What makes your arcade different from a Dave & Buster’s? It’s a question that’s often posed to Gideon Coltof of Everett-based Boston Bit Labs. The answer, says Coltof: everything.
The arcade in question is Bit Bar Salem, a hybrid arcade/restaurant set to open in the Old Salem Jail early this June. It’s from the same team that’s lugged classic games to breweries and other locales for the popular Bit Fest pop-up series, and the 30-plus games in Bit Bar Salem’s rotating selection will likewise be from the late ’70s through the early ’00s. Don’t expect Big Buck Hunter here.
“Our entire vibe is of a classic, vintage, authentic experience,” Coltof says. “We have all old-school games, with original hardware, on CRTs [cathode-ray tubes]. No giant 60-inch LCD displays or anything like that. We want this to be a place that’s comfortable. We are going to be simple, 25 cents a pop. Plunk your quarter into the machine, you get a credit, and you can play Pac-Man all day.” Other games they’ve already secured include Street Fighter II, Japanese fixed-shooter game Galaga, Rolling Thunder (a personal favorite of Coltof’s from childhood—“I spent a lot of money on that game,” he laughs) and four or five retro pinball machines.
Coltof says the Bit Labs team always intended to open a brick-and-mortar establishment. “We set up Bit Fest with the intention of testing the waters,” he explains. “I think the demographics of the Boston area are ripe for something like this. There’s a very tech-heavy community; there’s a good-sized young community, people in their 20s and 30s who really get the vintage aspect of it. But also people who grew up with these games … going to the local arcade. Now they can do it, but while holding a beer.”
Those beers will be predominantly locally sourced, as will much of the restaurant’s menu, developed with organic ingredients and environmental friendliness in mind. (“Even the oil from our fryer is going to be going to a biodiesel facility for recycling,” Coltof says.) Price points will also pay tribute to the retro vibe. “We want this to be a relatively affordable place,” Coltof says. “I would really consider this a bait-and-switch if we said, ‘Oh yeah, come for our 25 cent games…and here’s a $20 burger.’” Customers can expect to get an appetizer and an entree for around 20 bucks.
But Coltof primary’s goal for Bit Bar is to create an inviting space for gamers of all stripes. “Modern gaming has become very—I have to pick my words carefully here—it has not been a very welcoming community to some people,” he says. “These massive multiplayer games online, like Halo and the like, they’re very exciting, but they also attract a certain breed of people. One of the nice things about these old arcade games is that they’re much friendlier and more accessible. You and all your friends can get on a game of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and there’s just so much joy there, even if you’ve never seen the game before.”
Bit Bar Salem 50 St. Peter St., Salem, bit.bar
We asked Coltof and his fellow founders to sound off on their favorite games from their youth, some of which will have a new home at Bit Bar Salem.
“The Simpsons arcade game—the absolute classic Konami beat-em-up. One of the few games that my parents would not only give me quarters for as a kid, but would occasionally join me in playing. So excited to have one of these great machines for Bit Bar.”
“Streets of Rage. I have fond memories of sitting in my college dorm room, tearing my hair out over one engineering problem or another, and then being blessedly rescued by my flatmate Russell to engage in our nightly ritual. Russell played Axel, I played Blaze, and our soundtrack choice for every session: James Taylor’s Greatest Hits.”
“Street Fighter II. I played for countless hours both at the arcade and on home consoles. Each new release of the game was super, hyper exciting. Still fun for button mashers and fighting masters alike.”
“Star Wars (1983). This is my first and fondest memory of playing arcade games; as a kid I’d save all my allowance to drop quarters in this cab for when my family took day trips to Boston. ‘Use the force, Luke!’”