Summer, 1985. To this day, one particular trip to Pizza Hut remains in my memory. And it wasn’t because of the pizza. No, the only two things I distinctly remember are Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” playing on the jukebox, and my dad giving me a quarter and pointing me to a table with a glass top. I couldn’t see well enough from that far away, but it sure looked like something was glowing from under the top of this table. The soothing aura drew me ever closer, and when I reached it, I saw those two words that would forever capture my love for video games.
It was the first time I ever saw a cocktail table version of Pac-Man, and my first memorable experience with an arcade game in general. Arcades were the place to be. Every time my family would go to the mall, I’d immediately make a beeline straight to Aladdin’s Castle, eagerly anticipating what new arrivals I could spend my hard-earned allowance on. When we would go to Showbiz Pizza for birthday parties, Peter Pack Rat would be where I would spend most of my tokens.
In 1992, I remember finishing my high school entrance exam, and afterwards going to the arcade connected to the local mini-golf course to check out this crazy new game called Mortal Kombat. I was awestruck when I saw my first fatality, courtesy of one Johnny Cage. My friend Andy and I would ride our bikes over two miles just to watch people play arcade games. One day, on our ride home from the arcade, we were talking about how great the Super Nintendo version of Street Fighter II was, and how much it looked like its arcade counterpart. It was then that I realized that our favorite hangout may not last forever. And we all know how that story ended.
So here I am twenty years later, with a grown-up life: working both a full- and part-time job, coaching little league, and going to PTA meetings. Accompanying my son to birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese, where classic games of old have been replaced by mindless, ticket-dispensing beasts.
Once in a while we would come across a restaurant that had an actual arcade game, and I would give my son a quarter to play, as my father before me. Still, I looked back fondly on the days where you could walk into an arcade and be bathed in neon lights and classic sound effects.
Then I found out about The Galloping Ghost.
I think I first heard about it in passing on a forum post, but I decided to look it up since it was in Brookfield, Illinois – only about forty minutes from my house. What I learned shocked me. The Galloping Ghost is a real arcade. A full-blown, back-in-the-day arcade. A place where, for $15.00, you have full access to over 375 arcade games, all set to FREE PLAY. It also has the distinction of being the largest arcade in the US. And best of all: not a ticket dispenser in sight.
The first time I walked into The Galloping Ghost, a strong feeling of nostalgia washed over me. Here in front of me were aisles upon aisles packed with classic arcade machines. I wasn’t even able to play a game at first. I walked around and just took in all that surrounded me. As I heard those familiar beeps and boops, memories came flooding back to me. I would say out loud, “Hey, Gladiator! I remember that game from the arcade at Burr Oak Bowl! Look, it’s Time Killers! We had one of those at D&B Comics and Cards! Oh, man, Kangaroo! I haven’t played that in ages!” Once the initial sense of awe died down, I dove into one of my favorites: Smash TV.
Like riding a bike, my skills with those strange, twin eight-way joysticks came back to me. I was even quoting the announcer: “Big money! Big prizes! I love it!” Needless to say, I stayed there, playing games until closing time at 2:00 AM. Even more fun than playing at the Ghost is telling people about it. Every single conversation always goes the same way. After giving the basic details on the arcade, I’m always met with, “Yeah, but does it have The Simpsons? How about Operation Wolf?” The answer is always “yes,” and the next question that inevitably follows is, “When can we go?”
And The Galloping Ghost is not just about classic games. The owners also built arcade cabinets to house some of this generation’s greatest fighting games. Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition couldn’t be any further from the truth. Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3 is so much better when played standing up. And don’t get me started on Mortal Kombat. The guys at the Ghost are such huge fans of the series that they have parties where the actual actors from the games show up to sign autographs. In addition, the arcade has its own fighting game tournament team, Team GGA. They have won several tournaments, and you can catch them at EVO this year.
The highest scores are also posted on index cards, which are then placed on top of each arcade cabinet. There are two scores for each game: the world record and the Galloping Ghost record. Half of the fun of playing these games is seeing what the best score is, and trying to beat it. But be warned: there are some dedicated people that frequent the establishment, and some of these scores are damn near impossible to top. I know one day, though, my name will be standing proud on the Bomb Jack cabinet.
If you ever visit the Chicagoland area, even for just a few days, I implore you: go to The Galloping Ghost. Skip the Cubs game. You’ll spend a third of the money and you’ll actually get some use out of it. In this day and age, it’s like visiting a museum. And bring your kids – you’ll both be able to appreciate a bit of video game history. When I took my son, he pointed at the Q-Bert machine and excitedly said, “Daddy, that’s the guy from Wreck-it Ralph!.” And to see the same smile on his face that I remember having whenever I walked into an arcade is just amazing.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, where the proprietor of The Galloping Ghost, Doc Mack, talks with us about the history of the arcade, what his future plans are for the Ghost, and much more.