Back when I had dreams of things like mansion ownership and limitless income, I used to talk about how I’d convert the basement of my hypothetically extravagant house into the roller rink arcade of my wildest dreams. My fantasy included threadbare red carpet, bars for both booze and nachos, and every arcade game from the late ’70s to whatever year Virtua Fighter debuted. I figured that place would exist only in my imagination. When Dallas’ Barcadia opened a Fort Worth location in 2011, my dreams were more or less realized. But then the Arlington location of a bar arcade chain called Free Play opened up a couple of weeks ago, and now my arcade fantasies have really come to life.
I’d like to point out that Free Play does not exactly match what was floating around in my imagination, because this is 2017, and I don’t even think you can buy that kind of ratty carpet anymore. Free Play is basically two large rooms with some graffiti-style video game-themed murals on a couple of its walls and a judicious use of the horizontal wooden slats that have become the aesthetic signifiers of this decade. While the chalkboard menu behind the bar is fun to look at – kudos to whoever draws the vintage arcade cabinet art-inspired beer listings – overall, there’s not a lot on the walls.
Against the walls, however, is a cavalcade of glorious, glowing, beeping nostalgia. As much as I frown on living in the past, I am a sucker for the visual pop and high drama suggested by the fantasy and sci-fi characters painted on the sides and around the screens of vintage arcade cabinets. Each one is a window into some fantastic universe of primary colors and heavily stippled shadows, and walking around Free Play’s collection of games is like a stroll through an interactive museum, except Free Play is a museum where you can also get a beer and a bite. Besides games, Free Play offers a hefty selection of craft drafts and cans, as well as a nice variety of pressed sandwiches and pizzas. The Classic, a grilled cheese served with a huge helping of potato chips for $5, is a good bet, but the main draws, obviously, are the games.