At Northridge Mall in Salinas, folks can geek out at Gamers in Control and GameStop video game stores, fantasy card playing spot Mythic Games, or buy anime figures at Collection Infection. But one new tenant really brings the noise.
From the ground floor, an escalator or elevator takes you upstairs to a new entertainment center called Round1. If the mall has ambient sounds, Round1 is an explosion.
On the second floor, you’re greeted with a chaotic roar from a video game arcade, a rainbow barrage of lights and colors, blinking and flashing like robots at full tilt. Your heart rate increases and your breathing changes as your body tries to regulate the stimuli. At least one game puts a disclaimer on the screen: “Hazard to Epileptics.”
Round1 is like the id of the mall.
The product of a Japanese company founded by Masahiki Sugino, Round1 “stores” need a specific ecosystem: enclosed super regional shopping malls of more than 800,000 square feet, preferably with movie theaters and food court, 10 miles from at least 400,000 residents.
In the U.S., they typically build a 50,000 square-foot indoor complex with a dozen bowling lanes, 250-300 arcade machines, eight pool tables, four karaoke rooms, two ping-pong tables, four dart boards, a fast food restaurant and a bar.
Salinas’ Round1 has all those. Think Dave & Busters, but a Big Boss version.
The arcade games are grouped into driving games, carnival-like games, fighting, dancing, sports, shooting and musical games, as well as claw crane machines you play for prizes.
There is a four-person game called Fantasy Soccer. The controls consist of a joystick, four buttons, and a fixed soccer ball on the ground, which you kick to make your onscreen player also kick. That should play well in Salinas.
The Space Invaders game, an 8-foot-high behemoth version, looks like the “Oh my God, it’s full of stars” scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey done in 8-bit Lite Brite style. A game called Gunslinger Stratos is a frenetic anime battle in fast motion. There is a Walking Dead two-person shoot-em-up in which you wield a replica of a crossbow to shoot hordes of zombies in the head. A lot of em. It was appropriately gruesome.
But not as disturbing as the Big Buck Hunter video game, which is culturally more Duck Dynastythan Dynasty Warriors (a Japanese swordplay video game), with women in skimpy safari outfits and a yokel narrator yelling encouragement. I shot a buck deer and it went down looking confused and glassy-eyed, as if asking “Why, God?” I felt guilty.
One game, Museca, sports hip angular designs on the cabinet and an anime character looking down with sympathy as you try to comprehend it. Everything in Museca, including the voiceovers, is in Japanese. An avatar appeared and seemed to want me to do something. I pressed a button. Something happened. I pressed another button. There was a countdown. I pressed more buttons. Then the game seemed to be over. I lingered, feeling like I had just gotten Punk’d.
They have various versions of Dance Dance Revolution. I had played that one when it was new. I started it up and a catalogue of unfamiliar Japanese boy bands and girl bands appeared, which made me feel like a chaperone at a high school party. I stepped down.
One game looked like an oval-shaped mirror portal to another dimension, with instructions in Japanese and a gameplay style so abstract (maybe you move your hands like Tom Cruise inMinority Report?) that I just walked away before I humiliated myself.
Everything has a high tech aura. Even the basketball free-throw games and skee ball are lit up in neon like they’re from Tron. There is a game called Crazy Tower in which instead of playing on a video screen, you play on a hologram. Round1 has purikura, Japanese automated selfie booths, but they sport photoshopped pictures of girls with weird captions like “So pretty twins… xxxx.” There was a game that had so much text on the console that it looked like the instructions for how to fly the USS Enterprise.
Gone are the days of lining up your quarters on the plexiglass. Instead you purchase plastic game cards that you buy credits into, and swipe to start up a game.
The games are like a generational litmus test. I felt like I was being discriminated against for being middle aged and not speaking Japanese. Yelpers are extremely mixed about the place, duking it out to a middling 2.5 rating over customer service, the fees, the fun factor and cleanliness. One employee told me that they are open every day, including Thanksgiving and Christmas.
There is a big window over the mall parking lot; another behind the DC Justice League fighting game, facing the inside of the mall. It’s an enclosed system that simulates other worlds – a mobius loop. When your nerves or your wallet have had enough and you escape to the downstairs, the ambient holiday sounds of the mall feels like an oasis. That is how topsy turvy this big blast of Japanese video game culture can be.