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Offworld Arcade: Where gamers go for old-school fun

Donna Terek
The Detroit News

On the dark end of 14th Street in Detroit's Corktown, a silent herd of U.S. Postal Service trucks lurks on a block as desolate as the nearby vacant Michigan Central train station. But one Saturday night a month the block comes alive with a steady stream of gamers ducking into the alley off Marantette Street and through the back door of an old yellow brick school building.

Inside, facing a wall of battered green lockers, stands a phalanx of vintage video arcade games from the 1980s and '90s. Across the hall is a classroom full of game consoles and the cacophony of electronic music and explosions they produce.

Some of the 20 or so games on site, like Ms. Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, are familiar as old friends. But others are less so, like Tiko with its football-helmeted monkey protagonist that offs opponents with its killer spit. For a $5 cover, gamers can play all the games as many times as they want, no quarters needed.

This is Offworld Arcade Classics and Don Behm is the chief gamer in charge.

The collector

The first video arcade game Behm, 40, bought was a Burger Time game he found on Craigslist. It was broken, so he took it into his garage and, like any clever DIY-er, took to the Internet to figure out how to make it go. It took him almost two months to get it running.

"And then I got hooked," he said. He started buying games, in working condition or not.

"Before I knew it I had filled up my entire garage with video games to where I could barely store my lawn mower."

About that time a friend purchased the old St. Vincent's School and rented Behm the classroom where he stores and refurbishes his games and stages his arcade nights. There have been three game nights at Offworld so far and already about 100 people a night are showing up.

Old vs. new technology

"I love old technology," Behm said. He has old computers like his Commodore 64 and an Atari ST from the '80s. Both are operational and he collects old games to play on them. "I have a fixer-upper mentality," said Behm, who works as an online developer programming interactive advertising.

"I just have a love for these old games," Behm said. "They hold a certain history to them."

He reveres them as historical artifacts and considers them works of art from the 2-D era. The consoles themselves sport colorful graphics like the bright yellow Ms. Pac-Man with her pink pumps and lipstick. Some of the console art is obviously just spray painted over a stencil, but even these delight Behm because of their anti-commercial look.

These games from the '80s and '90s are primitive compared to today's 3D games that strive to suck the player into a narrative and sometimes into another universe.

The old games are more about destroying figures and avoiding being destroyed by them. The focus is always racking up the most points possible.

The competitive aspect is what makes the 2D games attractive to some gamers. "The object to a modern game is to make it to the end of the story," Behm said. "The object of games back in the day was to get the highest score possible."

Behm holds high score competitions and lists the champions on his website. "I have a personal high score on Ms. Pac-Man that I'm always trying to beat," he said. "It's pretty cool to have a perfect game and get even one point over your highest score. It's a really great feeling."

Offworld has a couple of Detroit-centric games. Robocop is set in Detroit and NBA Jam lets you play basketball as the famous Pistons team of the '90s so tough it was dubbed the Bad Boys.

A home for arcade lovers

Though he owns more than 20 arcade games, Behm is still buying, selling and trading. "I scour the Internet constantly," he said. If the game is within a 250-mile radius, he's on it.

Behm remembers his most difficult acquisition. "It was a three-hour drive in the middle of a snowstorm. I was sick as a dog and I had to shovel out my entire driveway just to get to my garage because there was a foot and a half of wet snow. I'm out there shoveling with a fever and my wife's looking at me like, 'What are you doing, crazy guy?'"

All this to pick up Top Skater, a game with a 50-inch projection screen. Instead of using a joystick, the player stands on a skateboard and manipulates it with his feet to control the game. It took three guys, two trucks and a trailer to pick it up from a now-forgotten town three hours north of Detroit. "It's enormous and weighs over a ton," he said. "I can't fit it anywhere, so it turns out it was for nothing. I think it's just going to sit in my garage eternally."

Boehm went through a small business development program to create a long-term plan. He's creating a home for the growing community of devotees who love the old games as much as he does. A couple of them have brought their own broken-down games to his space to work on repairing them.

"Some of my best memories from childhood are of going to the arcade with my friends," he said. "We'd ride our bikes or skateboards there. We'd save up our allowances to go there; it just seemed so cool.

"You could get away from your parents for a little bit and just hang out with your friends, drink slushies and beat each other up on the screen – and maybe talk to the girl you liked."

If you go

Off World Video Arcade Classics pops up next at 2020 14th St. (at Marantette) in Detroit on Saturday, Dec. 20. Children are welcome from 6 to 9 p.m. Then the arcade is an adult zone until midnight. Check in with Offworld Arcade's Facebook page for future events.