Editorâ€™s Note: The Lost Arcade opens in limited theatrical release on August 12, 2016.
Geared primarily toward an audience pre-sold on the premise, The Lost Arcade, the latest documentary from writer Irene Chin and director Kurt Vincent, seems unable, maybe unwilling, to explain much of anything about the gaming scene it holds so dear. With its singular focus on New York Cityâ€™s last proper video game arcade, the Mott Street stalwart known as Chinatown Fair, the documentary sends us back to the somewhat recent days of dingy, sticky holes-in-the-wall full of teen boys and the clacking of buttons that stab, slash and dismember.
Thereâ€™s a rich vein of hostility running throughout this documentary, both from the subjects of the film and the film itself.
Talking heads tell us that the days of the arcade were “magical,” and itâ€™s meant as one of those undeniable truths, something so obvious that no explanation is needed. Yet not all of us who shoveled our own pocketfuls of quarters into Street Fighter and Dance Dance Revolution think back on our arcade days as magical, and without anyone bothering to explain their opinions, or even to show us why Chinatown Fair was so important, the sentimentality and history the film hopes to achieve is lost.
In fact, very little about CF, as most of the folks in the documentary refer to it, seems special at all, save the kitschy dancing chicken and its historic locale. Itâ€™s a case of becoming important by default simply because it was the last arcade standing, thus the last place for anyone, from casual players to tournament masters, to go. Thereâ€™s a tacit admission in the film that those who frequented arcades were generally very young and lured in by the promise of something shiny, and thatâ€™s about as deep as the subject gets. An off-hand remark about how those fighting games — the ones with lots of blood splatter and a few decapitations here and there — are comforting and soothing, frustratingly goes nowhere.
Without anyone bothering to explain their opinions, or even to show us why Chinatown Fair was so important, the sentimentality and history the film hopes to achieve is lost.
Thereâ€™s a rich vein of hostility running throughout this documentary, both from the subjects of the film and the film itself. Sam Palmer, who owned Chinatown Fair for three decades, seems to have made some poor personal decisions, but beyond one bitter quip from Palmerâ€™s son, we hear nothing about it. Former customers show an astonishing inability to handle either change or disappointment, and exhibit trouble with interpersonal relationships. These things may seem so common as to be stereotypical, but such an up-close look at something so personal, yet never acknowledged or explained, reeks of exploitation. When long-time employee Henry Cen brags about stealing the dancing chickenâ€™s eggs and hiding them until April Foolâ€™s Day, then bringing the rotting projectiles out and pelting customers with them, weâ€™re not seeing a chuckle-worthy anecdote; that unwavering camera is practically judging him, judging all of nerd culture, but for what reason is anybodyâ€™s guess.
Every generation has something that only they will understand, or that they think only they can understand, which is why itâ€™s not enough for The Lost Arcade to tell us that no one will ever really get how great it was to grow up having an arcade to go to. The fact that Chinatown Fair was a gathering place where a certain brand of misfit could fit in hardly renders it unique; these customers were already second generation gamers, and as gathering places go, arcades are not substantially different than the pool halls or bowling alleys of previous generations. The Lost Arcade relies far too heavily on the preconceptions of its intended audience, thus managing to do little more than reconfirm the old adage that you canâ€™t go home again.
Though sure to please those with happy memories of childhoods spent in arcades, The Lost Arcade seems unable, maybe unwilling, to explain much of anything about the gaming scene it holds so dear.