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VINTAGE VIBES: 1984 owners Jason Durham, left, Devin Durham and Chris Stuart say arcade patrons can time travel toward the ‘80s.
VINTAGE VIBES: 1984 owners Jason Durham, left, Devin Durham and Chris Stuart say arcade patrons can time travel toward the ‘80s.

Business Spotlight: Joystick Heroes

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Along Jefferson Avenue downtown sits a shrine dedicated to all things 1980s.

Appropriate to the theme, 80 arcade machine cabinets span two floors, separated by a lounge with retro televisions playing classic films and old-school telephones adding ambiance. A room of six to 18 pinball machines, as well as a snack bar, party rooms, themed posters and action figures, round out the visual experience.

Co-owner Chris Stuart sets off a flurry of noises when he flips a single switch to power on the arcade machines. Beeps, boops and 8-bit music mix with Pac-Man’s classic “waka waka” sound effect to create a cacophony of nostalgia. Overhead speakers blare 1980s pop hits to fully bring home the effect of an ’80s simulation.  

Players pay a $7.50 admission charge for a pass to play all of the arcade games to their heart’s content. Pinball machines require additional quarters because they tend to break down quickly.

The seven owners of 1984 – operated via Downtown RetroVision Entertainment LLC – continue to build their 16-year-old concept as video games sold through such services as Steam and the Xbox and PlayStation stores implement retro graphics to great effect. Think of the popularity of “Minecraft,” which emphasizes gameplay over graphics, a clear shout-out to games of the past.

“It flummoxes me at times,” Stuart says, noting gameplay had to be king in lieu of graphical prowess as video games began to take hold. “That’s really the strength of these machines.”

The name itself corresponds with the time several of the owners graduated high school, as well as what co-owner Devin Durham notes as the premier year of the ’80s. Pointing to the pivotal year of 1969 defining the ’60s, he says 1984 was culturally significant. The North American video game market was undergoing a recession, Billy Joel, David Bowie and Phil Collins were popular musical artists, and classic films such as “Ghostbusters,” “The Karate Kid” and “The Terminator” released. It’s also an Orwellian reference to the famous dystopian novel of the same name.

“Every decade has a defining year,” Durham says. “1984 continues to show up.”

Hobby venture
The owners run 1984 as a labor of love. The arcade enthusiasts operate without employees, minus help from Devin and Jason Durham’s mother Gloria.

When not flicking joysticks, the owners have day jobs ranging from Stuart’s work as a graphic designer to Devin Durham as a freelance website and database creator; Jason Durham as information technology manager of Abilities First; Amy Durham as research and development coordinator for Kraft-Heinz Co.’s Springfield operations; and Lincoln Whistler’s role as advertising director at Reliable Superstore.

Key to the concept, the owners say, is an emphasis on fun.

“We do stuff here because we want to, not because it makes any business sense,” says Jason Durham, referencing a Delorean they parked outside the arcade with little advertising to celebrate a crucial date in the film “Back to the Future Part II.”  

Then there’s pinball. With constant upkeep needed, the quarters generated from gamers aren’t enough to pay for expenses. The same goes with pinball tournaments, which tend to be an added value for brand loyalty. That puts them in loss-leader territory, says Devin Durham.

“I look at it like the floor. You don’t think about what the floor costs. You just have to have a floor,” he says. “Pinball machines to me are something that bring people to the door and they may do other things while they’re here. It’s a bigger picture thing.”

Demographically, Durham says half of 1984’s customers are new and half are returning players. Since opening in July 2005, the owners also have watched different generations walk through the doors.

One such local customer is Ron Murphy, a retired chief information officer for Associated Electric Cooperative Inc. who’s been coming to 1984 since it opened.

Mostly a pinball player – his favorite is “Attack from Mars” – Murphy grew up in the ’80s when arcade machines were prominent and popular. He recalls people laying down quarters on machines to reserve their next turn.

“It got lost when home consoles came out, like NES and the Xbox, all of those. They wiped out of all the games and they disappeared for quite a while,” he says. “Then all of a sudden out of nowhere, I hear about this business that opens up and they have all of the games.

“I remember telling my wife, ‘My goodness, it’s just like it used to be.’”
    
The breakdown
The owners say the ability to adapt has kept 1984 fresh, even if its arcade games are anything but that.

Two years ago, the operators made a play to double the arcade’s space with a basement addition. With 4,800 square feet now leased from building owner Dan Scott, the increased space expanded capacity to 240, says Stuart. The expansion also created space for new party rooms, an important revenue driver.

Declining to disclose revenues, the owners say the top line is split between walk-in traffic and parties. For $125, partygoers gain 15 admissions and a room for two hours. Up the price to $200, and up to 250 guests can enjoy the entire arcade privately for two hours.

When CIO of Associated Electric Cooperative, Murphy hosted a dozen or so parties through the years at 1984.

“I’ve never been disappointed,” he says.

Speaking to the machines themselves, the owners say there aren’t typically retailers who specialize in selling them. That means the cabinets have made their way from generation to generation, passing through time to find their way to downtown Springfield. The owners recently secured the “Track & Field” arcade game after many years searching.

When the arcade cabinets arrive, their age shows.

The machines requires constant maintenance, meaning the owners themselves or a hired contractor are fixing them and buying new parts to continually provide TLC to the old hardware. The machines were built with sometimes flimsy parts, and their insides are a mish-mash of wires and motherboards. Power supplies and monitors are the biggest offenders.

“Every day, something breaks,” Jason Durham says.

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