The music is loud; the lights are dim. I’m beginning to sweat, hemmed in by a youthful and restless crowd. As my friend shouts words of encouragement over the din, I turn toward the beauty in front of me, swaying my hips to the beat and wondering: Am I gonna get lucky tonight?
I’m not in a nightclub—I’m in a video arcade. And that looker in front of me? It’s about eight feet tall, 500 pounds, and one of New York City’s best-kept secrets: the SOUND VOLTEX.
What exactly is a SOUND VOLTEX, you ask? It’s hard to put into words. Imagine Bop It, a copy of Guitar Hero, and an old-school arcade cabinet, all dunked in glitter and throbbing to the beat of Japanese techno. This is not a video game; it’s an experience. And ever since the summer of 2016, when I first visited Chinatown Fair Family Fun Center on Mott Street, it’s drawn me back again and again to take in its electronic spectacle.
Chinatown Fair is no stranger to novelty. Since 1944, the arcade has been announced by a cluttered red and white storefront, indistinguishable at a glance from the Chinese restaurants and souvenir stores that surround it. Its weathered sign boasts of “D Famous Danc G & Tic-Tac-O Chickens,” two of the location’s original attractions. (Alas, those clever birds have flown the coop to Monticello Casino & Raceway.)
In the late ’90s, Chinatown Fair developed into a mecca for fighting game enthusiasts, who would gather at the venue to test out their skills at Street Fighter, Tekken, Mortal Kombat, and other titles. Back then, the arcade was more of a speakeasy than a Chuck E. Cheese’s, complete with a rowdy mob of regulars and a bank of speakers bursting with ear-splitting music. Bolder patrons would sometimes dip outside for a smoke, taking covert pulls from flasks. At the end of long nights, die-hards would challenge each other to money matches, with only a few button presses determining who’d take a taxi home and who’d have to walk.
Many of New York’s arcades closed their doors for good after the rise of console gaming, which made it possible for players to rack up high scores without having to put their shoes on. But as the number of arcades in the city dwindled, Chinatown Fair stayed strong as ever, growing in notoriety with each competitor’s collapse. The heyday of its time as a fighting-game hub is recounted in a 2015 documentary, The Lost Arcade.
The ever-present miasma of weed smoke was replaced by the sickly-sweet odor of cotton candy; the buzz of gamers muttering epithets gave way to giddy children singing the birthday song.
After a management change in 2012, the arcade pivoted toward a more family-friendly game selection, causing many members of the fighting-game community to bemoan its transformation into what they claimed was little more than a Dave & Buster’s knockoff. The ever-present miasma of weed smoke was replaced by the sickly-sweet odor of cotton candy; the constant buzz of gamers muttering epithets gave way to giddy children singing the birthday song. According to some, Chinatown Fair was no longer the place to go for serious gaming.
I respectfully disagree with this characterization; no Dave & Buster’s would ever bring a SOUND VOLTEX, with its portal to madness, onto its premises. (I have stylized the game’s name—a bizarre contraction of “volt” and “vortex” that defies explanation—in all caps to respect the wishes of its head producers, Yoshitaka “DJ YOSHITAKA” Nishimura and Takayuki “dj TAKA” Ishikawa.)
With most of its titles left untranslated from the original Japanese, SOUND VOLTEX is an enigma to first-time users, enticing only the most intrepid customers to divine its controls through a mixture of guesswork and luck. The first time I tried it, I was overwhelmed by the rush of foreign noises and symbols. Only after stumbling through several play-throughs did I begin to fall under its sway.
Complicated controls notwithstanding, the uniqueness of SOUND VOLTEX is immediately apparent, even to the most casual gamer. Unlike its simpler, more mainstream brethren, Guitar Hero and Rock Band, SOUND VOLTEX allows individual players to manipulate multiple inputs simultaneously in synchrony with the music. Knobs must be twisted, buttons must be pressed, and sliders must be dragged to achieve a high score—or even just to survive to the end of each song. The game’s candy-colored graphics mesh together perfectly with the pulsing, frenetic music, making it nearly impossible not to bob your head and swing your hips in time with each tune.
As recently as 2014, it was literally impossible to find a SOUND VOLTEX cabinet outside of Japan. Konami, the game’s manufacturer, didn’t even bother to market it in North America, perhaps due to fears that Stateside players wouldn’t appreciate the anime-inspired characters and peppy-to-the-point-of-creepy voiceovers. To this day, I haven’t been able to find SOUND VOLTEX anywhere else in New York City.
But it isn’t just the rarity of SOUND VOLTEX that makes it the glittering crown jewel of the Chinatown Fair arcade. It’s the game’s ability to bestow you with a new identity—to be reborn as you play. Slip your key card into the machine, and for a few fleeting minutes you can become whomever you want: a cowboy, quick on the draw; a DJ, at one with the rhythm; a god, worshipped by those who failed to make it this far. Survive to the end of a particularly difficult song, and all the bragging rights are yours—that is, until your buddies figure out how to top your accomplishment. That’s when you reload your card and scroll down the song-selection screen to get to the next level.
And believe me, there’s always a next level.
Alexander Lee is a writer and editor based in Queens. His work has appeared on ESPN and in the New York Daily News, and he is a staff writer at GameTyrant. Follow him on Twitter at @test-email-alexleewastaken.