Remember when you could walk into an arcade and pop a quarter into a now-classic game like Pac-Man or Space Invaders and get in a few minutes of screen time, munching dots, dodging ghosts and shooting aliens? It was a great way to blow off steam after a difficult day at school or work, or to simply while away a rainy Saturday afternoon.
You can still do that at Free Play, which opened in Richardson in 2015 and now has a location in Arlington that officially opens Friday night. However, instead of plunking down a quarter each time you want to play a game, you can simply walk up to each machine and give it a go for free, hence the name of the business.
There’s a $10 cover charge (more for special events), but that gives you access to more than 100 games (including pinball), and you can stay from open to close if you’d like.
Free Play president Corey Hyden takes pride in keeping each arcade cabinet — from Asteroids to Zaxxon — up and running, good as new, as though you’d stepped through a time warp to the 1980s.
“It’s a massive endeavor,” Hyden said. “Our tech team spends thousands of hours working on our games. We’ve created a world where ‘out of order’ signs don’t exist. Through hard work and innovation, we averaged 99.9 percent uptime on the games at our Richardson location last year, running all original parts.”
When Hyden opened Free Play Richardson with his brother-in-law, Richard Tregilgas, he knew retro gaming was in vogue, but was nevertheless blown away by the almost instant success of the throwback arcade.
“We’re surprised every day by how many people want to play these old games,” Hyden said. “Everyone seems to connect with the games, even people who had never before played an arcade game in their life.”
Shortly after establishing Free Play Richardson, Hyden discovered that around 15 percent of his customers were driving over from Tarrant County, so it only made sense to expand westward.
“We knew there was an arcade-hungry market and began scouting locations,” he said. “Once we got to know downtown Arlington, we knew this was the type of city that would support a Free Play location, and it’s an area that Free Play can help grow in the coming years. It’s the perfect relationship, and we’re thrilled to be here.”
Hyden says he enjoys his position as president of Free Play, as it’s a dream come true to work in such a fun, whimsical environment that’s tied directly into nostalgia and his favorite hobby. He spent his youth in the 1990s in the “dying arcades of DFW, eating up any classic I could get my hands on,” so he feels especially privileged to have access to so many vintage games.
Currently, his favorites are Crystal Castles, Mappy, Mr. Do! and Pengo, which are relative obscurities he calls “weirder games with ultra-tight gameplay.”
Hyden said that “getting to see the arcade renaissance firsthand is amazing” and that having even the “slightest amount of influence” on where it’s going is the best part of his job.
“No matter what happens, I’ll always be able to look back and see this part of my life as bringing some of the greatest video games in history back to the public in their original form,” he said. “It’s remarkable that this exists anywhere, and I’m so happy to be a part of it.”
Despite the colorful, whiz-bang nature of running a retro arcade, things aren’t all fun and games, at least behind the scenes. In addition to the constant effort to keep decades-old, heavily used electronics in top-notch condition, there’s a lot of red tape involved, especially during the expansion process.
“Growth can be a pain,” Hyden said. “A new location means new regulations, new taxes, more employees and a hundred different intertwined issues that I have to stay on top of every day. We ran into a ton of obstacles in getting our Arlington location open. Our build went sideways for a while, and the permitting process in Arlington was convoluted and disorganized.”
Fortunately, things came together with days to spare.
“Ultimately, the city of Arlington stepped up when we needed help and ensured that we got open when we needed to,” Hyden said.
Pinball and craft beer
Free Play Arlington has been in business for a couple of months now, but the arcade’s official grand opening is Friday night.
Hyden called the people of Arlington “amazing” and said that “our new customers ‘get’ our concept and have fallen in love with it.”
In addition to gaming, the celebration, which costs $15 and is recommended for gamers 21 and up, will feature a DJ and a Hall & Oates cover band (a local act called The Rich Girls), along with giveaways and a variety of food and drink specials. (Tickets are limited; check Free Play’s website for more information.)
Unlike many of the arcades of old, with their snack bar staples of stale popcorn, barely warm hot dogs and flat sodas, Free Play boasts restaurant-quality offerings to keep you fed between sessions of jiggling joysticks and pounding away at “fire” buttons. Among other items, the menu features mini street tacos, hot pressed sandwiches, handmade pizzas and an assortment of ciders and craft beers.
“We were one of the first arcades in the country that combined the ‘free play’ model with craft beer and good food,” Hyden said. “When we opened our Richardson location, nobody in the area was doing anything quite like this. At the end of the day, it’s easy to win over folks with good games, good beer and good food.”
Free Play Arlington
- 400 E. South St., Arlington
- $10 general admission (games set on free play)
- $15 admission (ticket required) for grand opening June 16, 5 p.m.-midnight
Other retro arcades in DFW
Quarter Lounge Arcade
1424 Brown Trail, #A
Barcadia Bar & Grill Fort Worth
816 Matisse Drive
Barcadia Bar & Grill Dallas
1917 N. Henderson Ave.
4530 Keller Hicks Road
2777 Irving Blvd.
Free Play Richardson
1730 E. Belt Line Road
Versus Gameplay Arcade
811 Central Expressway South
1238 Belt Line Road, Suite 300