Now, if we’re going to play with the notion that Pasadena’s “Arcade Alley” was a kind of adolescent pilgrim trail in its heyday, then it would be fair to compare the venues in the post below to the scattershot reliquaries of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; they housed a certain kind of second-rate charm, but for anybody whose interest was in a truly religious calling to a coin-op house of worship… well. There was only destination whose grandeur was legitimately worthy of that designation.
Delphi. Saint Thomas Cathedral. Mecca. The Pak-Mann Arcade.
1792 East Colorado Boulevard
At the height of its powers, the Pak took up roughly one-half of this entire block, expanding from its original warehouse-sized shape into a kind of Lovecraftian monstrosity. The original floor plan was little more than a giant, gutted room with arched ceilings—the overhead track lighting only seemed to be up and running about a third of the time, perhaps in some misfired gambit to distract from the elegant sleaziness of the surroundings—with the floor alternating between bone-thin linoleum and flat stretches of scabby concrete (by which one could connect the dots in relation to how the owners had flattened the original walls, taking over the adjoining storefronts and promptly stuffing them with an assembly of battered old Namco and Atari games, air hockey tables, and—in its later years of slow and cancerous decline—an entire cyber-café), and the visible sections of the walls painted in a flat, day-care blue.
Unlike the area’s other arcades, the Pak operated with a kind of biblical hubris, even in the face of changing trends and social pressures. In the late 1980’s, the place was a smoke-filled bordello of eight-bit distractions and off-the-clock gangbangers, who would fill Revere Alley with their buckets and low-lows, effectively stemming off any passing traffic and often prompting the cops to pour in, passing out tickets for open containers and vehicle-height violations. In the 1990’s, tighter curfew laws and the changing complexion of Pasadena’s urban character meant an end to this chapter of charming clientele—as it’s told, the expansion of the legendary Temple City Sheriffs’ jurisdiction allowed their fuzzy brand of nightstick diplomacy to effectively draw an imaginary bulwark at the borders of Rosemead and the real estate north of the 210—prompting the Pak to make some mildly grudging efforts at cleaning up its act. Gone were the black-out covers on the front windows and the cigarette burns on every square inch of the classic cabinets; in came the era of event gaming, and the explosive uptick in suburbanite quarter-stuffers that rode its high and mean crest.
In the tickity-tock of the new decade’s first five years, the Pak was no longer a shit-smear reserved for the criminal element and the after-midnight crowd… it was a crucible. Saturday nights were when mass was typically held, with hundreds of teenagers and twentysomethings cramming into the place to line up and partake in the communion rites of playing the hottest new games. Most arcades recognized this ritualistic cycle of erratic interest, and would feed into it by making sure that they had at least two or three cabinets of extinction-level event releases like Mortal Kombat II… but the Pak?
The Pak understood its clientele’ better than most of its soon-to-be-extinct boulevard competition, and it would mercilessly wring the faithful for every ounce of spare change that jangled in our pockets. When Street Fighter 2 initially hit the flagging amusement-sector culture like an H-bomb, the place proudly boasted no less than twelve upright copies of the game, neatly arranged around the entrance like a phalanx… and when Street Fighter 2: Championship Edition followed, that number had easily doubled. No lines; no huddled masses of spectators, eagerly waiting to get their hands on the joystick and become THE NEW CHALLENGER that would enter the figurative arena. The Pak’s prison-yard aesthetic kept the place humming along on all cylinders, with customers filing through its doors at all hours of the day… and hell, well into the wee-est hours of the night*.
The Pak outlasted every last pretender within the realm of its influence, and actually managed to see out the turn of the century. At that point, the advent of the PS2 and its competition had pretty much driven a magnesium stake through the frantic, hardwired beating of the arcade culture’s heart… but the damn place still managed to find ways to endear itself to a new generation of games (and no shortage of nostalgia hounds, thanks to its copious amounts of classic titles from Taito, Atari, SEGA and Capcom). I don’t think that anybody genuinely believed that the Pak would ever succumb to the same destructive malaise that had killed off the Western, the Star, the Village, the A&P or the Palace, but the prognosis still had to be fairly dire… after all, the fundamental flaws of the coin-op culture had become ruthlessly exposed, thanks to the thinning tech-gap which had traditionally existed between arcade titles and their home-console brethren. The Pokemon’ Generation saw places like the Pak as being more of a museum than a must-go, an archaic monument to something that they had no interest in encouraging. To support your local arcade was to buy into the forced segregation of the industry’s past, when you’d buy a stripped-down NES port of Double Dragon for fifty bucks and then still have to cough up additional cash to actually play the “real” version of the same fucking game with a friend at the local bowling alley.
As such, the Pak was overmatched and effectively terminal. As it struggled on—reinventing itself as a repository for card gaming, gutting the collection of what must have been hundreds of upright cabinets in a bid to downsize its once-massive square footage, going through the same motions as a desperate cancer patient who hasn’t yet come to grips with their prognosis—the dominoes continued to click into place. The era of the comic shop came and went. Gameworks and Dave and Buster’s managed to chip out a furtive foothold for themselves by sweetening the idea of game-playing with that most basic of selling points—cheap-as-shit booze and a built-in purpose as a pre-fab date destination—and Disneyland’s Starcade permanently shuttered its second floor… and later, a good 90-plus percent of its total playing floor**.
Of course, the funny thing about cobbling together a decent eulogy for the Pak-Mann is the fact that hardly anybody remembers the exact point when the damn place officially died. In casing various Rose City message boards and tickling the brains of my fellow late-era burnouts, the consensus seems to be anywhere from 2003 through 2007. Which is actually a bit fitting, in a sense: if the Pak was an axiomatic component to the cultural nervous system of Pasadena’s youth throughout its lifetime, then its graceless decline and sluggish death are indicative of how the city feels to many of its returned sons and daughters, these days. The departed natives can’t revisit Rose City without feeling as though they’re afloat in some kind of confusing limbo: sizing up the albumen-colored blandness of the Paseo, taking in the hilarious excess of the back-loaded, swapmeet-blanket version of Rodeo Drive that Old Town’s become, and cruising quietly past the husks of the Rialto Theater and so many other staples of what once made the city’s culture hum along to a sharp, uniquely self-aware frequency.
Which I realize actually might be for the best; it puts a serrated edge on these recollections. Nothing’s worse for the aging brain and thinning soul than the feeling that time’s actively passing you by, and that you can’t get your hands around its neck… but in the end of the arcade, there’s a kind of reassuring finality. It exists only in the eyes and minds of those who were actively there, and who can still set the watch of their nostalgia to the first time they threw a proper Hadouken or aced a Dance Dance Revolution round without white-knuckling the support bar.
It’s an idea whose time will never come again, and—between you and me?—I don’t think I’d have it any other way.