Customers can play hard-to-find games at this retro arcade in Columbia
As people get older, they tend to lose touch with old friends. Now, at Back to the ‘80s Arcade, they can all be found in one place.
Ryu, Bart, and Michael Jordan are just some of the characters from “Street Fighter II,” “The Simpsons” and “NBA Jam” you can get reacquainted with, and Justin Buddemeyer is there to help you out.
Buddemeyer possesses the official title of “shift manager,” but that’s just the beginning of his responsibilities and talents.
In truth, he is an arcade artiste, connoisseur of coin-operated cabinets, video game virtuoso and self-described obsessive.
Buddemeyer joined the arcade in March after a number of years of pursuing different plans. When he moved back to St. Louis, his girlfriend suggested he consider working at her mother’s arcade. For Buddemeyer, who grew up surrounded by video games, it was a natural fit.
“The next thing you know, it seems like I know what I’m doing,” he said.
Back to the ‘80s Arcade, located at Power Haus Sports in Columbia, an indoor soccer arena, opened after a short but bumpy road in 2016.
Leisa Martinez and her husband, John, who built the arena in 2000, began leasing the space next to the concession stand in May 2016. Then the operator’s wife was transferred to Florida for work in August.
“We’re business people, and after looking at it ... it’s a great addition to what we do,” Martinez said. “Everybody in the community loves it.”
The former operator continued helping Martinez by answering questions about the arcade online, but it needed a long-term solution.
“We really needed somebody that knew the games,” Martinez said.
That’s where Buddemeyer came in.
Buddemeyer started out watching his dad play games and figured them out quickly. First, he played text-based games, which taught him how to read fast. An interest in computers quickly followed.
“It’s helped bring a bond together with not only me and my parents, but my whole family,” he said.
As he grew older, his tastes changed, and he acquired a knowledge of what games appealed to different age groups, giving him an idea of how to build a client base for the Back to the ‘80s Arcade.
He spoke to the Belleville News-Democrat about the arcade and his goals to bring it to a wider audience.
Q: What was it like getting it off the ground?
A: “I was not here once they were starting it. They started around January; it kind of got full swing at about that time. We were trying to gauge what types of machines they should pick up, what things people were interested in, (and) a lot of questions that folks really didn’t consider. For instance, like the difference between pinball machines and arcade machines, cabinets, tables, your shoot-’em-up games, the dynamics that would change in-between what you want, what’s a big-ticket item, how to get people in, pricing.”
Q: So how did you learn all that?
”I’ve just been messing with it since I was 4. My dad used to play Nintendo when we were little; I used to play Nintendo with him. I was playing that obsessively — “Metal Gear,” “Mario Brothers,” “Metroid” — just anything, and I just kept going from there to the other systems. (I was) obsessed with how they were changing, the way the games were going. They were adding Mode 7 (which gave games the appearance of three dimensions), parallax scrolling (in which background layers move at different speeds to show distance), the coloring that they would change from 8-bit to 32-bit to 256-bit. I’ve just been following it forever.”
Q: Where did you pick up the business side of things?
A: “I just kind of knew what I was looking for and how to be marketed to. I didn’t like the pandering, like the nostalgia (angle toward games). I’m more interested ‘this does something that you don’t see’ or ‘you’re really interested in this game; did you ever consider that these six games pioneered what that one does?’ I’ve just been obsessed with how things have gotten to this point. I really like going back and combing through these things. You can kind of predict where the trends are going.”
Q: Are most of the people you get from soccer practice?
A: “We get quite a few right now. We have a few programs running, and this is considered one of the off-times, which is one of the reasons they picked up the arcade. But they’ve gotten a few people coming in from practice more recently because the season’s starting up. Since I’ve been here — I’m not trying to toot my own horn — but I’ve just been drumming up an interest, I feel, and it’s starting to slowly show. I have a regular blog post that I’ve just put on the Facebook page of each of the games on here.”
Q: So what’s the local reaction been like?
A: “The local reaction seems like everybody’s really excited about the vibe. I’m able to create a time capsule based on what people are in here, what age group. They’re really getting a kick out of having this type of environment, especially families. This type of environment is still preserved for their families to be shared with. I remember doing this arcade stuff with my dad. I still remember him talking about wanting a (“Galactic Orbiting Robot Force”) machine since (childhood). I just like sharing that with other families, especially considering I know a lot of the stuff they’re looking for, too, because a lot of folks have forgotten these titles.”
Q: It’s an ‘80s arcade, but there’s also “Soul Caliber II” in here. That came out in the early 2000s. How are you justifying these out-of-era (games)?
A: “I feel like the “back to the ‘80s” theme (is) just the moniker that pulls you back into it, like, ‘let’s all take a step back into a time capsule.’ I don’t want to alienate people, because that’s also why I want more pinball machines, because that gets a broader audience. There are a lot of folks that aren’t so much (into) numbers and stats — they like a few more things, like chaos, randomization, manipulating an actual (controller).”
Q: So the idea of the ‘80s is larger than the era of the ‘80s?
A: “Exactly. It gets a lot bigger than it says.”
Q: Can you talk about some specific games that you have and maybe even your favorite game?
A: “I would like to mention one that I’ve never seen before until it was in here is ‘Karnov.’ It was made by Data East in 1987, but it’s a full adventure title. If you can figure out how to play the machine, you can get a perfect score. On top of that, they give you an item bar with equipment, so you can get more power and run through the stage getting more powerful from your knowledge of the game. And this game is from ‘87, so there are still things in here people haven’t seen.
”The number one machine I’m in here for is the ‘NBA Jam.’ I beat that game with a friend of mine. It cost us both $200, but it’s freeplay in here. That’s a potential $400 game that’s been greatly reduced, so you have a huge chance there.”
Q: Should people from St. Louis come here?
A: “I would love if people from St. Louis would come over here. I’d really like to cater to people from this area especially, but I’d also like to increase in size and be able to cater to an even broader audience. I’d love for everybody to come in here. I really like this spot, and I think we provide a lot of things that a few other places don’t have. They have some of the bigger-ticket fancy machines, but we make sure we have a lot of the older machines in here. A lot of people kind of get lost in the bigger spectacle of the arcade game, but we kind of stay all-encompassing.”
Hours for the Back to the 80s Arcade:
- Thursday and Friday: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
- Saturday and Sunday: noon to 8 p.m.
All machines are freeplay, meaning the only cost is admission:
- $15 for unlimited play
- $25 for two people on Saturday and Sunday
- $10 for two hours on Thursday and Friday
- $7 for one hour during soccer season