At Brookfield’s Galloping Ghost Arcade, Video Game Culture Gets a Power-Up

The pleasant cacophony of a vintage-style video game arcade is unmistakable — bleeping chiptunes, synthesized explosions, zooming race cars. The look of it is, too — a dark labyrinth of flashing video games silhouetted by players rattling joysticks and punching buttons. At the Galloping Ghost Arcade in Brookfield, just stepping inside the doors is enough to give any Gen Xer one whopper of a Proustian moment.

“The sound hits them the moment they walk through the doors, and it’s one of those things that resonates with them instantly,” said Doc Mack, Galloping Ghost’s owner. “It takes them back to going to arcades back in the day. It’s just memories coming back audibly.”

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Mack said his childhood memories of video games and arcades pressed the “start” button on his professional adventure.

“I knew from a very young age that I wanted to work in the video game industry,” Mack said. “I’ve been personally playing arcade games since I was 4 or 5 years old. It was such a tremendous amount of fun for me growing up going to arcades. People aren’t going to be able to enjoy that if there aren’t any arcades anymore. I didn’t want this stuff to go away.”

The arcade is one part of a group of businesses Mack operates under the Galloping Ghost name, all located along Ogden Avenue. The first company was Galloping Ghost Productions, which Mack opened in 1994 to develop video games. Mack said things began to fall into place for the arcade when he was presented with the opportunity to purchase more than 100 games for around $50 each in 2010 and found a spot to open in his hometown.

“I’ve lived here my whole life, but the other towns that we asked if they want to serve an arcade, everybody was like, no, we don’t want an arcade in our town,” Mack said. “There are so many negative connotations, but Brookfield had the foresight to let us try it, and nobody knew what was going to happen. Even industry people were saying that they didn’t think we would last more than six months. Nobody had heard of a free play business model where you pay a door fee, and all the machines are set on free play.”

Mack said his vision paid off in short order — the business was profitable within eight months, and aspiring arcade owners began contacting him for advice on how to get started themselves.

Mack said one of his biggest ongoing issues is creating enough space for the stockpile of games the arcade has and continues to acquire. Mack said he’s expecting to open a second-floor expansion soon.

Doc Mack, Galloping Ghost’s owner, said his childhood memories of video games and arcades pressed the “start” button on his professional adventure. (WTTW News)Doc Mack, Galloping Ghost’s owner, said his childhood memories of video games and arcades pressed the “start” button on his professional adventure. (WTTW News)

At last count, the arcade had more than 950 games on the floor. That number goes up by one each week when a new addition is unveiled at 5 p.m. at the Monday Mystery Game event. Mack hosts the event in person to a live audience and also streams it online to an international audience.

Among the crowd gathered for a recent unveiling, gamer Brandon Travis was easy to spot in his top hat and sequined jacket festooned with pins.

“I like to dress fancy, look cool and basically bring the community together by looking really nice and sharp,” Travis said.

As a relatively young arcade game enthusiast, Travis said the Galloping Ghost is a way for people like him to experience history.

“It’s literally a living museum,” Travis said. “And it’s not like a museum where you can’t touch the exhibit. It’s literally a museum where you can just play anything your heart desires.”

Norbert Vale said he’s been a regular at Galloping Ghost Arcade since not long after it opened. For him, Vale said, it’s about more than nostalgia.

“I’ve been a gamer since my youth, since the Atari days,” Vale said. “I guess you could call it therapy. Some people want to go out, some people prefer drinking. I’ve been doing this since a very young age and right now I’m in my mid-40s, and I am still doing this.”

Like many Galloping Ghost employees, Josh Pitts both works and plays at the arcade. In addition to his official duties, Pitts is the founder of the Bloody Wars Tournament, a tournament in which players can win prizes playing fighting games like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. Pitts said the Galloping Ghost’s embrace of enthusiastic rivalry is part of what draws in younger gamers.

“A lot of people my age like competition,” Pitts said. “They want to know who’s the best, and we are serious about that here at the Galloping Ghost. So that’s what makes it fun. I think that’s what motivates people to come here in the first place.”

Ghost Squad record holder Jose Velazquez, who wears a blue-and-red luchador mask when he’s in competition mode, said the Galloping Ghost’s welcoming environment has made it a place where anyone can feel comfortable being themselves.

“It’s a very community-heavy arcade,” Velazquez said. “You get old-school arcade, hardcore players, competitive players, players that want to put on special costumes. (It’s about) what kind of scores we can put on, what’s our favorite game and just having a very overall great time.”

At last count, the arcade had more than 950 games on the floor. That number goes up by one each week when a new addition is unveiled at the Monday Mystery Game event. (WTTW News)At last count, the arcade had more than 950 games on the floor. That number goes up by one each week when a new addition is unveiled at the Monday Mystery Game event. (WTTW News)

Thomas Nieter said since he started coming to the arcade not long after it opened, he, too, has found a community there.

“What’s great about this place is that everything outside of the arcade is just kind of left outside,” Nieter said. “Whatever kind of differences people might have, it’s kind of just squashed and guys just come here to talk about video games. We had a couple of gentlemen up front strategizing and how to get a higher score, and it’s very cool like that.”

Nieter joined the Galloping Ghost staff in 2016. He said neither he nor his colleagues have any official job title, but they all wear a lot of hats, and that’s exactly how he likes it.

“Labels here are weird,” Nieter said. “I’m on the ground with these guys. I’m not some higher-up that’s telling them what to do. Like, I’ll go wipe down the top of monitors or clean the glass.”

And there’s plenty to do beyond screen cleaning. Mack said the relative paucity of arcades meant he has had to develop his own resources to maintain Galloping Ghost’s retro authenticity.

“If a game isn’t in its original cabinet, it’s not necessarily the same experience that people remember walking up to the game,” Mack said. “So we really pride ourselves on restoring all these cabinets and making sure that they have the original artwork and even opened up our own printing company to facilitate that. Businesses within (Galloping) Ghost, they all kind of are blended together and help one another. So our production company has lead artists and does all the artwork down there, then they send it down to the reproductions company to actually be reproduced and apply it to cabinet.”

Another major obstacle: keeping the dreaded “out of order” signs off games when few game technicians exist anymore.

“The repair work is one of the biggest elements that hinder arcades,” Mack said. “I love to fix games myself. We have one tech that works with us, master tech Doug Fox, who’s been doing it for 35 years, so he was around when some of the games were just coming out. He’s been great to learn from. It’s a dying skill, unfortunately. But with the new places opening up, we’re constantly showing people how to repair their own cabinets and everything.”

Now more than 13 years into this quest, Mack said the Galloping Ghost Arcade’s nearly 1,000 games make it the world’s largest arcade, drawing gamers from all over the globe for events and competitions. It’s also confirmation for Mack and his staff that it’s far from game over for arcades.

“We just wanted to be a true arcade, a classic video arcade and prove that that business model is still something that people want,” Mack said. “I’ve been able to bring in game designers, and 30 years after they’ve made games, they’ve seen families still love and appreciate the games that they made all those years ago, and that’s so satisfying. These are the guys that inspired me to get into game design, and now we’re able to show that people are still enjoying their artwork in their craft after decades. There’s the gaming side of it, there’s the creative side of it, the artwork and music. I just get to do everything that’s fun every day. So you never hear a complaint from me.”

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