Brookfield —On days I grow weary of staring at screens crawling with social media trolls, I light out to a more gratifying land of screens, where virtual baddies can be vanquished with the push of a button. Stepping into Galloping Ghost Arcade makes me feel like a fat Italian plumber who has slipped through a warp pipe to another dimension. My only objectives: cross the finish line, beat the end boss, save the princess.
I’m always struck first by the wall of sound — the cacophony of 700 video games pinging at once, looping their little chiptune symphonies in sweet disharmony. It is loud. It is disorienting. It is the oddly beautiful, nearly bygone music of an arcade. That racket is the extent of the bells and whistles at this dimly lit gaming depot, which somehow achieves the charmingly dingy ambiance of a dive bar without actually serving booze.
The games are arranged in long, tight rows, like luminescent crops in a field. I once asked an attendant — a bearded, bodyguard-looking dude in a black T-shirt bearing the company logo (a specter astride a hobbyhorse) — if Galloping Ghost’s billing as the world’s largest arcade wasn’t a bit of gamer hyperbole. “Others have more square footage,” he said, “but we have the most games.”
Lifelong gamer and inveterate collector Doc Mack opened the place in 2010, with 130 machines spread across 7,500 square feet. He’s more than doubled that footprint to make way for his ever-expanding library. (This winter, he’s opening Galloping Ghost Pinball two blocks east.) Today the emporium’s inventory spans golden oldies of the 1970s and ’80s (Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong), ’90s neoclassics (Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, Street Fighter II), and favorites of the 2000s (Mario Kart Arcade GP, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Soul Calibur II). There are also a number of rarities, such as Chicago 1929, a prototype of a never-released driving game, in which you are a Prohibition-era mobster speeding through the city behind the wheel of a Duesenberg. Every game is set to free play, eliminating the need for pesky quarters or tokens, and a $20 fee grants all-day access, from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Midway through a recent Q-Bert campaign, a thought stilled my joystick hand. In this era of professional video game streamers, college e-sports, and adults-only arcade bars, Galloping Ghost occupies that most uncommon of gaming spaces, where the childlike joy of play still conquers all.