Underground Retrocade Grand Re-Opening

As much as I want to wax philosophical about my favorite video game franchise, I do feel I should dedicate my first Pacmaniax post to the newly-reopened Underground Retrocade in West Dundee, Illinois.

I’m a sucker for classic video games. By classic, I mean true classic. To me, NBA Jam, for example is not classic, it’s not retro, it’s not throwback. In fact, I’d say my cutoff for defining “classic” is when Nintendo Entertainment System hit it big in the United States. The popularity of NES here was the end of the classic era. In fact, I have two video game systems connected to my TV right now: Atari 5200 and Atari 7800.

Yeah, the graphics and sound aren’t too fancy, nor were they in the arcade coin-ops of the day, but you know what? You cannot beat the playability. I will always choose playability over graphics and sound.

In fact, I favor playability to the point that I will literally drive long distances to play some quality games. Underground Retrocade is a good 35 miles northwest of my home on the north side of Chicago and more than an hour drive. Chicago has a choice of excellent places to play games; off the top of my head, I can think of Headquarters Beercade in Lakeview, Emporium in Wicker Park, and Logan Hardware in Logan Square — a place I favor so much that the owner knows me by name and face. Just a tad south of the city in Brookfield is Galloping Ghost, which boasts over 400 games, including many of my favorites. But yet, my favorite gaming hangout is the aforementioned hour drive up I-90.

Underground Retrocade, in terms of the number of games, is just a bit small-ish, but the variety is pure gold. While many retro arcades today tend to have several “multicade” machines, Underground only has one. If you like Atari’s arcade games, Underground is the place to go — in fact, the word “Atari” is actually part of the arcade’s phone number. You like pinball? Underground’s got a small handful of pinball machines. If you want to try your hand at some classic home consoles, you’ll find one or two there as well.

Scott Lambert opened his homey little arcade in 2012. Unfortunately, flooding in the spring of 2013 forced him to temporarily close (and me to temporarily split an infinitive), and his reopening proved to last a very short time due to various building issues. After a seemingly endless search of both storefront space and literally a town in which to house his games, Scott reopened in a much larger space in downtown West Dundee, just feet from his original location in East Dundee. The grand opening was on Friday, September 13, and it was my pleasure to make the annoying drive on the Kennedy to welcome him back.

Sue was trying to either give me my change from the Green River I bought, or tell me she wanted the next game of Millipede.

One reason I am such a huge fan of Underground is the customer service. I knew that in order to afford to run the place, Scott had to raise his admission fee from $10 to the still more-than-reasonable $15. So I walked in, went to the front desk, took out three fives, and happily plopped them on the counter and gave them to Sue, Scott’s wife, who frequently works there. I was very thirsty, so I asked for a bottle of Green River (wow, Green River — another reason I love this place!). I didn’t have any singles, so I tossed another $5 down on the counter. Unfortunately, Mrs. Lambert couldn’t get the cash box open to give me change. I told her don’t worry about it, all I care is that Underground Retrocade was finally open — and that I had a drink! I took my drink and played a few games of Millipede. While I was at the Millipede machine, a hand reached out from behind me and deposited a few bucks on the corner of the screen. What service — I was actually tracked down just so I wouldn’t be shorted! ha! (Seeing the money on the corner of the screen, by the way, reminded me of how back in the day someone would put a quarter or token on the screen, indicating “I get the next game!”)

With the much larger space available to Underground Retrocade, some games are now arranged so that their side art is visible for all to appreciate.

Scott saw me and welcomed me back, apologizing that not all the games were up and running yet. (If I’m not mistaken, he had them plugged in, but he didn’t yet have any electricity flowing through the outlets! I do believe the power is now fully up.) “I hope at least some of the ones you want to play are available.” No problem — he had the ones I most cared about turned on, and as I told him, there are a few machines I could easily spend hours playing.

I first visited Underground in October 2012. The main reason I went was to play Jr. Pac-Man Turbo, a Jr. Pac-Man hacked so that the titular character moves at high speed, much like the common Ms. Pac-Man variation. I played the game once and saw that on my first try, my score nearly surpassed the house high score. You see, at Underground, on top of each game is a little sign listing the highest score reached at the arcade and a picture of said scorer, and the world record, according to either Twin Galaxies or aurcade.com. I played a few other games and came back to Jr. Pac-Man Turbo. This time, I surpassed the house high…and then before long, I found myself exceeding the listed world record! Afterwards I brought Scott over to the machine and showed him my proud achievement. He shook my hand, took my picture, and recorded my score on aurcade.com. (Twin Galaxies, by the way, has gone so far as to deny that a Jr. Pac-Man Turbo even exists.)

I tried my hand at the game again this past Friday night. While I was playing, I looked up and saw that the dude playing the Galaga machine next to me looked familiar…and indeed, it was Fred Ochs — the guy now pictured on the sign on the Jr. Pac-Man Turbo machine, with a score of over 400,000! (That score has since been beaten, by far; of course, due to the madness that happened this year, Scott hasn’t had a chance to update it.) During a later playing of the game, I just could not get past the seventh maze. I waved Fred over and said, “How in the HELL do you get past this screen?!” And, unlike a lot of other high-scoring gamers, he shared his strategy with me (and I will in turn share it here in a later post), and I managed to get past the seventh maze twice and achieved a score of over 240,000. I also had the pleasure of meeting frequent Chicago-area high scorer Duc (pronounced “Duke,” by the way) Dang, who admired the shirt I was wearing, which I call the Tie Dye to End All Tie Dyes™; as with the Jr. Pac-Man strategy I learned from Fred, I’ll post more about the shirt later on.

My Jr. Pac-Man Turbo “world record” high score picture from October 20, 2012. My record, sadly, turned out not to be the top score — the card on the machine hadn’t been updated yet! And my second-highest-in-the-world score only lasted about 18 hours before someone else topped it….at Underground Retrocade, of course!

In the several times I’ve been to Underground Retrocade in the past year, I’ve had such a good time. There’s a good variety of video games, a selection of pins, a few rarities (including one of the only copies of the arcade coin-op Fix-It Felix Jr. and the classic black-and-white Atari Football), and, before too long, a video system — earlier this year Scott was showing Star-Cade reruns! (Wow!!) When I was in on Friday, Scott was crankin’ some tunes from the ’80s, including tracks from Buckner & Garcia’s Pac-Man Fever (albeit the rerecorded version). Underground’s new digs are quite nice, too, with lots of space, an upstairs, and a downstairs — both of which weren’t yet open on Friday night, and Scott says will probably not be used as gaming floors, at least for now. The customer service is top-notch. I’ve had interactions with Scott, his wife, and his son, and all have made me feel very at home; such service is rare these days.

If you’re in the Chicago area, you will be happy you visited. Underground Retrocade is located at 121 West Main Street in downtown West Dundee, right along the Fox River. Phone number is 331-64-ATARI. If you’re coming from the south, take I-90 to the Route 31 North exit, and turn right at Main Street. Bring $15 and, if you want a drink or two, some extra cash. If you’re trying to set a record, either a personal record or an arcade (or world!) record, let Scott know before you start so he can officially record it for you via aurcade.com.

Now, just to bring this post to the topic of this blog…the last few times I went to Underground, I attempted to break George Strain’s house high on Ms. Pac-Man Turbo; I’m sure I can do it, as my highest score so far — and set at Underground — is about 456,000 (and, as of now, is the fifth-highest score on aurcade.com!). The night of the grand re-opening, I informed Scott that I was going to make another attempt, as per his policy, so he can witness it. The current high score of the day was 169,000; HA! I could EASILY bring that high score past that! So I’m having a pretty average game (for me!) so far, getting pretty far without losing a life (so far my highest score before losing my first life is around 200,000)….and just when I get to about 165,000….*poof!!* Power goes out on the cluster of games around me…including mine, as well as the Jr. Pac-Man Turbo currently being played by Fred Ochs (who may or may not have been trying to improve his record). You could hear collective groans. We did get a good laugh out of it, though. Hey, it was opening night, not all the electricity had been turned on yet, so we cut the guy some slack. A while after the power was restored, I made another attempt, but alas, could only get in the 300,000 range, at about level 45, if I remember correctly from the tally counter I use when I make a record attempt. (And because Ms. Pac-Man Turbo is my current arcade obsession, I’ll be posting a LOT about it in the near future.)

My Jr. Pac-Man Turbo score on re-opening night: 246,320. I THOUGHT that my previous high was “only” 232k+, so I asked Scott to register this for me on aurcade.com. Turns out my previous high was actually close to 300k. Oh well.

My goal? Reach the kill screen in Ms. Pac-Man — be it, standard, “turbo,” or even, if extreme luck should fall upon me, Crazy Otto.

Having said all that, though, in case you can’t tell, I’m…quite a fan of Underground Retrocade. Thank you, Lambert family, for the time and effort you have put in Underground, and for your amazing hospitality. I can’t wait to get back there!

In the mean time, you can check out this brief video tour I made on re-opening night. Sorry about some of the quality — many of the games were dark (remember, not all the electricity was on yet), and out of respect of people’s privacy (despite being out in public!) I tried to avoid getting people’s faces…

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About pacmaniax

Sean is a web developer whose obsession with the Pac-Man franchise goes back to 1981, when he first played Pac-Man as an 7-year-old who didn't quite understand that you need to eat one of those big, blinking things first before you attempt to eat the ghosts. For one brief moment, he thought he held the world record for Jr. Pac-Man Turbo in October 2012, but it was actually only the second-highest score on record, and even that ranking only lasted under a day. A music buff, you can see Sean posting not only on AtariAge.com and Aurcade.com as "dauber," but also on various forums that obsess over The Beatles and Brian Wilson. Sean is also cohost of Pie Factory Podcast.
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