Two gamers aim to keep arcade games alive with soon-to-open arcade bar
Brad Van and Chris Welch are opening Aftershock Classic Arcade, an arcade bar and family entertainment center, on Dec. 1.
For Brad Van, it all started with Pac-Man. As he weaved through his life’s maze, just like the very game that has shaped his calling, there have been moments when the game kept chasing him toward a new direction.
Pac-Man came out in 1980 — when Van was 4 years old — back when arcade games were the hottest thing on the market.
“It was new and exciting — Pac-Man really took off, and that was just a fun memory when I was a child,” he says.
But as the video game boom took off in the 1990s, Van says arcades were declining in popularity. Seldom could you find arcade games outside of a few bowling alleys. He was disappointed to find the “same-old” games with fighting, driving and shooting.
Years later, Van was thrilled to find a Pac-Man machine at a restaurant in Madison. Except for one problem — it wasn’t working. Determined to play, Van offered the owner $100 to take it and fix it up, an experience that would jolt his memory back to his childhood and ultimately inspire him to start his own business.
That one machine inspired him and Chris Welch to take their gaming expertise to 1442 E. Washington Ave., where they are opening Aftershock Classic Arcade, a vintage arcade bar and family entertainment center, on Dec. 1.
Pac-Man was the first arcade machine he collected, but it certainly wouldn’t be his last — his trove of games has grown to about 250. Van went on a treasure hunt for the best vintage arcade games he could find, an escapade that would take him all around Wisconsin, collecting about 50 in just a few short years. When he first started, his friends would shore up space for his arcade games after the storage rooms he rented maxed out.
In 2000, he launched the arcade Aftershock Retrogames in Madison’s north side. People came from all over to play in what Van says was one of the first classic arcades. Twin Galaxies, an organization that oversees the world record scoreboard for gaming, even contacted Van to host a couple of events.
A few years after opening Aftershock Retrogames, he relocated to State Street, sharing space with the business Ping Time. When it went out of business, he moved again — this time in the back of a thrift store on Williamson Street. He tried to attract private parties with prizes, but the then-24-year-old was starting a family and getting home at 3 or 4 a.m. was not in the cards.
“It’s just kind of been how my life goes — one [arcade] will pop up, and then another, and then it’ll be time to close that one,” Van says. But not this time.
As Van, now 45, went from pizza shops to bars and restaurants over the years, he was devising his own game plan to open an arcade and restaurant bar with the best vintage games.
“We’re excited. It’s been a long time coming,” co-owner Chris Welch says — try four years. Perhaps Welch and Van’s partnership is no real surprise. They were born just one day apart in 1976. A University of Wisconsin–Madison alumnus, Welch co-owns Trixie’s Liquor and Growlers to Go-Go on East Washington Avenue.
Welch says the new Aftershock Classic Arcade location, which sits next to the Parched Eagle, used to be Maria’s Bar. The landlord decided to retire around the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. They approached him and thought it was a perfect size, already imagining the museum type of layout that could pay homage to the games.
Above each game, a little blurb will describe the history, artwork, design, company and year a game came out.
“There used to be bourbon nerds and there used to be craft beer nerds. Well, there are game nerds, and they like to know who built this machine,” he says.
Welch also sees similarities between the beginning of the craft beer craze and arcade games.
“I kind of feel that we’re in the beginning of a nice big wave of people not just playing [them], but really appreciating [them],” he says. “We have games that no one else has.”
Take the rare but historically popular game Chiller, a shooting game previously banned in the U.S. Now, it sits in Aftershock. “Twenty years later these are like the Holy Grail of video games,” Welch says.
Those include Pac-Man, Miss Pac-Man, Galaga, Defender, along with some other classics that may be equally recognized but not as celebrated, such as Elevator Action and Discs of Tron. Welch and Van plan on putting together their own “greatest hits of the arcade,” with hopes to make it welcoming and inclusive for gaming connoisseurs and families alike.
“People are just so happy to see a room full of games,” Van says. “Once everything’s on, I think it’s going to be a whole next level. “If they’re old enough, then I think we’ll bring them back to the time when they were in an arcade like this.”
Before video games surged in popularity, technology limited arcade game graphics and programming. People would head to the arcade every month, excited to find a new batch of games. Bells, whistles and 3D projections drew people in, but eventually that creativity got lost.
“Pretty soon, you didn’t really have to use your imagination to put out a new game,” Van says. The games turned into a cycle of one generic copy after the other, he says, until they died. He compared it to when people try to replicate popular music to the point of “[sucking] the life out of it.”
“It’s going to a place and seeing all of these physical games that you can touch, hear and experience in the real world — I think that it’s always going to be important, and I’m very happy we can offer a place like that for folks,” Van says.
It’s those small moments he relishes, working on machines, talking to various people and hearing their stories or seeing them play for the first time. Van continues to search and pick up old games in garages, basements and wherever he can find them.
Van’s experience working in restaurants also gives him confidence he can pull off Aftershock. He neither pressured himself to get the perfect job nor was he ever interested in pursuing a traditional career path — he is in the business of keeping arcade games alive.
“I want the games around and to make sure that people have access to them,” he says. “It’s not all just about the money — it’s about preservation of these machines and the arcade experience.”
Welch and Van plan to carry more than 100 different types of beer, and everyone that comes in gets a koozie for their first beer. The bar — wood-paneled with some black, plastic elements — is an homage to and replication of Atari 2600, an early home video game console. On the two sides of the bar are built-in arcade games, what Welch says is similar to a Vegas bar for gambling or playing a game while ordering a drink. They’re aiming for a retro-futuristic interior.
“We’re just really trying our best to make this place fit in with the community and be a positive addition to its place in time, but not compromise the vision that we have for what it is that we want to achieve,” Van says.
Aftershock Classic Arcade plans to open its doors in December.
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