Free Play Arcade Lets You Play As Many Classic Games As You Want For $10 — All While Drinking.
Before I can even ask Free Play arcade owner Corey Hyden what it takes to run a warehouse-sized barcade with a zero-tolerance policy for out-of-order signs and non-original parts, circumstance makes a point of showing me by example. Moments after I meet him, he’s interrupted mid-sentence by the howl of an employee and the tinkling sound of broken glass.
A pinball machine top had been shattered in transit across the arcade floor. Hyden, however, doesn’t even get up from his seat. After confirming that the crackling sound was indeed shattering glass and not electricity from an errant power supply, Free Play’s other owner, Richard Boland Tregilgas II, soberly takes measurements and replaces the glass without betraying even a grimace. The whole cleanup and repair takes maybe 15 minutes.
“The first two weeks here were triage… we were doing everything we could to keep these things running,” Hyden says.
But now, largely by strip-mining the arcade machine market across the southern U.S., they’ve accrued enough parts for just about any contingency.
DFW is not short on barcades or even video game museums these days, but only Richardson’ Free Play arcade, where folks can play unlimited arcade classics after ponying up a $10 door fee, can be described as a bit of both. Free Play’s devotion to the history of video games — particularly ’80s arcade games — is so relentless that it actually enlarges that history.
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The average arcade machine at Free Play is the video game equivalent of a concourse d’elegance 1950s automobile restoration, one of those Chevy Bel Airs which seem to have been assembled with tweezers in the same rooms where they make hard drives. The difference is that such a Bel Air is usually sealed away, well-guarded by velvet ropes and, presumably, booby traps. It’s pretty unlikely you could go up to the owner and offer him 10 bucks for a spin. But that’s exactly what you get to do at Free Play. As Hyden puts it: “It doesn’t matter how nice the condition [of the cabinet], were going to put it on the floor to get it out there to [be played].”
What’s more, just as the roads in the ’50s weren’t filled to the brim with perfectly-maintained automobiles, no arcade in the ’80s had three different Donkey Kongs, Tapper, Defender, Outrun 2, Crazy Taxi, Frogger, Street Fighter II, Arkanoid, Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, Mortal Kombat and five pinball machines all on the same floor, with a near-maniacal insistence upon using original hardware, joysticks, screens and cabinets. But Free Play does.
For Hyden, it isn’t about reviving a bygone era, but about re-imagining a bygone era the way it was supposed to have been.
“Every person that wasn’t in an arcade in the ’80s comes in here and is like, ‘I’m home,'” he says.
You aren’t handed rose-colored glasses at the door upon entering Free Play. It’s just that within the walls of Free Play, reality is rose-colored.
Free Play’s dedication to the history of the video game goes beyond cabinet maintenance, too: They’re also interested in the history of arcade communities. This April saw the inauguration of the Dallas Classic, a weekly video game tournament series that takes its inspiration from past arcade tournaments in the DFW area. The second installment of the series, for instance, was a The King of Fighters ’96 contest modeled on Dallas’ very first major fighting game tournament. That tournament took place in what is now the Richardson Square Mall — right around the corner from Free Play’s current location — and it’s the stuff of legend.
“[They were] expecting a couple dozen players, [but] there was a line out the door when the tournament ran,” Hyden says.
Halfway through the tournament, the organizers arranged for the delivery of a second The King of Fighters ’96 set-up from the Putt Putt Golf & Games down the road. The tournament might have taken all day otherwise.
Free Play too takes frequent deliveries — but from its own considerable warehouse rather than Putt Putt. And the stock is constantly rotating. If your favorite arcade game isn’t here now, it soon will be.
“We have another 100 cabinets, another 200 circuit boards, a mountain of parts and four or five games coming to us in a truck at any time,” Hyden says.
Located in what used to be a laundromat, the space is cavernous. The walls are conspicuously unadorned; they are black with understated orange and yellow striping without an advertisement in sight. The focus is clearly on the machines, which are arranged much the way the washers and dryers would have been — in rows, back to back. The owners estimate that there are about 130 places to play if you include all the three- and four-player games. Miraculously, even on the most crowded nights (and be forewarned, on weekends especially, it does get crowded), you usually have no trouble at all finding a game that interests you. Maybe it’s because the flat $10 fee gives people the incentive to play as many games as possible to get the most bang for their buck. Maybe it’s because the high scores get cleared each night.
Or maybe it’s because people are constantly rotating off the machines to make a visit to the well-stocked bar. What seems at first like little more than an added bonus is actually an essential component of the Free Play project, as Hyden and Tregilgas take their beer as seriously as they take their arcade games. The menu heavily favors options from Texas breweries like Deep Ellum, Guns & Oil, 903 and Nine Band, but it goes beyond our borders, too; the whole beer spectrum is represented, from PBR tallboys to Goose Island Belgians to Lagunitas imperial stouts. For now, it’s mostly cans and bottles, though Free Play also added a few draft offerings recently.
It’s the best of both the arcade and the beer worlds. But it’s the best of both worlds in another way, too: Free Plays gives us all the finickiness of the most obsessive collectors without all of the possessiveness usually associated with that archetype. These games want to be played, and they are — by some 10,000 people a week, and counting.
Free Play DFW is institution in the making.