Arcade Electronica: Dave and Buster’s by Nicholas Quek

6010 Richmond at Fountainview
Houston, Texas 77057

January 2004–It’s not easy to miss the giant twirling logo out in front of the large, unassuming building on Richmond Avenue. Orange and blue does have a way of grabbing one’s attention while doing 50 mph and following right behind yet another wide-bodied SUV large enough to be its own county. It’s not like Dave and Buster’s needs to advertise from the outside, though. By word of mouth and the power of the Internet, people keep coming to Dave and Buster’s in droves. Though it’s hardly a tourist attraction, D&B (as regulars such as myself call it) still has its devotees.

Dave and Buster’s is the brainchild of two friends named (unsurprisingly) Dave Corriveau and Buster Corely. Residents of Little Rock, Arkansas, Dave and Buster were owners two separate businesses back in the 70’s. Buster owned a ‘casually elegant’ and friendly restaurant known as Buster’s. Interestingly, Dave owned a large establishment next door to Buster named ‘Slick Willy’s World of Entertainment.’ Everyone who sees the blistering, prophetic irony, please raise your hands. Continuing, the two businessmen became friends quickly, and soon noted that they shared clientele. That soon gave them an idea. What would happen if they joined forces? The result was the birth of the first Dave and Buster’s in Dallas, and rapid expansion from there. Despite the fact that everyone thought they were crazy for trying to combine the two, they succeeded beyond the scope of their original intentions, and proceeded to expand. Six years later, a second Dallas-area D&B went up. From there, Dave and Buster’s expanded to 14 states, 4 countries, and at least 30 worldwide.

The Midway is the heart of Dave and Buster’s. Every time I walk in there, I’m always struck by that old, familiar feeling. The noise, the action, the hustle and bustle of people working and playing alike…It’s Dave and Buster’s like I’ve always known it: loud, exciting, and forever active. Of course, this is assuming you show up on D&B’s busiest days during the weekend. If you show up during the week, well…it’s pretty quiet, that’s for sure. A mixed blessing, I assure you.

As a child of the electronic age, the Midway is definitely the highlight of my visits to D&B. Possibly the largest, most expansive arcade known to man, the Midway is where I go to relax and have a good time, in spite of the adrenaline that always catches up to me when I’m there. As ironic as it may sound, the adrenaline rush helps me relax after a long week of work and classes. Judging by the vast numbers of other people also here at Dave and Buster’s, I’d say I’m not the only one. “Sure,” says Michael (named changed under request). “I mean, it’s Dave and Buster’s, man. Between, you know, work, class, studying and all that shit, I’ve gotta find someplace to relax.” I continued to watch as Michael swiped his Power Card through the reader-slot on L.A. Machineguns and leaned over one of the two swivel-mounted guns on the console, taking to the skies over a digital Alcatraz where he proceeded to blast missile-carrying cyborgs in tacky jumpsuits. Grinning, he casually supplied his main reason for being here: “I mean, I sometimes I get angry enough to go and punch my boss, but that’s illegal…so I come here and blow stuff up instead.”

In today’s arcade world, there appear to be a grand total of perhaps six different styles of games: gun games, racers, Dance Dance Revolution and its variants, fighting games, simulators, and a minority category I’ll delicately call ‘other.’ Dave and Buster’s has all of those categories and more covered in the Midway. No downsides there. I never fail to get a thrill out of playing Time Crisis 3 or the more specialized Silent Scope and Silent Scope X. As a dedicated gun enthusiast and occasional misanthrope, I find games like Time Crisis and Silent Scope to be cathartic…better than publicly venting my irritation by ranting at passers-by, at any rate. It’s not mindless destruction though; more like state-sponsored violence to improve the global society. It feels remarkably good to take down terrorist organizations by single-handedly.

I also try to dedicate at least a little time to taking on the races. It’s hard to dislike the racer games; they’re so remarkably simple—get to the finish line ahead of your opponents—but exceptionally engrossing. On the plus side, they’re also some of the most inexpensive games at Dave and Buster’s. This is relative—the prices for games are rated by chips, a form of digital credit bought and spent at Dave and Buster’s. The prices for games and the chip-to-dollar ratio change somewhat regularly, so judging how much any one game costs in hard cash is difficult at best. But, that aside, back to the races. Racing at Dave and Buster’s comes in three distinct flavors: Daytona, jetski-racing, and random street/off road racing. Any one of them is fun in its own right, but I always drift towards Arctic Thunder, the oddball of the group. Arctic Thunder, in spite of its already engaging gameplay, goes above and beyond in being immersive. Since the game throws its players into wild ice-tundra racing and the occasional run through a snowcapped mountain range, they installed a high-quality air conditioner in the handlebars of the simulated jetski for the sole purpose of flinging cold, dry air into people’s faces…namely, mine. It’s exhilarating and it does increase the realism a bit, but I suspect it’s also there to increase the player’s need for drinks afterwards.

Truth be told, one of the main reasons that Dave and Buster’s is so popular is also my personal favorite game there. ‘Game’ is hardly the right word for it, though. ‘Experience’ might be more appropriate. The system in question is the Tesla Virtual Pod station at the back of Dave and Buster’s. Like everything else about D&B, it’s hard to miss. Boldly emblazoned on the banner above it are two dueling BattleMechs, massive metal war machines standing anywhere from six to fifteen meters tall and weighing as much as a hundred tons. That is the entire premise of the Tesla Pod system, and what makes it so much fun besides. I make it a personal point to take a jaunt in the pods every time I go to D&B. The game, which goes by BattleTech, is rather costly at 24 chips for one round (at last report), making it the single most expensive game at the Midway. It’s worth it, however. No other system I’ve yet seen actually drops people this far into virtual reality, and I’ve seen a wide variety of such programs. The Tesla system consists of eight virtual reality pods specifically constructed to resemble cockpits. They’re Spartan, they’re military, and they fit their intended role perfectly. When I settle back into one of those pods, I can forget the real world and the worries, the cares, and the chaos that goes with it. In the pods, anyone can be a MechWarrior, and I can say with confidence that in that regard, I am among the veterans.

On average, a round of BattleTech lasts about ten minutes. In the game itself, nobody notices. I know I’m not paying attention to how much time is left. BattleTech is far too enthralling for mere time to mean much. Almost every detail of the MechWarrior universe can be felt here, from the shrill screeches of particle cannons and throaty roars of autocannons, to the hard jostles and kicks that shake pilots in their seats as their ‘Mechs take heavy-hitting blows. It feels like war, in spite of the damage being entirely digital and the not-quite-real appearance through the main screen. As a dedicated MechWarrior and BattleTech fan, it’s still an experience unlike anything else, though. The brilliant reds and greens of laser fire, mixed with blue-tinged particle cannon bolts and nigh-invisible streams of cannon-fire make for one extraordinary (and highly destructive) light show. Watching everything from the swift and elegant Uziel to the slow, lumbering Atlas race across the landscape is a thrilling sight I rarely fail to enjoy—even more so when they are targets under my gunsights, and I have a full load of missiles on board. It might be a violent type of future I throw myself into, but it doesn’t lack for excitement.

In case I’ve made this out to be some sort of electronic paradise, I apologize. Dave and Buster’s is anything but. As with everything in life, especially public businesses, there are problems. As to be expected, problems are proportional to the size of the operation in question. Given that the ‘operation’ is a franchise spanning the United States, the problems are large indeed. They are entirely controllable, but nobody seems to be able to handle them. Prices, such as they are, are pretty steep—the 25-dollar level currently gives out 130 chips, which can be exhausted in a fairly short amount of time. The games themselves aren’t one- or two-chip games…most tend to end up costing five chips on average. This means that the average arcade game will cost a dollar per play. That quickly adds up, as even the most reserved players can spend ten dollars in the space of a half-hour, and enthusiasts like myself can go through all 130 chips in an hour’s time.

The other major problem is the large number of small children that, in violation of Dave and Buster’s rules, are allowed to roam the Midway freely, often getting underfoot and squalling loudly when someone who can actually see the game screen shoos them away from ‘playing’ the game in demo mode. The little brats, by Dave and Buster’s regulations, are not allowed to free-range in the Midway. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough employees in place to keep enforcing this rule. Screaming children tend to ruin the gaming experience and my mood alike.

There is some respite, though. Outside of the Midway is a pool hall, complete with pool tables, dartboards, and foosball tables. This is where the real relaxation is for many people, myself included. It’s not nearly as loud as the Midway, and the atmosphere is less electric. It’s relatively calming, and parents don’t bring their children into the hall, which is the main lure for me. No crying, whining little knee-huggers to spoil my good mood.

Dave and Buster’s has one other attraction, one that will definitely prove interesting this coming Halloween. I’ve heard that the Mystery Dinner Theater is an excellent production, though I’ve not been to one myself. For Halloween they encourage guests to dress up and attend the dinner party, which often turns into a murder mystery in need of solving. I’ve heard it ends up resembling an Agatha Christie novel by night’s end, which suggests that it’s well worth the cost.

Dave and Buster’s may never win any awards for beautifying the city or contributing to the community, but it’s still one of the little things around Houston that has to be experienced to be appreciated. It’s no Reliant Stadium, Minute Maid Park, or AstroWorld by any stretch of the imagination. What it is, however, is a nice place to gather together friends to spend some time just enjoying the thrills and forgetting that the world has worries, if only for a little while…it may not be a digital paradise, but it is an electronic escape, at the very least.
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