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If you’re part of the age demographic that back in the day played classic arcade games, which are now on offer at the newly opened I/O Arcade Bar on Williamson Street, then you probably remember the experience of standing impatiently, a fistful of quarters in hand, waiting for the guy monopolizing the cigarette-burned Defender console to finally bomb out and let you play.
The waiting game has been a little like that for patrons eager to check out Mitchell Turino’s arcade bar — a place, like the clever window lettering says, “for drinkers with a gaming problem.” Originally scheduled to open this past summer, various construction delays bumped the bar’s grand opening to last Friday, Nov. 9. But now the doors at 720 Williamson St. are open and it’s finally game on.
Over the past decade, arcade bars have become a growing trend, fueled by nostalgia and gamers with disposable incomes and taste for good beer. Spots like the Emporium arcade bar in Chicago have set the standard, but I/O is the first genuine local example. Madison has a different, alcohol-free arcade experience available on the west side of town — Geeks Mania on Odana Road charges a flat entry fee for unlimited play. And of course, there’s Dave & Buster's at West Towne Mall, which offers walls of sound and fury to go with more modern gaming.
I/O’s experience is a great deal more intimate. The bar offers frozen pizza, 20 tap beers and is going with the classic arcade mode, where a pocketful of shiny quarters is your ticket to Pac-Man and BurgerTime goodness.
I/O has taken a few years to come to fruition. Out of college, Turino, who grew up in Madison, landed in an office job, which promptly drove him crazier than the 10th level of Robotron 2084. In 2015, he quit and dove headfirst into food service, working at multiple bars. That’s where the idea for I/O hit him, hard.
“For a while there, I was spending my days looking at spreadsheets, and then spending my free time playing video games,” Turino says. “Eventually, I was like, 'Screw this, I’m going to start a bar and invite my friends.'”
Turns out he had more friends than he realized. To get his startup loan in 2017, Turino was asked to prove that there was interest in the idea of an arcade bar. Within a few days of posting the question on Reddit, he had racked up 600 responses.
Locating and purchasing the more than 25 arcade machines that populate I/O was both an adventure and a crash-course in collector nostalgia. Turino started with Craigslist before moving to eBay, Facebook Marketplace and beyond.
“Very rarely do people just have one machine,” Turino notes. “It’s usually, ‘What else is for sale?'"
So when Turino picked up his Galaga — an absolutely essential title for any arcade, let alone arcade bar — he also grabbed Donkey Kong Junior and 1943. Other stalwarts in the I/O collection include Ms. Pac-Man, BurgerTime, Mortal Kombat 3, Street Fighter II, Joust and Millipede. Turino’s “white whale” was Marvel vs. Capcom 2, although he’s also thrilled to have landed several multiplayer gems like Gauntlet Legends and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The Simpsons is set to be added to the lineup soon.
In addition to an amazing back-bar mural by Madison artist Dan Fransee that turns the Madison skyline into a scene from Space Invaders, complete with the Capitol building dome as the laser-shooting base, I/O also features between 10 and 11 pinball tables, anchored by all-timers like The Addams Family and School of Magic. Turino is working with local experts from Madison Pinball to ensure the tables remain working and ready for the pounding they’ll likely take from would-be Madison wizards.
But it’s not just about joysticks and flippers at I/O. About a third of the bar’s space is devoted to board game lovers, who can rent copies from I/O’s library and play with friends at a handful of small tables. Turino also wants I/O to become a venue where gamers can come to watch competitive gaming events on the venue’s pair of Twitch-streaming big-screen TVs. Turino is a huge fan and player of the multiplayer online battle arena game Defense of the Ancients 2, commonly known as Dota 2, but StarCraft and Overwatch tournament-watching events will likely also be on the docket.
As for the younger-than-18 set, they needn’t worry. Turino plans to do a few all-ages events on the first and third Sundays of each month where alcohol won’t be served.
“We’re really trying to make I/O a community space,” says Turino. “Our focus is games, but we want to make sure it’s a good atmosphere for people who aren’t playing games.”
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