Game Havens: Ground Kontrol, Portland
In my travels abroad, I have sought high and low for the coolest places to visit. My latest journey was fraught with danger. Whilst driving to Portland to film a horror short, my car was struck and damaged by a moose, and at one point, I found myself hanging from a tree by my neck.
Despite that, it was all worthwhile to bring you news of the coolest of Portland localities, a late-night game cave that stands and shines amid a sea of hipster joints and strip clubs. Also, its really close to that anime theater I (unfortunately) went into and found everyone inside to be masturbating… that really was a weird trip.
… Anyway, Ground Kontrol, you’ve been Mauled.
If you live in Portland, and you haven’t been to Ground Kontrol yet, or don’t know about it, you’re missing out, and need to get a new social scene so you hear about these things. This was probably the best place I visited while I was in the city, second maybe, maybe, only to the full nude strip club that served me omelets and bacon. This is the arcade that you used to dream about when you were a kid, where you’d go when you grew up, and spend all night playing games and socializing with other gamers… only we grew up, and all the arcades were gone. Here, at least, is one last bastion of hope, one last remnant of our dreams.
Featuring game tournaments, once-per-month free-play days, live music, food, drink, and all around social gamer-time, Ground Kontrol has established itself as a popular hub of local nightlife. Under 21 can play until the bar opens at 5, and after that, its the big boys’ turn. So, what can you expect to find therein?
The game selection is fantastic. Now, I’ll admit, I’m a bit biased here. Its not the biggest selection, space is always limited, especially when you have a dedicated drinking area eating up at least a good 25% of your floorspace. However, the games chosen to fill the space are high quality, and reflect the machinations of an owner who surely grew up in the same era of gaming that I did. Unlike Insert Coin(s), which I reviewed a couple weeks ago, Ground Kontrol focuses more on 90′s games than 80′s, despite their tagline ,“Celebrating the 80′s since the 90′s”.
The classic 80′s games are still represented, with titles like Star Wars Arcade, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Tron, and a few others available. More noticeable, though, are games like the 6-Player X-Men coin-op, gleaming proudly in full view of the front door. Others like Ninja Turtles, Street Fighter II, After Burner, Marvel Vs Capcom 2 and the like, from the later 2-D era, dominate the floor. There are even a couple of the sim games, like DDR, available. A personal favorite moment was the discovery of the 4-Player Pacman Versus, a highlight of last year’s E3, waiting for me by the bar.
So, while the coin-op selection isn’t enormous, its the most sizable I’ve seen for a while outside of something like Game Works, and it highlights the best arcade games from a spans of 20+ years.
For some reason, I found myself playing the Pinball machines more. I think the fact
that I have most of my favorite arcade game downloaded from the PSN and XBL, or ported onto the Atari, make it difficult to pump quarters into them, unless there was a unique multi-player experience to be had. But the pinball machines can’t be properly duplicated at home, and all offer a unique and subtly varied experience. The best machines were some of the newer, more elaborate movie-based machines. Dracula, Pirates of the Caribbean, and
Lord of the Rings stand out. The most surprising find was the old Doctor Who pinball machine, which covers the first 7 Doctors. Bride of Pinbot topped of my list of favorites with its odd get-your-balls-in-the-robot’s-mouth mechanic.
The drink service is good, especially if you’re a beer drinker. At 5 PM, the beer starts flowin’ and anyone under the age of 21 has to get the hell out. 5-7 is Happy Hour, and you can get a PBR for $1.50, other domestics for $2, or a micro-brew or import for $2.50.
That aside, the drink prices are average, but fair.
The best part of the bar service is the recent addition of food to the menu. You can get a late-night chili fries, some nachos, hummus (you hipster) or whatever other unwholesome foods your gamer belly may be calling out for.
The quality of the environment goes up and down depending on the time of day and, I suppose, will also vary dependent on your love of local music. There are times, usually early evenings, when a live band or DJ will be playing inside. Some of them are interesting and pretty cool, some of them are cringe-inducing, especially when trying to force their less-than-pro audio-phonics to play over the bleep-blooping of the arcade games.
I tend to recommend that players go late at night, after the house lights go down. When that happens, the tables glow, the blue lights come up in the walls, and the whole place has this wonderful, dark, Tron glow about it. Its trippy, and stream-punk, and ultimately relaxing.
When the music isn’t playing, the place is just about serving you food and letting you play video games (like grandma’s house!). No pounding dance tracks, like Insert Coin(s). Its just a place to relax and enjoy some games. I like that.
Again, extremely mellow. The folks outside might be annoyingly hip and stand-offish, Or homeless and sketchy, but all the folks inside were really mellow and cool. Probably a good place to find some multi-player partners, too.
Again, this will change when the live music is here. You face the possibility of a much larger, much rowdier crowd, and certainly more noise… but maybe not. Just hope for an unpopular band, if you’re just there for the games.
So, anyway, I tend to harp on the live music aspect too much. Obviously, its something that has proven to be very popular with the locals. As someone who went in solely to play games, I found it to be a distraction, and I know I’m not alone.
However, the overall feel, look, and style of Ground Kontrol was just what I had been wanting: a shadowy, glowy, dark little hidey-hole where I can go enjoy some nachos and some arcade games. Plus there were like a ba-zillion dropped quarters under the pinball machines, so my $10 went very very far.
I’ve been to many Game Havens, and so far, this has been my favorite. Make it a point of going.