Did I say my next post would be a book review?? I think I was going by the definition of “book” that, according to Webster’s Fourth International Dictionary, is, “a trendy combination restaurant/amusement center for suburbanites who don’t get out much.” Yeah, that’s it.
I refer, of course, to Level 257, the new Pac-Man-themed restaurant/gaming joint located at Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois. In case you haven’t figured it out — and a surprising number of classic video game enthusiasts haven’t — here’s the explanation of the name: the 256th level of Pac-Man, of course, is the infamous split-screen thanks to a byte overflow bug, which to this day nobody has been able to figure out how to get past short of cheating via rack test. Level 257, then, would be the theoretical next level should you have that magical skill to move beyond the infamous buggy screen.
When Level 257 was first announced, I was under the impression that it was going to be a restaurant with trendy dishes and upscale prices. It’s much more than that, though; imagine a Dave & Buster’s, but owned by Namco and with a Pac-Man theme. Level 257 is located next to the southeast entrance of Sears.
Upon entering, a statue of Pac-Man, giving you a thumbs-up, greets you. Off to the left is a small gift shop full of Namco-sanctioned souvenirs: shirts, notebooks, pint glasses, backpacks, action figures, books, and other sundries. (In terms of characters, the paraphernalia in the gift shop only has Pac-Man and the four ghosts — there is no acknowledgement whatsoever of Ms. Pac-Man or any of the other Midway-created characters.) Also in the gift shop is a multicade cocktail table out for demonstration. It might just be my aversion to gift shops in general, but overall there wasn’t anything in there that I felt was worth spending my own money on, but if I received some of the items as a gift, they’d be cool desktop decorations. The gift shop and the Pac-Man statue are on the first floor; the real action is upstairs.
The Food (What? No bells, keys, or Galaxian flagships?!)
This past Saturday I went to Level 257 with three friends. Our first priority: food, as none of us had eaten. In terms of price, the restaurant is a smallish bit on the expensive side, depending on what you order. Neal ordered a Chef’s Social for the table. This appetizer includes babaganoush, ricotta (which is technically not cheese, by the way), hummus, pita, celery, and cucumber slices. We were all quite impressed; very tasty stuff — not to mention my first tasting of babaganoush. (So why did I mention it then??) For the entreés, Duc, the vegetarian of our quartet, ordered “I Can’t Believe It’s Not ‘Steak’, a cauliflower-based dish that even I, as carnivorous as I am, thought looked quite delish;” I had the “Chicago C.B.S.,” a grilled chicken sandwich on a brioche; Carey chose the fennel sausage pizza, literally seconds after somebody had told me, “Don’t order the pizza — you’ll be glad you didn’t!” (I tried to subtly warn Carey but she didn’t get my signals!); and Neal went with the “Double Dot Burger,” which essentially is a double cheeseburger on a brioche, and subbed a salad for fries, a salad he highly enjoyed. Overall, we were very pleased with the meal, although Carey said that while it was okay, the pizza “wasn’t life-changing.” (Honest, I tried to warn her.) The service was fast and friendly.
The Games (Spoiler alert: no Professor Pac-Man)
If you’ve ever been to Dave & Buster’s, the gaming situation is pretty similar. There’s bowling; in fact, when you walk into the main entrance upstairs, there are bowling alleys on either side of the restaurant. I do have to lament, however, that Level 257 missed a great opportunity: the bowling balls are black (with Level 257’s logo and “EAT LIFE UP” motto), and the pins are white. Really — why not make the balls yellow and have two fingerholes double as Pac-Man’s eyes? And why not at least paint blue frowning ghosts on the pins? Corny idea? Hell, yes! But at least you’re reminded that the theme is Pac-Man. Hanging on the wall alongside one of the bowling alleys is an array of retro-looking bowling ball bags, next to an array of bowling shoes. Cost to bowl: $40 per lane, with as many players per lane as you want.
Because Level 257 is a modern arcade, a lot of the games are the types you’d find at a typical 2015 arcade, including not just those multiscreen environmental video games, but also the free throw game and a couple of air hockey tables. In fact, one of the air hockey tables is Pac-Man Smash, which from what I’m told is sort of a combination of air hockey and Hungry Hungry Hippos, what with several pucks in play at once, and it includes Pac-Man graphics on the table and with sound effects from the video game.
And speaking of video games, there are plenty of those as well. Despite being owned by Namco, Level 257’s arcade video game assortment goes beyond just those that are Namco-licensed. Among the standard arcade games I saw were Centipede and Galaga (both in the cabaret-style cabinets), Pac-Man (duh!), Tempest (there was a problem with the screen and so it was removed from the gaming floor while we were there), Pac-Man 25th Anniversary, a Dragon’s Lair/Space Ace multicade, Q*Bert, Space Invaders, Super Pac-Man, Asteroids, and even Baby Pac-Man! There is also a small selection of pinball machines; as I’m not much of a pinball enthusiast, I didn’t really pay much attention to what was there other than the Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man pin. Regardless, the staff told me that there are a lot more games to come in the near future.
Now, what I thought was cool is that at many of the non-restaurant tables, there are arcade games (most likely dedicated multicades) embedded into the tabletops — think of a fancy cocktail table-style video game — but with left-handed controls. (grrr…) In addition to the expected Pac-Man games, some of the tables also had other titles such as Defender and a unit I saw on which you can choose between Pengo and Pengo II. Level 257 has this babies as far as the eye can see.
Level 257 also includes two unique variations on arcade games. For one, there’s perhaps the newest in the franchise, the four-player Pac-Man Battle Royale — on a screen that takes up practically an entire wall. The cost appears to be 25 cents per play per person. And to me, the whole reason to take advantage of the gaming at all is a video game cabinet named Level 255. As you might conclude by the name, it’s a standard Pac-Man machine hacked to start you (with a complete set of lives) at the 255th level, the final level before the split screen bug, so that you have an opportunity to see and play the buggy 256th level without having to spend hours playing the machine. Next to the Level 255 game is a poster explaining the significance of this legendary screen.
All these arcade cabinets, pinball machines, and redemption-style games must come with a cost, right? The games are card-activated. Tapping the card on a scanner by the coin slot enables the game. Once you first tap your card, you have a certain amount of time that the card is active, in fifteen-minute increments. The cost? Five dollars per quarter-hour, or an entire hour for $15. So if you’re good at a game, you may be paying five bucks to play one game; conversely, if you really suck at these games, that fifteen minutes could last for quite a few games.
When Games Get To Be Too Much…
Let’s face it — even the most die-hard gamers get fatigued and need to get away from a video game screen for a while. Level 257 offers a couple of different options for those who wish to step away from the games. In the gaming area there’s a reading nook near shelving stocked with books for kids. (Speaking of which, there were a surprisingly large number of li’l ones running around.) If you have no use for this juvenile reading area, you can take a meander near the restaurant and admire a wall of museum display pieces of Pac-Man-related artifacts, including an Atari Video Computer System “light sixer,” an old can of Pac-Man pasta by Chef Boyardee, the Pac-Man board game, and a slew of other items of nostalgia, old and new (if there is such a thing as new nostalgia.)
I believe I’ve mentioned before that the reason I gravitate toward video games of the ’80s as opposed to modern ones is that, despite the much more primitive graphics and sound, the games from 30+ years ago have infinitely more replayability than newer ones. With this in mind, I think my final thought will be based on the replayability of Level 257: that is…would I come back?
Much like the 256th level of Pac-Man, my mind is split. (Yes, terrible comparison, I know. Just deal with it, ‘kay?) On one hand, the atmosphere is really cool, the staff is friendly, the service is good, and for what you pay for the food you get pretty good quality. All things considered, the available activities, gift shop, and food, one thought ran through my mind: if my parents were there with me, they’d be on their knees thanking God that this place didn’t exist when I was nine years old, or else they would have been putting up with my nagging them to take me, and there’s no way in hell they would have driven all the way up to Schaumburg to let their whiny brat kid do that Pac-Man stuff at those prices.
Which reminds me…none of the four of us did any gaming. We didn’t relish the thought of spending five dollars for fifteen minutes, especially when you consider that $15 can buy you either an hour of gaming at Level 257, or an entire day of gaming at Galloping Ghost or Underground Retrocade, both of which have a great many of the games you’ll find at Level 257. In fact, after we left Level 257, Duc and I chose that second option: we went to Underground Retrocade and invested three fins each and had a great time playing some retro games and hanging out with some of our friends. They knew we were visiting Level 257 and asked us how things were. When I mentioned the bowling alleys and the fees, one of these friends pointed out how not far from Level 257 is a really great bowling alley that is, and I quote, “cheap as shit.” Anyhoo…
Universally, there seems to be a disagreement on Level 257 as a whole. Reviews are mixed: some reviewers hate it, citing slow service, bowling lanes never becoming available after being given a promise time, expensive gaming (and a relative paucity of game choices), and low-quality food; others give Level 257 high ratings for the atmosphere, game options, and food…so go figure. Of course, Level 257 has been open to the public for a few short weeks, so it’s too early to give a definitive rating. But based on my experience on March 21, I’d give it 4 out of 5 stars. What keeps me from giving it that extra star? The outrageous gaming costs. But Level 257 does have a promising future, as it seems there were more than enough people willing to pay for that gaming, and there will be some special events in the near future that might nudge me into making a return trip.
Now…I was thinking my next post would be that book review, but…I now realize it’s almost the end of the month and I haven’t yet made a monthly “Pac-Man Games That Aren’t Pac-Man” post, so guess what I’ll be doing next. Only thing is…I don’t know if I should go retro or modern for this month. Only time will tell.