaukee is beautiful in summer. Or so I've heard.

Better still, let's start something not unlike the adopt-a-highway program. Call it the Adopt-An-Old-Arcade-Machine program. Donate a few hundred dollars a year towards your game of choice--all tax-deductible, mind you--and that few hundred dollars will go towards maintaining that arcade machine. Let's make this happen, people.

I've got dibs on Mappy, Teti.

[Photo credit: John Teti took the photo of the Funspot entrance that appears at the start of this entry.] [For the last time, ladies, HE IS TAKEN.]


  1. I know i'm probably the only one, but I really dug the game 'Elevator Action' back at the old Funland in Toronto.

    Another fine article, Mr. Jones!

  2. I've been planning to take a trip to Funspot in a couple weeks from Montreal. I'm sad to hear that it's in a sorry state but i'm still really looking forward to it!
    The TMNT arcade cabinet better be working though...

  3. Well done, as always Jones. This in particularly had me laughing (and no doubt sounding insane to my co-workers) in my office: "Honestly, when I saw the course, I literally had to rush out of the room for fear of losing my sanity. I thought: 'This is a good place to hang yourself.'"

  4. I haven't been to Funspot since May, but most of their games were in good repair. (Three broken games out of 300 is, IMHO, acceptable.)

    But you call for funding is well-placed. The ACAM is a non-profit entity that has recently started a fundraiser, with which it hopes to both repair and display more of its games. Check out http://www.classicarcademuseum.org/ for more details.