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The Pixel Bunker Arcade

Review - June 2021

There's a new video games arcade in Milton Keynes. It's good, to the extent that I would consider buying an annual pass, but it also has unfulfilled potential.

Some of that potential fulfilment depends on how well this place integrates with the National Film and Sci-Fi Museum, which is due to open alongside at the end of August. More on that later.

Lights, cabs, waffle slabs.

The arcade embraces the bunker aesthetic, with exposed concrete and minimal natural light. The cabinets themselves are tightly packed in glowing rows, contributing to the high-contrast chaos that made arcades feel exciting, even dangerous.

Unfortunately, this bunker lacks ventilation shafts. The abundant portable fans helped, but it would have been a brave, sweaty person who risked the Dancing Stage machine that day.

Chunky Fringe roadie approves.

The selection of cabinets is weighted towards the early 1980s, when genres and control schemes were still emerging standards. It's almost worth visiting just to experience the inertia of the spinny knob which controls Tempest, and paying one flat entry rate suits those quirkier games which can kill inexperienced players in seconds.

The House of the Dead, one of the youngest games present at only twenty-four years old, brought home how arcade games changed for the worse. The novelty wore off once I was feeding credits to pass the first boss, and death was a relief by the second. I rinsed Virtua Cop on the Saturn, so I'm not averse to shooting galleries, but frankly, I was bored.

Operation Wolf reminded me how intense games could be, before paying to continue was the norm. There were at least twice as many targets, the screen was rarely empty, and the flat graphics meant that there was no waiting for threats to get close enough. The ping of imminent death was essential, as there was rarely a break to glance at the life meter.

It also reminded me that shooting people for fun is a bit weird, which is why I spent more time on Asteroids and similar abstractions. If video games have trained people to kill, then the way to survive mass shootings would be to wear white and wander through the line of fire, waving our arms about. Still, it feels weird when shooting games resemble life, which is why I have few qualms about Lucky & Wild, an overgrown kiddy ride that provides enough cartoon destruction to fill a whole year of toy-selling television shows.

My phone has a bad camera, but fits in my pocket.

This place is a bit like the best seaside arcades, the kind which kept all their cabinets until they died, except here you won't find Out Run missing half its steering wheel. Some of the controls were off, Space Harrier being the worst culprit, but nothing was broken yet. The machines felt acceptably loved, but only time will tell if the maintenance regime will improve, maintain, or lower standards.

What this arcade needs for the full seaside experience, underage gambling opportunities excepted, is at least one pinball machine, and at least one head-to-head racing game. The machines were being wiped down occasionally, and I can understand that sitting next to exhaling strangers is especially risky at the moment, but no pinball? Yes, there's Video Pinball, but no actual metal balls in motion, free from reaction-hindering refresh rates.

One minor, critical irritant was that it wasn't always crystal clear how to start the games. If a machine wasn't (or couldn't be) set to free play mode, then there was usually a button by the coin slot. Which is fine, if you already know where to look, and even I couldn't start the intriguing Street Fighter II whack-a-mole variant. As helpful as the desk staff were, things would have been better with someone on the floor, watching for confused punters.

You can't buy these, but they do sell Saucy BBQ Space Raiders.

When the heat gets too much, the bright and spacious lobby also lacks air conditioning. It does, however, sell cold drinks, sweets, and crisps for extremely reasonable prices. In fact, so reasonable that they more than compensated for the per-ticket booking fee.

However, the arcade cost £14.50 for a three-hour session. That is nearly as much as the Arcade Clubs charge for all day in their bigger venues, while the bunker-sized Timewarp Arcade charges half as much. It's not extortionate, but not quite satisfying to pay over the odds for a hot, slightly uncomfortable experience, no matter how good the games are.

If that sounds negative, it is. I want this arcade to succeed, so can accept some teething troubles, and understand that the ventilation system is a longer term dental surgery job. The arcade feels enthusiastically inexperienced, rather than cynically commercial, but it needs to impress the visitors who won't know or care about any operational challenges.

The funny thing is, Replay Events are involved, and they should know exactly how to manage retro gaming attractions. The confusion continues with a receipt stating “National Film and Sci-Fi Museum Trading Limited”, who share one director with Replay Events, and the confusion concludes with a third private company, “National Film and Sci-Fi Museum Limited”, which is a registered charity, but not eligible for gift aid donations.

You see, the arcade appears to occupy a small part of the forthcoming museum. Perhaps the museum idea came first - the arcade pricing makes more sense if it will be discounted as part of a combined ticket. Three hours straight in an arcade is too long, even with air-conditioning, so the two attractions could complement each other, with an unpretentious snacks lobby acting as a fine social hub in the middle.

However, I didn't notice many signs or any flyers promoting the forthcoming museum, even though the toys and props strongly suggested that there was more to this than an arcade. If the result is two disconnected attractions, that would be the greatest waste of potential.

I hope that it does come together as a whole experience. It could become my ideal local place for gathering with people who also find most clubs and bars overrated.

Until then, please consider visiting the arcade, though perhaps not during a heatwave.

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Published 08-06-2021.