Skip to main content

Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

London's arcade bars are odd and oddly beautiful

"I still managed to sneak in a game of Mario Kart..."

London is a weird city, full of idiosyncrasies. Primary schools sit on the same street corner as late-night kebab shops, serving meat and chips to boozy partygoers. Million-pound houses are sometimes a few feet away from neglected council estates. And Victorian-era churches lay abandoned on the same road as a local gym. Put simply, London is what happens when you procedurally generate a real-life city.

One such idiosyncrasy is the resurgence in arcade bars that are becoming more and more prominent in London's nightlife scene, places where the games are (usually) older than the people playing them.

I've seen arcade bars take on multiple forms. Some venues are traditional arcades with all the classics you'd expect - Street Fighter 2, TMNT, etc - with a bar on the side. Some bars are drenched in neon lights and wall paints, more of a trendy art installation begging to go viral. One 'arcade bar' was just a club with a rowdy crowd and a lone N64 in the corner - I still managed to sneak in a game of Mario Kart, poking out of the jumping bodies like the blob from Inside.

Street Fighter 2
Street Fighter 2.

I was a little apprehensive about these places, at first. Walking in, they seemed more engineered for a generation of TikTokers, which is incidentally where my friend got the bright idea for the night out. There are cute cocktails (Barcadi Bowsers?), catchy chiptune soundtracks are lost in the heavy bass of whatever song's playing, and, most importantly, these arcades aren't cheap, or at least they're a far cry from the pennies/cents it cost a few decades ago.

But all of that dissolves when I turn to a screen, transfixed by the magic of Pac-Man as if I was his Ms. The screen flashes "Ready," the ghosts bug out like they're rabid, and I'm suddenly elsewhere, in the body of this freaky yellow thing. Shoulders forward, I tug on the joystick with my full weight, zig-zagging across the world's corners, invested like my livelihood depended on munching nondescript dots. And it's magnificent.

It's a spell that remains intact with other people, too. Hulk vs. Chun-Li starts as a friendly, fun fight before it devolves into an uncomposed button-mashing fiasco. House Of The Dead still invites desperate shrieks, despite its archaic, fuzzy renditions of the undead. And Mario Kart is, well, Mario Kart. Sit four people down in front of an MK track and they'll surely be entranced by the joy that comes with throwing bananas at friends - even if they're initially unsure about how to hold an N64 controller.

So, yeah, these bars are just as odd as the city that houses them. Historically cheap party games, plugged up into one of the most expensive, antisocial cities in the world.

The 'retro' dressing might be jarring, but that's what arcades have always been, big plastic tubs with cool pictures inviting you to play. Looking around the room at 1AM, all I could see were people with smiles on their faces, introduced to and brought together by some timeless games - and probably some alcohol.