Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
Carmen Electra, Will Smith, Beck, Coolio, Gillian Anderson, Weird Al Yankovic, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Bill Gates, Vince Vaughn, and the guy who played Al on Home Improvement walked into a barcade…
I don’t really have a punchline. That’s just a thing that happened once.
Back in 1997, GameWorks — a joint venture between Sega, DreamWorks SKG, and Universal Studios — premiered its first arcade/amusement center in downtown Seattle. Dropping the marketing big bucks, they even enlisted MTV to host a celebrity-packed launch party to hype it up.
GameWorks was not a typical arcade, and they’d correct you if you called it one. Rather, it straddled the line between a high-tech game center, swanky lounge, and indoor amusement park. The venue sprawled two floors amid a backdrop of brick, catwalks, and exposed piping, which may well have analogized the pipeline of lofty ideas which conceptualized it.
Combining the ambitions of its ownership partners — with creative input from Steven Spielberg — GameWorks was a potent cocktail of innovation, experimentation, and spectacle. They even hired a former Disney Imagineer to help develop and curate proprietary experiences steeped in then-cutting-edge technologies. These included massive wall screens with hydraulic lifts (dubbed “Vertical Reality”), a network of player-enveloping projection screens (“Game Arc”), and a motion-controlled flail room (“Virtual Arena”). Through these attractions, GameWorks sought to engross players in a future of gaming outside their homes.
GameWorks’ non-proprietary game selection leaned into a similar vibe. With reduced emphasis on traditional stand-up cabs and joysticks, the main floor exhibited more immersive, peripheral-based experiences that average living rooms would struggle to replicate. The joint was packed with ride-on and cockpit racers like WaveRunner and Scud Race, alongside a jamboree of dancing/rhythm titles and light gun shooters. One of the marquee attractions was a wall-to-wall grid of mechanical formula car frames, in which up to eight players would jostle (haplessly) for the checkered flag in Indy 500. From what I remember, they even staffed a dedicated operator who’d also commentate on the action.
Obviously, 12 year-old me begged to make day trips into the city just to visit GameWorks. Ad nauseam. And my mom — bless her heart — sometimes she caved.
My nostalgia for GameWorks is stitched from decades of immersive and memorable experiences. It’s where I fell in love with all-time favorites like L.A. Machineguns, Crazy Taxi, Hydro Thunder, F-Zero AX, and OutRun 2 SP. Its retro loft ignited my fascination with Missile Command and Frogger. It’s where I got hooked on DDR as a teenager, and tweaked my ankle on DDR as a less spry adult. And in GameWorks’ fighting game room, I lost track of time and ended up being late for my partner Katie and I’s first date.
I dunno. Maybe having life milestones entwined with a video arcade is on brand for me.
As the fortunes of the western arcade scene stagnated in the late ‘90s, GameWorks was just getting the party started. Right after the Seattle GameWorks premiere, the franchise opened a Las Vegas location. And then several more. At the height of its soirée, GameWorks spanned dozens of arcades all across the continental U.S., with international locations in Mexico, Austria, Brazil, Kuwait, Guam, and the Dominican Republic.
Of course, the good times wouldn’t last. Throughout the 2000s, its momentum waned and the merrymakers split. GameWorks’ challenges mounted en mass…with some real estate woes here…partner divestments there…plus a smattering of bankruptcies. You know, classic party fouls.
Facing broader fiscal turmoil in the mid 2000s, Sega-Sammy closed most locations before selling off the remainder to a capital investment firm. From there, it seemed the operation changed hands every few years or so. By that point, GameWorks was more of a commercial property investment than an entertainment enterprise.
I’m oversimplifying its history, obviously, but Sega Retro has already recounted that in painstaking detail so I’m just gonna move on…
From where I stood, GameWorks laid in stasis for years; its boldest attractions gutted and many of its machines in disrepair. Pivots toward VR and esports helped finesse its decline but GameWorks had long been a husk of its original vision. Nevertheless, it managed to soldier on…at least until the pandemic hit. Then last Christmas Eve, it was announced that all remaining GameWorks locations would be shuttered, Seattle’s included.
Nostalgically devastating if pragmatically merciful, the news was hardly a shock. Honestly, I was more surprised it hung on for as long as it did. Of course I was grateful for the quarter century of memories but I was also at peace with the fact that, finally, the party was over.
A few months later, it came as some surprise when a couple former GameWorks execs bought up the remaining assets. Against all odds, GameWorks Seattle was set to reopen. Sorry, re-boot. And a couple weeks ago it did, so I went.
It was a soft relaunch, to be fair. The upstairs restaurant and bar were still closed. The beers and game cards were cash only. Otherwise, it didn’t seem like much had changed outside of some rearranged cab placements and an overhauled esports area (also closed). Everything else was almost exactly as I remembered right before the pandemic. And I’m not sure that’s entirely a good thing.
First off, I was ecstatic to be greeted by the original mural at the entrance, fully preserved as the masterpiece it is. To see Pai, Kage, Temjin, NiGHTS, and several nameless athletes immortalized in this way brings a tear to my eye and flutter to my Sega kid heart.
The main floor is saturated in flair, for better or worse. It is adorned with modern-ish machines, bathing visitors in the glow of their vibrant LED accents. It features much of the same stuff that litters a typical Round 1 or Dave & Busters. And most of it is pretty superficial and gimmicky. There’s the giant Space Invaders wall screen, along with prize ticket machines like the Kung Fu Panda slapping game and a big screen version of that Sonic endless runner app I had on my phone for a week about a decade ago. Further undercutting their appeal is the paltry prize shop. Its shelves of cheap plastic tchotchkes are hardly worth redeeming tickets for in the first place.
For me, the venue’s heart and soul have always lived in the wealth of experiences that take players out of its space and into new ones. More than a video arcade, or restaurant, or esports arena, GameWorks is at its best as a hub world.
Very much to their credit, the operators still seem to get that. Suspended above the main floor, a stock racing car draws me to the treasures behind and below it. Among them are some of the greatest, most sensory arcade experiences ever…at least in concept, if not always in functionality.
When it comes to light gun and on-rails shooters, GameWorks is an embarrassment of riches. Several House of the Dead games line its game floor, flanked by Ghost Squad, a couple Time Crisis sequels, and plenty of newer shooters. Others — Star Wars: Arcade, Star Wars: Battle Pod, and Deadstorm Pirates — would be amazing if their well-worn gun mounts were fixed up. Most heartbreaking is the greatest, most kinetic rail shooter in the whole arcade (or maybe any arcade) — L.A. Machineguns — has a fully washed-out screen and is completely unplayable.
Cockpit racers and flying games have always been GameWorks staples and they continue to deliver. Of course I miss dearly the spectacle of WaveRunner and Indy 500 — and the timelessness of OutRun 2 and Hydro Thunder — but a handful of Raw Thrills and other classic Sega racers do their best to fill those gaps.
Among the newer Raw Thrills releases on the floor, Cruis’n Blast is a wonderful title that lives up to its namesake. However, Super Bikes 2 — a ride-on motorcycle racer in a similar vein — is a surprise standout. The second floor loft features four linked units for multiplayer action. Intuitively enough, leaning left and right handles the hog. With its frenetic speed, revving engines, and glide-like handling, the dopamine hits hard and fast. I don’t have a life-sized motorcycle controller at home so I’ll happily come back here for it.
True to its heritage, GameWorks still sports some legendary Sega cockpit cabs, led by Daytona USA 2, After Burner Climax, and F355 Challenge. As timeless arcade experiences, they’re still as brilliant as ever and integral to the venue’s vibe. As functional, physical game cabinets…their mileage varies. I was hoping to gush about how they all work great, along with a quip about how Sega’s blue skies still shine in drizzly old Seattle. Unfortunately, I can barely see them because Daytona 2’s monitors are pretty washed out.
Wear and tear have taken their toll on these old machines, for sure. Of course, that’s part and parcel for any arcade operation, and I expect it’s become more difficult to find replacement parts for these units as time rolls on. Still, some of these machines have been broken for years. One of the After Burner units has flight stick and mechanical issues that render it basically unplayable, unless you weren’t planning to move or aim right ever. It especially sucks when you realize this only after dropping a buck or two worth of credits to play it.
A little TLC — along with some new parts and recapping — could go a long way towards restoring these games to their former glory.
In fairness, I assume my interest in these old Sega games makes me an exceptionally niche GameWorks customer. I expect my feedback would hardly register on the list below its target markets of esports leagues and corporate event organizers. And that’s totally understandable. Still, if L.A. Machineguns, Daytona USA 2, and After Burner Climax alone were fixed up, I could see myself practically living at GameWorks. Even when I can play them at home, they never come close to their full arcade experiences.
That’s not to say all of GameWorks’ best games are in disrepair. F355 Challenge is Yu Suzuki and AM2’s enormous, three-screen love letter to Italian sports cars. As more of a celebration of driving Ferraris than a traditional arcade racer, its cockpit wraps the player in an extended periphery to bolster their sense of speed and immersion. It’s not an easy game to jump into casually, but it rewards players for committing to its simulation. After all, it’s the closest I’ll ever get to a Ferrari joyride at Suzuka. F355 is a vestige of an era where Sega’s dev teams jettisoned orthodoxy to immerse players in experiences borne out of passion and unhinged creativity. From its dark nook in the upstairs loft, glimpses of GameWorks’ original spirit live on in that F355 cabinet.
Visiting GameWorks today, I indulge in a vibe that’s neither cutting edge nor retro. Far from being a place out of time — as many arcades feel (and strive to be) — GameWorks is of many places, and many times. It is a living patchwork of innovations, memories, gimmicks, trends, and festivities that have woven themselves into the worn fabric of its history. The decline of so many of its best games and attractions is unfortunate, but how much joy did they bring to people along the way? At the very least, its games have been well-loved over the years and it shows.
Although its halcyon days have long passed, GameWorks’ spirit is lovingly preserved in its industrial chic aesthetics, its flashback murals, its timeless classics, and in our memories. Revisiting it today, I do not yearn for GameWorks as it was, even as I wish better for its present. Above else, I appreciate all the wonderful experiences that have endeared it to me, with renewed optimism for more to come.
Thanks for reading!
– Brian (@virtuaschlub)
Also, here’s that MTV special, or at least a decent-ish quality video of it with 10 minutes of missing footage and dead space during the commercial breaks…
And here’s the other 10 minutes…
Otherwise, here’s a lesser quality version in its entirety: