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Return of the Pac: Namco plans to open a chain of arcade restaurants

“Pong was highly social,” said Atari founder Nolan Bushnell in 2008, “It was okay for a woman to pull a guy off the bar stool to come and play with her, because it was only a two player game. What’s the essence of that game experience? The essence of that game experience is the social experience.” Bushnell’s grand vision for video games was always in the restaurant business, first with Chuck E. Cheese and later with uWink. He was never alone. Dave & Busters has tried to make that business as well. In 2013, one of the old masters of the arcade are going to try their hand at the business as well. Namco Bandai’s getting into restaurants.

“It’s no secret that we’ve been exploring a number of new business models and noodling the future of Out-of-Home entertainment for several years now, and out current planning does include an ‘upscale’ restaurant with ‘entertainment elements’,” Namco Entertainment Inc. VP David Bishop told Polygon, “And yes, we’ve been working with an established American restaurateur, as well as some other really talented external professionals, to develop the concept!”

The prototype restaurant, codenamed Level 256 after the final stage of Namco’s Pac-man, will likely be located somewhere near Chicago, Illinois.

Once upon a time, Namco Bandai was amongst those Japanese video game makers that straddled the industry, creative and financial titans fueled by groundbreaking arcade games. Space Invaders, Pac-man and other early hits begat later brilliance like Tekken, Time Crisis, and Ridge Racer. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Namco ran a number of arcade chains including Aladdin’s Castle, Time Out and CyberStation.

In the past fifteen years, arcade games have become an almost wholly irrelevant corner of the video game market with only a handful of game makers still making both games and money in the field. In the past year alone, Namco’s global sales of coin-operated arcade games dropped 30 percent. Its total sales came to around $424 million between April and October 2012. $400 million of that came from its domestic market in Japan. If the company can get a successful chain of game-centric restaurants running in the United States, it could potentially save Namco’s global arcade business. If that means more games like Tank! Tank! Tank! get made, all the better.