It’s an exciting time to be a gamer in Portland. Last week, the city’s newest bar/arcade Quarterworld celebrated its first anniversary with a Saturday-night blowout, and this weekend, the inaugural installment of the Mercury-sponsored Betacon Game Expo will set up shop at the Convention Center, giving the public a chance to experience the future of video games and get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the development process.
Not wanting to be left out of the fun, the grandaddy of Portland arcades, Ground Kontrol, has gone ahead and soft-launched their recently completed expansion at 115 Northwest Fifth. It’s a bittersweet moment for those who frequented shows while Backspace was still operating out of the location. I’ll never forget sandwiching sets from gaming-adjacent acts like chiptune pioneers Anamanaguchi and experimental noise makers Black Dice between some white-knuckle gaming sessions at Ground Kontrol. That said, I can’t think of a tenant that’s better suited to take over the reins from the much-missed venue and café.
First opened in 1999 by two record store employees with a passion for classic video games, Ground Kontrol’s roots can be traced back to its original location at 610 Southwest 12th, although the majority of its patrons have probably became acquainted with the popular downtown hotspot at its Old Town/Chinatown location at 511 Northwest Couch, the site at which the arcade has been building its esteemed reputation since 2004.
The brand-new space follows in the footsteps of the arcade’s 2011 “GK 3.0” remodel, which added Tron-inspired lighting fixtures to the ceilings, tables, stairs, and restroom sinks, plus that gorgeous Pac-Man pixel/tile work on the bathroom floors, which made taking pictures inside the restrooms more irresistible than it should be.
This new expansion bares almost no resemblance to the old Backspace interior, with its designers opting to go all-out with a floor-to-ceiling remodel, adding new dividing walls, laser lighting, and an impressive wrap-around bar that seems to grow from out of the main room’s foundation. Right when you enter, keyless combination lockers are available for rental, with each locker packing a USB charging station to keep your phone juiced while you play. Of course, the bathrooms in the expansion hide their own exciting surprise, but I’ll keep you in suspense for the time being. Just know that a “full disco ceiling” switch is involved, and that you are going to want to trigger that thing the moment you lock the door behind you so that you don’t keep those in line waiting for too long.
Inside the arcade’s main room, you’ll find a handful of seating and table arrangements, each paired with a tiny screen that wasn’t turned on at the time of my visit, but will probably be used as some sort of menu display. Guests that are over-21 can take advantage of a fully stocked bar with a dozen beer and cider options on tap, and a few Mario-themed cocktail selections. Food choices include basic snack items like nachos, hot dogs, pizza, pretzels, chilli, hummus plates, and Ground Kontrol’s popular take on the Frito Pie, plus some desserts including ice cream, floats, and candy.
Appearance and amenities can go a long way in making an arcade and bar a fun place to hang out, but a thoughtfully curated cabinet and pinball table collection is always going to be the main draw for attracting a crowd. Ground Kontrol offers a great selection of games that pulls heavy hitters and more obscure and forgotten classics from all the main arcade genres. With fighters, beat-em-ups, puzzle and sports games, scrolling shooters, light-gun games, and pinball machines galore, the arcade offers something for everyone. Not feeling another run-through on classics like Turtles in Time and The Simpsons? Give Data East’s Captain America and the Avengers or Sega’s Spider-Man: The Video Game a go! Getting burnt out on Street Fighter II? Step on over to the Soulcalibur II machine for a bit. Nearly every cabinet on the floor offers a fantastic multiplayer experience, so get ready to settle in and make some new friends.
There are also a few arcade rarities to be found. Across from the newly minted (and totally awesome) 10-player strategy game Killer Queen, you can have a go at a restored version of the laserdisc classic, Dragon’s Lair. Originally released in 1983, Dragon’s Lair offered players a unique experience that pairs the animation styling’s of renowned director Don Bluth with some quick-time event (QTE) sequences that are still widely used in the storytelling segments of modern video games. Despite making waves upon its initial release, the expensive and unreliable laserdisc format made it difficult for Dragon’s Lair to have any lasting impact on the arcade scene. This demise eventually led to Bluth’s collaboration with Steven Spielberg, in which films like The Land Before Time taught children about death and the “circle of life,” in-turn inflicting fever-induced nightmares into their sleep patterns long before Simba, Timon, and Pumba came along and reclaimed the animation throne for Disney. Dragon’s Lair is a significant piece of history, both in regard to the arcade landscape of the ‘80s, and the career of one of American animation's most intriguing figures, and it’s great to see it so carefully maintained here.
This is only the first stage in a multi-part expansion process. For the time being, the NW Couch space will close its doors for renovations. The tweaks and revamping will bring the old room up to speed with the new expansion, with completion currently targeted for the end of summer. Once finished, a hallway will connect the two rooms, with the completed arcade boasting two full bars, twice the square footage, and nearly twice the number of games as Ground Kontrol's last incarnation. With so many classics already lining the floors at the new digs, it’s going to be pretty exciting to see what hidden gems get brought out when the full space is up and running. In the meantime, you can begin to get acquainted with the new Ground Kontrol expansion starting tonight at 5 pm.