San Francisco Bay Area Arcades – A (Semi)-Definitive Arcade Guide

Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for the past decade-plus, one thing I’ve discovered is a trove of locations related to arcade-style gaming.

Whether it be classic amusement attractions, vintage or modern pinball, or arcade gaming, there’s some great stuff out here. And I couldn’t find a good list online. So here goes:

[UPDATE V1.4: Sept. 2013 – Starbase Arcade and Gamecenter removed, Free Gold Watch added. Ping me via the contact form with updates or suggestions.]

California Extreme – Santa Clara, CA – an event that only happens in the South Bay once a year (next is July 13-14, 2013, as of this blog post!), but MUST be listed here due to the amount and rarity of arcade and pinball titles displayed. Hundreds of games are trucked in to the Hyatt’s ballroom, and I’ve blogged about some of the rarities before. But if you want to see 15-20 vector arcade machines all in a row, or some incredibly rare prototypes (Marble Madness 2?!), you need to make it here for the weekend.

Golfland Sunnyvale – Sunnyvale, CA – Right down in the South Bay, this minigolf/arcade location was the original test arcade for a number of the U.S. arcade companies, including Capcom. Perhaps not what it used to be, but still has plenty of arcade games and a few pinball machines. (There’s a weekly ‘unlimited arcade play’ deal, and three other locations, with variable machine-age, in San Jose, Milpitas, and Castro Valley.)

High Scores Arcade – Alameda, CA – Located in my home town here in the East Bay, and relocated from New Jersey (!), High Scores Arcade opened in July 2013 and has an awesome selection of nearly 30 classic arcade machines, concentrating on the old school (Donkey Kong! Frogger! Star Wars!), and including a bunch of multi-in-1 boards. The business model is ‘all you can eat’ for an hourly or daily fee, and the proprietors are major classic arcade fans who keep the machines super clean and are switching out machines regularly – highly recommended.

Musee Mecanique - San Francisco, CA – nowadays over by Fisherman’s Wharf, this long-standing SF institution has a wonderful selection of early amusement machines from a century or more ago. There’s a super-neat mechanical horse, a plethora of awesome dioramas, and all kinds of other neat vintage coin-operated machines you won’t see anywhere else. Recommended.

Pacific Pinball Museum – Alameda, CA – a grand total of 85 pinball machines in the current storefront East Bay location, with more than 50 machines also recently donated by the co-founder of Rhino Records. $15 gets you unlimited free play, and there’s an awesome collection of ’50s and ’60s pintables in this place – less ’90s and ’00s though. Gets a bit hot in summer, but a blast. The museum also runs the yearly Pacific Pinball Expo in Marin.

Playland Japan – San Francisco, CA – a tiny arcade in Japantown, in the main mall area. Looks like it has some rare/custom Japanese arcade games, including Taito’s table-tipping game? (You can twin your visit there with some of the other awesome local stores, including a big Kinokuniya bookstore and the neat New People store.)

Playland Not At The Beach – El Cerrito, CA – fairly low-profile and only open on weekends, this East Bay venue (located just north of Berkeley) is actually a lovingly crafted tribute to amusement parks and circuses. It includes skill games, early Musee Mechanique-style dioramas, and a good selection of pinball machines old and new. One price gets you unlimited plays, although its v.kiddie-replete compared to most of the other venues here.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk – Santa Cruz, CA – OK, quite a long way away from San Francisco (almost 2 hours, and you’ll need to take Highway 17 across the mountains), but the arcade is open pretty much year-round. In the main area, there’s a retro corner with about 15-20 classic machines, and a great deal of other arcade games, many of them big sit-downs. Worth a visit.

[CLOSED: Gamecenter Arcade – San Mateo, CA – the Peninsula ‘Japanese-style arcade’, focused around fighting games, has good reviews on Yelp, and seems to be hewing a similar path to Southtown. Closed as of September 2013, unfortunately.]

[CLOSED: Southtown Arcade – San Francisco, CA, pictured above – was a small but v.lovable ‘Japanese arcade experience’ crammed into a tiny place below the Tunnel Top Bar near SF’s Union Square. Very fighting game focused (with regular tournaments), but the gradually rotating line-up included other awesomeness like Arika’s Tetris The Grand Master 3 or even Blazing Star on the Neo Geo MVS. Southtown sadly shut down in November 2012.]

One-liners on a few other smaller notables:

Free Gold Watch (San Francisco, CA) – a print shop in the center of SF that apparently includes a bunch of pinball (w/tournaments!) and arcade games.
Malibu Grand Prix (Redwood City, CA) – your standard go-karting/arcade kind of place!
Rack N Cue (San Francisco, CA) – pool joint at San Francisco State Uni, v.student-y, but 20+ decent arcade games.
[CLOSED: Starbase Arcade (San Rafael, CA) – a seriously vintage arcade in the North Bay – sadly, this original survivor from the arcade boom closed down in August 2013.]
Subpar Minigolf (Alameda, CA) – brand new, with a 18-hole indoor mini-golf and a good smattering of arcade/pinball machines.

[Photo of Southtown Arcade above taken by Xpress Magazine, which did a neat article on the venue.]

5 thoughts on “San Francisco Bay Area Arcades – A (Semi)-Definitive Arcade Guide

  1. Thank you for this……im olde school arcade….my son is ….well a kid ….and arcades are a great way to kill a few hours…..and keep me entertained as well….would enjoy finding a great version of Missile Defense…..miss getting my hand jammed in the control ball

    You made the search easy and informative without being judgmental……well done

  2. Surprised Milpitas Golfland isnt on this list. They have the best miniature golf courses in the bay area, arcade games, snack bar, lazer tag arena and now a lazer maze. One of the best arcades in the bay areathat hasnt gone out of business.

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