Free Play Arcade attracts all kinds of people from teenagers on dates, to parents with kids—provided it’s before 9 p.m.—to friends chasing nostalgia for only $10 a person. You’ll find it in apart of Richardson that, so far, has been unaffected by development around CityLine. It feels like the real Richardson, the old Richardson, sharing space in a narrow parking lot with a thrift store, a sports bar, Sherwin-Williams, and a cozy Vietnamese restaurant.
Inside, almost 100 retro arcade games that have survived the internet boom and come out all the stronger, wait. It’s suspended in time, a playground for kids of the ‘80s and the ‘00s, and everyone in between. Free Play Arcade has all the best games and unlimited play. It’s an ‘80s kid’s dream; as one of my friends pointed out, if his 12-year-old self could see Free Play, he’d think he’d died and gone to heaven.
It’s nothing fancy whatsoever. The long bar is simple, with a big, backlit refrigerator, and four craft brews on tap. There’s an arcade-inspired cocktail list, and a selection of wine as well, if that’s your thing. But it’s particularly well known for its impeccable beer list, both extensive and selective, with limited-runs and of seasonal craft beers, a list that changes daily, which is both a blessing and a curse.
My party and I are only there for about five minutes—long enough to get a round of beer—before two of them have already vanished into the noise and neon, one drawn to Street Fighter, another to a beautiful, electromechanical Atari Pong Cocktail Table, one of about 50 in the world. It, and every other game, is equipped with cup holders for our convenience, and each game has a stout, cider or spiked soda that is a natural partner. Gamers, fuel yourselves well.
Immediately intriguing, The Adaptation 15, a limited brew from Roughtail Brewing Co. in Oklahoma City, is a seven percent New England IPA, with more hop than the Easter Bunny. Light and energetic, it’s heavy on the grapefruit and it starts the night off strong.
Pair with a classic like the Lord of the Rings pinball machine near the front of Free Play. Oft credited with renewing interest in pinball, the Lord of the Rings game may not be a relic, but it’s certainly a treasure. The 2003 Lord of the Rings machine, designed by George Gomez, showcases the epic adventure, and includes 12 action figures and a fearsome Balrog. Pinball is one of those classic games that can require skill, but is just as much fun without it. It’s subtle in its physics, an ingenious construction of color, sound and flash. The simple object—to keep the ball rolling—is engrossing enough to while hours away.
For the daring gamer, Great Raft Brewing’s Reasonably Corrupt Black Lager is as rich as sin and black as oil. But it’s a little sweeter than it looks, with a subtle roasted flavor. The maltiness has almost a funky note, something playful and disarming. This one goes surprisingly well with Mrs. Pacman, with chasing down double cherries, and dodging ghosts in a technicolor maze, eating your way through the levels. I get as far as level four, easily powered by Reasonably Corrupt. It also harmonizes like a dream with Free Play’s BBQ Toast: brisket, cheddar and barbecue all melted together into one salty-sweet pressed sandwich.
Free Play doesn’t exactly draw in the foodies, but the fare on offer fits the grungy atmosphere. This isn’t a chef-driven bistro. It’s food eaten for pleasure and nostalgia, pizza, sandwiches, and a couple of attempts at healthiness (hummus and crudité). Appetizers are simple, shareable plates that don’t get more complicated than street tacos. At face value, it’s all honest: hummus is hummus; crudité is random dippable vegetables, the street tacos are cumin-heavy pulled pork and dottings of pico de gallo cradled by corn tortillas, nothing more.
My friend points out another of the drinks on tap, the Tequila Barrel Lime Gose, courtesy of Boulevard Brewery. This traditional German-style beer is as sour as a Warhead, with tequila’s particular intensity, and a hint of salty ocean flavor. If you’re looking for a beer that keeps your wits sharp, a sour ale like this one offers the kick in the teeth you need. Armed with the Tequila Barrel Lime Gose, play your own Avengers: End Game with Marvel vs. Capcom. It carried me through level four of retro Frogger without breaking a sweat.
We camp out briefly at the tables for another round of snacks, commiserating over rusty Street Fighter skills, and failing badly at Burgertime over a $5 grilled cheese. It tastes like being a kid again, gooey American cheese on Texas Toast, brushed with garlic butter. The avocado press presents an oozy mess of pepper jack, sliced avocado and copious slatherings of chipotle mayo. Simple and good. But there are more games to play.
Around 8:30 p.m., the speaker crackles on to inform us that at nine, Free Play transforms into an adults-only zone. The only beer on tap—discounting the huge selection of cans and bottles—that I haven’t at least sampled is Armadillo Ale Works’ Quakertown Stout, so I pass the rest of my Reasonably Corrupt over to a friend and order the stout. While I typically trend toward light, hoppy beers, a stout is my exception. Stouts always feel a little decadent, like chocolate or especially good coffee, rich without being too heavy. Quakertown is an intense final play, oats and dark-roasted malts, and syrup Armadillo Ale Works calls “the most robust maple syrup we could get our hands on.” It’s pleasantly nutty, and pairs well with the choreographed dance of Galaga, or vibrant gameplay offered by Defenders.
It’s no secret that it pays to capitalize on nostalgia. That’s why we love shows like Stranger Things, where kids scrounge in couch cushions for spare change, bike to the arcade, pool their winnings and chase high scores together. It also pays to offer a massive selection of quality craft beer, limited-run brews that feel exclusive and local. Combine the two—nostalgia of the past with the spoils of the present—and you get Free Play Arcade.
Free Play Arcade
- Mon – Thurs | 3 – 11 p.m.
- Fri | 3 p.m. – 12 a.m.
- Sat | 11 a.m. – 1 a.m.
- Sun | 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.
1730 E. Belt Line Rd., Richardson
469.554.0588 | freeplayrichardson.com