Thirty years ago, the American middle class had a second home known as the arcade. A wonderland filled with leaderboard, bowling alleys and all of the most cutting edge gaming technology known to man. The industry was pulling in billions of dollars and it was known as the No. 1 source of entertainment for a period of time from the late 70’s to early 80’s. But as the 90’s came and the power of the home video game console soared above the coin-operated arcade cabinets, the coin-op business as we know it nearly ceased to exist.
In recent years, boutique arcades have survived off of nostalgia and hardcore fans frequenting hole-in-the-wall arcades, or visiting the in-your-face Dave & Busters to get their fix. A resurgence in the once-dead market of gaming outside of your home has gained steam, and as a want for the arcade experience of yesterday grew, industry legends Namco was listening.
Pac Man is more than a household brand, it’s an institution. At 30-years-old, there’s hardly a person alive who can’t recognize the yellow dot with a mouth. The time was now. Enter Level 257.
Stepping into Level 257 as a 32-year-old male that’s best defined as a nerd can be a strange experience. Neuromarketing is a real thing, you know. And I’m somewhat convinced Namco invaded the dreams of millions of 25-49-year-olds across America as soon as you lay eyeballs on their new restaurant.
I stumbled upon Level 257 when a friend from the Schaumburg, Illinois area told me of some, “Pac Man-themed restaurant” popping up in the same mall Fedor Emelianenko strolled through a few years ago. Naturally, I had to experience this massive, 40,000 square foot establishment. What the hell was Level 257? I had to know. I saw arcade cabinets and good beer on the menu. It called out to me.
The soft opening of Level 257 was just a few weeks ago, with the grand opening being celebrated when I was there during the first week of March, so the media blitz added to the mystery of the restaurant/entertainment experience.
Bowling, multiple bars, vintage arcade cabinets and what is promised to be a “come for the food” scenario lightens the pale nerd’s face with a yellow #9 beacon. Bacon wrapped anything? Craft beer? Level 257 was bringing the enticement.
I arrived with a mustachioed friend not unfamiliar with fancy situations and my wife, who is a pedestrian gamer, but likes the finer foods in life. The gigantic entrance to Level 257 welcomed us and brought the merchandise game hard as soon as we stepped through the door. $400 C-3PO? It was out there on the merchandise floor (and seemed to lack an anti-theft magnet).
The gift shop had the latest Namco videogames, Pac Man shirts, jackets, hats and… Cutlery. They also had some sweet watches that were only about $15. Everything else would’ve cost at least a new current-gen videogame purchase or so. Did the proprietors of Level 257 understand that gamers usually get their t-shirts for free? I don’t think it matters to them.
This was not a simple return to form for arcade-goers, it seemed.
I was told by multiple Namco parties that Level 257 was not for the gamer, it was for the people who loved good food and thus, they built it from the inside out with a menu geared toward the foodie. Unfortunately, for as much as the world wants to call a location 45 minutes from Chicago “Chicago,” Schaumburg can’t be depended on as a foodie destination, even if it’s priced like one in the city.
You will spend money at Level 257, and just like how, “you don’t come for the games, you come for the food.” You will be spending the majority of your check on the grub. If only it was better. Yes, we drank and the prices were fair, but you’re looking at about $70 a person if imbibing moderately. Dinners are about $25, small appetizers are about $10-15, and it’s all sadly mediocre. I did not want to come for the food. I wanted to come for the games, but sadly this revolutionary dining experience that seems to be lubricated by the games surrounding the patrons dining was lacking even in that category.
For $15 an hour, you get unlimited plays on any game available.
With the swipe of your magical card you smack the 1P button and you’re good to go. But… Something nefarious seems underfoot. I sat down with a beer, played a few games of classic Pac Man on the admittedly awesome custom sit down cabinets that harken back to yesteryear models found in grimy diners and bars and find that my 3 games or so have equaled about twenty minutes of game time. I played the Star Wars Trilogy shooter and notched another fifteen minutes of game time on what would’ve amounted to a single quarter.
This place was truly not for gamers.
My nostalgia button was pushed early and often by the mint cabinets from around Pac Man’s original era of the early 80’s, as well as a large selection of Namco classics. There’s even an amazing 4-player Mario Kart DX cabinet that’s a blast to play if you can get to it. We stuck around the arcade because $40 an hour for bowling on the weekend seemed a little steep when we had the Twilight Zone pinball machine within arm’s reach.
Yes, you can play the final level of Pac Man. They have a cabinet set up just for Level 255 of the arcade classic, and if you beat the game you see the kill screen on 256 and everything. It’s a great touch.
I wish Namco celebrated its rich history more instead of trying to blaze a new path with three star cuisine. This place could be great.
As the night went on, we enjoyed ourselves further, but the money sink became real. You could go to any arcade on the planet and drop $100 and feel like a god. Not the God, but at least a god. A minor deity. Not at Level 257. Although the experience promised is “next level” it’s anything but.
We started discussing all of the things we could’ve bought for $300+, up to and including a used (or new) gaming system, hours of games and plenty of good food from various other options for half the price. Come expecting Tekken, get Tek War.
I remember the first time I ever played Pac Man, as well as Galaga. It was on one of those sit-down cabinets with worn buttons and grease smudging the screen in a Greek restaurant. French fries collected around my shoes, old men smoked cigarettes at the bar, and as the only place serving gyros for miles, it was a destination made better by the addition of some fun games.
The cracked red leather on the seats probably matched the carpet of the Greek restaurant years prior to me being there, but a busy existence saw the carpet fade into oblivion in highly-trafficked areas. It was a dump. But we came for the food and stayed for the games.
Level 257 shows off a beautiful space, but they can’t reach into my brain and almost wholly create the dream destination of a craft beer drinking gamer that has a palate evolved beyond energy drinks and pizza without committing fully.
Level 257 doesn’t deliver on the food and doesn’t deliver on the gaming experience of yesteryear or today at one of the slightly-lower brow competitors. I kind of left feeling like a targeted demographic.