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Game on: Retro gaming sees a comeback in tech-savvy Austin

Cidercade is one of two locations in Austin equipped with Dance Dance Revolution. (Claire Partain/Austonia)

"It's 5 o'clock somewhere," but not quite at Austin's Cidercade, where gamers, couples and friends have already gathered in the middle of a weekday to drink cider and play arcade games, new and old, for $10 a pop.

The cider company-turned-arcade is just one of many successful arcade businesses to have found their audience in Austin, where tech gurus and niche game hobbyists take a breather with their favorite old video games.

According to David Kaelin, owner of retro gaming store Game Over Videogames, Austin is a prime location for those in his industry.

David Kaelin is a longtime owner of Austin-based retro gaming store Game Over Videogames, (David Kaelin/Facebook)

"It's definitely a very good market for gaming in general," Kaelin told Austonia. "There's a lot of young, high-tech-minded people here... and every year thousands of people are coming in and out of UT with high tech degrees, so it just adds more and more geek fuel to the fire."

But it wasn't long ago that just one or two arcades were in town, Kaelin said.

"I can think of five arcades that I could drive to just around the Austin area, and you couldn't say that five years ago," Kaelin said.

Kaelin has been a part of the industry since 2005 when he opened his video game resale shop in the Texas capital. His mission was to keep on the dying tradition of the "classic video game store"—think GameStop, but cooler. The store sells a little bit of everything, from the now-ancient Atari to XBOX gear in stock, and they're in higher demand than ever.

The company has expanded to 12 locations and won the "Best Video Game Store" category in Austin so many times the city expanded its criteria. According to Kaelin, its success is all about nostalgia.

Kaelin has found that there's a sweet spot for old games: once they reach 20 to 30 years old, they're ready to be dusted off the shelves and give new adults more feel-good memories.

For Leander native Danny Ugarte, that game is Dance Dance Revolution, an on-your-feet arcade game first made in 1999. Ugarte remembers playing the game as a kid—now, years later, he's using it as a way to keep occupied during the pandemic.

Leander resident Danny Ugarte comes to Cidercade for BLANK but makes sure to check out other old-school games before he goes. (Claire Partain/Austonia)

"It definitely helped, especially since gyms were closed and things like that," Ugarte said. "That helped me keep up with exercise."

Ugarte's been going to Cidercade for around six months now, usually with a friend or two in tow, as they hang with other "DDR" enthusiasts every few weeks. Occasionally he'll dabble with an old Mario Bros. game as well, and he's more into retro games than the cutting edge ones.

"I just think it's important to kind of keep these old games because they were what inspired the new games," Ugarte said. "With the new games it kind of loses its charm... this is what I grew up on, and coming back to this makes me really happy."

While some are motivated by childhood memories, Kaelin said his customers are a mixed bag. The user-friendly nature of older games gives it more widespread appeal than many modern games, and Kaelin has seen anyone from kids to older customers enjoy a good game of Galaga or Street Fighter.

"It's fun for me to see all the different ages and different reasons for getting into retro gaming in stores," Kaelin said. "It brings all those people together."

Unlike most businesses that struggled during the pandemic, Kaelin said that staying a home got people gaming more than ever. Now that some semblance of normalcy has returned, they're also more eager to go somewhere outside of the home, making for a perfect storm for gaming businesses nationwide.

"Unlike anything else, it's gotten a lot more popular in the past several years before COVID, and then especially during the past two years with the shutdown," Kaelin said. "We're definitely in a kind of Renaissance period where I think people are, you know, in much larger numbers going out to local stores to shop because they've been unable to do that in the past. It's a great time to be into retro gaming."

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