Bathed in the glow of
the flashing CRT screen, Jon “Jesus” Lemerand yanks his joystick back
and slaps a button, letting loose a 2-D punch. A handful of onlookers
hoots and claps. It's Friday night at Family Fun Arcade, or FFA, and a
motley group has gathered to play Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike,
cheering each other on over the cacophonous blare of machines.
26, has spent countless nights hunched over fighting game cabinets
since he started playing here in 2005. But back then, he recalls, the
scene was different: Mobs of spectators would crowd the screens for a
glimpse of the action.
“It was a lot more lively then than it is
now,” he says, looking around at banks of vacant games. “There's not a
lot of new blood coming to arcades anymore.”
That's one big reason
FFA will soon shutter its doors after nearly 40 years in business,
according to longtime proprietor Ralph Sehnert. One of the oldest
surviving video arcades in Southern California, the Granada Hills venue
might stay open into January, but could close as early as Dec. 31. The
future of Japan Arcade in downtown L.A., which Sehnert also owns, is
News of the closure has rattled fighting game
enthusiasts who once converged on FFA to test their mettle against some
of the fiercest competition outside of Japan. From the early 1990s, when
the first Street Fighter games drew loyal legions, to the Marvel vs.
Capcom 2 age in the 2000s, top players would pour in from across the
country for a shot at calling themselves the best. Elbow-to-elbow crowds
packed in. Players drove from San Diego and flew in from the East
But those days are over.
“Business has just fallen
off the planet,” says Sehnert, 63. “They've taken us off life support
and we're breathing our last breaths.”
It's the same story
everywhere: Arcades are dying. Two of the region's most popular – Denjin
Arcade in Simi Valley and Arcade Infinity in Rowland Heights – closed
in 2011. When FFA is gone, only one local oasis for hardcore fighting
game players will remain: Super Arcade in Walnut, which Sehnert is in
the process of selling to one-time Street Fighter champ Mike Watson.
Watson hopes to keep this last communal hub alive. Others think the effort is futile.
a stand-alone arcade now is pretty much impossible,” says Tim Silvers, a
24-year FFA employee who, at 53, is known among arcade patrons as “Old
Man River.” “We can no longer compete with the home console business.”
started as a family-friendly wonderland in 1973 with 31 pinball
machines, air hockey tables and bright orange carpeting. Sehnert got one
of the first jobs behind the register that year, and became a business
partner the next. He helped bring in some of the first video games —
Pong, Space Race, Atari Football.
When Capcom released the first
Street Fighter in 1987, skeptics thought it was a fad. But an improved
model arrived on its heels, and Sehnert had a gut feeling. “People were
saying, 'Six buttons? Nobody's ever going to be able to learn that!'” he
recalls. “I said, 'I'll take it.'” That's when everything changed.
Older games were cleared out to make way for the fighting game frenzy
that became the arcade's backbone, putting it on the short list of
legendary coin-op haunts.
It never looked the part. Tucked into a
drab strip mall, it's perpetually noisy and dim. The threadbare carpet
glistens with mysterious, sticky smears. Foam stuffing sprouts from torn
vinyl chairs. One Yelp reviewer described the space as “a tiny and
Danny “MegamanDS” Shnorhokian, 26, still
remembers walking in for the first time in 2001. “My first reaction was,
'What, really? This ugly-looking hole-in-the-wall?'” he says. “But when
I started to play people, I realized the competition there was so
advanced. I'd thought we were good at my local place in Valencia, but it
was a different ball game at Family Fun.”
“It was really the
heart of Southern California's arcade scene — this was where everything
happened,” recalls Michael, 29, who declined to give his last name but
goes by “pyrolee.”
Sehnert knew how to please his customers. There
may not have been reliable air conditioning, but he repaired broken
joysticks promptly, brought pizza for everyone on tournament days and
switched his games to free play on New Year's Eve.
Then the arcade
generation gave way to the online generation. Playing at home didn't
require quarters, only an Internet connection. And game manufacturers
began releasing new titles on console only, bypassing arcades. Crowds
dwindled; cabinets idled.
Some things are lost in the new era. “So
many of my good friends today, I've met because of Family Fun. I can't
form a relationship with some guy I met online,” Shnorhokian says. “The
arcade is a bonding experience – it's not just about the game.”
while online interactions are laced with anonymous slurs, the arcade's
face-to-face intimacy bred good manners. “You learn respect,” notes Andy
“B.B. Hood” Barajas, 26.
Yet it wasn't always laughs and
high-fives with swollen egos on the line. A petulant player once pulled
off his opponent's glasses and ran out the door with them. Insults have
turned into fights on the sidewalk outside.
But Sehnert insists
the arcade has shunned delinquency. “In the 38 years that I've been
here, I think we've had a pretty damn good record,” he says.
and other expenses were set to rise in January; Sehnert knew revenue
wouldn't. Business is down 70 percent from its peak ten years ago, he
says, while the price of new arcade fighting games has nearly
Sehnert still hopes that a savior might take over the
location, allowing him to tend to his health. “All these years of being a
hands-on owner has taken a toll on me,” he says, flexing his arthritic
fingers. “We provided this playground for so long, it's hard to take
that away from everybody. But at the same time, it's killing me.” He
took barely a weekend off after surgery for prostate cancer last year.
smiles, thinking of all his former customers who now come back with
their own children. “They're not going to put it on my tombstone or
anything, but it's something to be proud of.”
Devotees are bereft.
like part of us is dying,” adds Miguel Blanco, 31. “This is our
pastime, so when it's gone, it'll be like part of us is gone, too. Now
everyone is wondering, what will we do?”
At the Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike cabinet, Lemerand gets K.O.ed. The odds were against him, but the loss still stings.
He heads outside for a smoke with his buddies. “Good shit,” someone says in consolation.