(by Gene Yraola)
The golden era of arcades in America was a distant memory by early 2001, yet one dimly-lit location in the underbelly of Manhattan’s Chinatown managed to flourished with a robust community that far exceeded the lifespan of its original incarnation.
Premiering at the DOC NYC Film Festival in NY’s IFC Theatre this past Saturday, the long-awaited documentary The Lost Arcade is heavily touted as one of the biggest movies ever to be released about the culture of gaming since 2007’s King of Kong. Originally crowd-funded in 2010 around news circulating regarding the closing of 8 Mott Street, otherwise known as Chinatown Fair, the film would be in production for nearly 5 years before finally receiving an added injection of backing from gaming media portal IGN. Director Kurt Vincent and producer Irene Chin showcase the rise and fall…and reemergence of one of gamers’ last paradises in NYC would become more than just the last electronic playland of Manhattan but an ideal that many struggled to keep alive. Vincent focuses on a slew of the notable members of the Chinatown Fair community, ranging from its original owner and father figure to many of its patrons, the late Sam Palmer, to the arcade’s caretaker Henry Cen, to a number of the arcade’s figureheads such as Akuma Hokura and eventually the arcade’s savior Lonnie Sobel.
The movie focuses not on the particular arcade culture that boomed during the 1970s but the story behind each of the arcade’s main figureheads and its consistent struggling history both as a community and individual parts. The movie is surprisingly emotional as it is comical with notable moments in the arcade’s history of being located in one of the sketchiest parts of Chinatown, “If you were not Chinese and not in Chinatown Fair, you were targeted by every gang in Chinatown,” says Hokura, the runaway orphan who would become manager at the arcade. Fighting to survive against the more flashier arcades of Times Square in the 1970s, The Lost Arcade shows how a struggling hole-in-the-wall would become one of the more prominent gaming scenes of the 1990s long before the advent of XBOX Live and LAN competitions. The documentary showcases remarkable lost footage of the gaming scene in wonderful restored clarity throughout Chinatown Fair’s and competing Times Square arcades from the 1940s through present day, a gaming archivist’ dream come true.
The documentary however features some of the more lighthearted moments of the arcade, none of which more pleasant than the arcade’s iconic dancing chicken that would become as famous as Chinatown Fair itself.
Oh, and it also plays tic-tac-toe and has been undefeated.
Filmed over the course of 5 years, The Lost Arcade follows the passing of the torch to Henry Chen’s and Akuma Hokura’s venture to continue the legacy of Chinatown Fair’s gamer community in a new location (though solemnly would reveal at the film’s premiere they are closing this February along with news of the passing of Sam Palmer), to entrepreneur Lonnie Sobel’s plight (and uphill battle against the arcade’s traditionalists) to reinvent Chinatown Fair into a more family-friendly venue.
The movie is a complete fan-service to both those in the know of the arcade and gamer-culture alike. While indeed the patrons may appear young, brash, and somewhat derelict, the documentary displays the community as a family of uncommon personalities ranging from businessman to school girls. Even the music provided by Gil Talmi is as authentic as Chinatown Fair’s flair, featuring music composed from an actual Commodore 64 soundchip to create a vivid, colorful score that is both electronic and ambient with playful tones without all the immaturity connotations that surround gamers. Here’s to hoping the score eventually gets a digital release.
Overall, The Lost Arcade is an incredible display to the gaming community and the loyal strength its following can bring to the table. The documentary is not only a fine testament to a piece of NY history, but an exemplary tribute to those who made it what it was and will forever will be.
Like any good game, The Lost Arcade is worthy of multiple plays and worthy of being considered one of the best documentaries of the year.
The Lost Arcade will be available for digital release this coming December.
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