DeKALB – Patrick O’Malley has been in the video game business since he was 12 years old.
“Star Worlds started out on Jan. 11, 1985,” O’Malley said. “My mom was part of the business back then because I was like 12 and I needed someone to sign rent documents and leases.”
Twenty-eight years later, O’Malley still co-owns Star Worlds Arcade at 1234 E. Lincoln Highway with Glenn Thomas. The arcade is one of the last remaining video game arcades in the country and was the subject of a recent 30-minute student documentary, “Star Worlds: A Pocket Full of Tokens and I'm Heading to the Arcade."
The arcade’s motto is “Play today the games you miss from yesterday!” The recent Disney movie “Wreck-It Ralph” features characters from several 80s-era video games and has caused a minor resurgence in interest in vintage video games.
“Being a Disney product I knew it would be fun, and it would be safe for families,” O’Malley said of the movie. “It’s important to keep a family environment for us.”
O’Malley sat down with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg to discuss his long career in the video game industry, his brushes with some of the biggest names in the industry, and his role as an ambassador for the vintage machines of a bygone era.
MidWeek: When and how did you get started in the arcade business?
Patrick O’Malley: I started collecting the games when I was 10 or 11 and my collection was starting to get so big, and my friends were always hanging out at my house constantly. It was more of a neighborhood arcade and I expanded into doing outside vending work where I was supplying games to restaurants, and that’s what brought me to DeKalb. …Originally we were in Maple Park, which is a smaller community. The original arcade that I bought from a guy in the early 80s was in Geneva but we have been in DeKalb for eight years now.
MW: Are you starting to see second-generation customers at the arcade?
PO: That is the most amazing thing. When it first happens, it kind of catches you by surprise. Right now I have friends that I have been friends with for years, and they have always been my customers at the arcade and now their kids are coming in and some of them are old enough now that they don’t even have to come in with their parents. It’s really cool to see that.
MW: What do you think these vintage games offer to kids that they can’t get at home?
PO: Here, it has become kind of a history lesson of video games. There is history here from 28 years of business. The kids walk in and say, “Wow, it’s a real Donkey Kong machine.” Thirty years ago there was a Donkey Kong in every grocery store and on every corner. Now the kids play all these games like Mario and stuff at home and they see these characters like Q*bert from “Wreck-It Ralph” and I have heard kids say, “Oh, that’s where Q*bert came from.” In a way they are starting to learn where all the retro stuff that’s still in the mainstream came from.
MW: How has the Disney movie “Wreck-It Ralph” affected your business?
PO: “Wreck-It Ralph” was in the making for a while. We knew it was coming and we started working on our promotion months before it launched and our goal was we wanted to get connected with the movie theaters. We wanted to get out and meet and greet the customers and that’s exactly what we did. We worked with Market Square 10 and brought in three classic games, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, and Q*bert, and set them up on free play and let everyone enjoy playing the games. On the way into the theater the kids were like “eh,” and they just walked by. Coming out of the theater, the kids saw these characters and they were drawn right to the games. You don’t know where things are going to lead, because you can see trailers, but I figured with it being Disney, they were going to do it right. …I knew it was going to be a movie that parents would like and that kids would like and they hit it out of the park because there were other theaters where people would get out and they knew they were here, and they would come here. We were crowded. It was great because so many people found out we were here. We’re not in the hustle and the bustle on (Route) 23 out by Walmart, but our prices reflect that too. We’re not charging a buck a game. We’re keeping the prices where they were in the 80s to play the games.
MW: How did you celebrate Donkey Kong’s birthday last year?
PO: We tried to work with the manufacturer but Nintendo is a big company, and Donkey Kong is not their number one thing right now. The Mario franchise is the big thing, although Mario did come from Donkey Kong. …We were at Ottumwa (Iowa) in 2010 for Pac-Man’s birthday at the Video Game Hall of Fame and Walter Day from the Video Game Hall of Fame was there. He has given so much to the gaming community. The guy is a legend. He asked us to come out so we brought in Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Pac-Man Jr., every variation of the game we had and set it up and had a birthday party. The next year it just seemed normal for us to do Donkey Kong’s birthday, and we went to the Midwest Gaming Classic in Milwaukee. We took all our Donkey Kong-related games out there and brought in drawing for the kids to do.
MW: Are the Donkey Kong games so rare that it was worthwhile for them and for you to make a trip to Milwaukee, or to Iowa for Pac-Man?
PO: For us, when we do an event like that, it’s a way to give back to the gaming community. I have been doing this for 28 years and I think you have to be responsible if you’re in business. It just seems fitting to go out there and to give back to the community that has given to you.
MW: Speaking of giving back to the community, what can you tell me about your involvement with Feed‘em Soup?
PO: I have heard about Feed‘em Soup on Facebook and elsewhere for a year or so, and I always had 8 million things to do so I never contacted them. They contacted me a couple days ago and there is a good partnership that can be made there. I know that when they do events I can give back to them or even volunteer my time. We just put some video games in their restaurant and I went to really low pricing to keep their clientele playing. I do believe that in your own community you need to give back, especially to something like Feed‘em Soup that’s out there trying to help people in the community who are not so fortunate. They seem to be doing a really good job. I just put the machines in and they’re all excited because they are having a big Christmas party tonight. …I’m not sure who’s going to enjoy it more, the customers or the (volunteers).
MW: What work do you do with the DeKalb Public Library?
PO: That was actually a really fun night. They brought the kids in there and they played video games, and he (the librarian) was shocked when I brought out some pinball books and showed the art and some of the history of these games to get these kids thinking about things other than just playing video games.
MW: What role does treasure hunting have in your business?
PO: I started out collecting games as a kid. I was playing the home console games, but back then the home consoles weren’t as high-end as they are now and the real games were better than the home console stuff. So as addicted as I was to video games, I wanted the real machines. I got the collection going and started the business, and I started branching out because once I filled the arcade I didn’t want to give up any of my games. I started sourcing stuff to other places. But nowadays, still to this day, it is a treasure hunt. I was looking for this game, Mouse Trap, for the last 15 years. One of my friends just called me up after he did some work for someone and said, “He’s got a Mouse Trap sitting in his house.” It wasn’t more than half an hour from here – you just don’t know where these treasures are. On top of that, sitting right next to Mouse Trap is one of the coolest pinballs from the 80s called Haunted House by Gottlieb, so I had to make a deal for that too. We rotate games in and out of the arcade a lot because we have limited space and I like to keep everything fresh.
MW: Are games like Mouse Trap going up in value?
PO: Some games are going up and down in value. It just fluctuates. Pinball games are the hottest thing out there right now. They retain their value – they are like artwork now. They have only gone up in price in the last 10 years or so. You don’t see pinball much anymore because it is mechanical, and there is more maintenance involved than with video games. We have a certain crowd that comes in here just to play pinball. I started out here with two pinballs, then we went to three. Now we’re at five and I’m moving things around so I can put in another row of pinball. We are one of the few places that maintain them well and keep them clean.
MW: Why do you think pinball is so popular now?
PO: Well pinball has always been around, even before video games hit. Pinball kind of took a backseat to video games in the early 80s but it did have a big resurgence in the mid to late 80s. A lot of them are themed. I think a lot of people like them because they haven’t seen them in a long time. Even though there are cell phone apps and there’s stuff for Xbox that’s pinball-related now, but I think for the younger generation when they come in here and it’s the real thing, and a pinball is way different because there are flippers and you have actual control over that ball. It’s not an equation that’s in a computer program – you have control over that destiny. You have to put more skill into a game like that. …It’s great to see because there are fathers and sons who will come in here and play pinball for two or three hours on a Saturday.
MW: How did you learn to service the machines?
PO: (Laughs) By blowing things up. I took basic electronics in high school and that gave me the basics of it, but basically you crack open the manuals and you learn by trial and error. Once you learn how to fix a power supply, even though every game is different, you have gained some knowledge. It’s a never-ending cycle of learning and keeping this stuff up and learning.
MW: Why has Star Worlds endured while so many other arcades have come and gone over the years?
PO: We are one of the last remaining neighborhood arcades. We were inducted into the Twin Galaxies Historical Registry of Video Games. …Meeting Walter Day, he would tell me things like, “It’s your civic duty to get out there and teach people about the culture and the real history of video games, and not just the stuff that’s printed in video magazines.” He is now a dear friend and he’s a very passionate person.
MW: What was it like to see the documentary about Star Worlds Arcade on the big screen?
PO: (Laughs) Scary! That was a really weird situation for me because Glenn got to be friends with Byron (Czopek) and Andy (McLaughlin), the guys who did it. I can’t say they didn’t know anything about video games, but it wasn’t their passion. Through the three or four months we were working on this project, I could tell you exactly what their favorite games were. I still talk to these two guys and I ended up becoming friends with them. …Once the documentary was done, to be able to sit there and watch 26 years of my life was kind of weird but once I got over that fact, it was very cool.
MW: What do you have planned for the future of the arcade?
PO: I always get asked that, and it’s the hardest question to answer. Every day really is a treasure hunt. I don’t know who’s going to call up tomorrow to tell me what they want or what they’ve got. I am going a bit more toward pinballs because I have seen other places not maintain them, and I want people to have a good place to play them. The DDR (Dance, Dance Revolution) machine has been a fantastic addition to the arcade and we’re going to put a second dance floor on for that because there are lines waiting for it on the weekends. Some music games are definitely in my future. People have told me I should expand, but it’s always easier to (tell someone to) expand when you aren’t the one paying the bills. …I’m going to continue offering a fun atmosphere for people.
MW: How many games do you have running right now?
PO: There are 42 machines in here. I’ve got machines jammed everywhere I can.
MW: Do you ever have people playing all the machines at once?
PO: The last couple of months it has been crazy here. There was one Saturday I had to go out and give (waiting) people extra tokens to wait patiently in line.
MW: Why were you so busy that day?
PO: That was a lot of “Wreck-It Ralph” promotion.