A few years ago I discovered an old beaten-up arcade cabinet in a local shop. Sitting behind a pile of t-shirts, jackets, and various 'hip' tracksuits from past decades, it was completely out-of-place: and it wasn't even for sale anymore. A label showed someone had already bought this well-loved relic and, when I asked its destination, the staff stayed mum. Who'd rescued it?
It wouldn’t be too long until I found out. This cab would be one of the first in Glasgow's Super Bario, a hybrid of a bar and an arcade founded and run by three friends: Shaun Murawski, Scott McLachlan and George Black. Situated in the bustling city centre, Super Bario is an enigmatic kind of place, something very different from your typical bar. The soft lighting is offset by the glow of neon monitors, and the background hum is a constant clacking of buttons and chunky 1980s joysticks. It’s a place you stop by on the way home from work and, without meaning to, spend hours lost in X-Men vs Street Fighter. It's a place that seems to encourage a certain shared bonhomie, a sense that arcades are places where the enjoyment is shared. On any given visit it's not long before you end up chatting with fellow pilgrims, swapping nuggets of arcade trivia and getting into the details of classic fighting games.
Super Bario is not unique in being a gaming bar, but unlike some its approach is heavily informed by arcades rather than console gaming. It’s strange to realise how arcades themselves have shrunk back from our high streets, which is what hits you on entering a near-perfect time capsule like this. Which makes you wonder where it came from.
“Uh, it’s a difficult question," says George Black. "Obviously we had seen other bars, including Barrcade… We'd done some research further afield and found that there weren’t many of these in Europe, even in the UK. So it kind of started as a conversation and it evolved from there. None of us had any sort of background in drinks or alcohol, it was always something were interested in, but none of us had actually managed a pub before, so we looked in to that side of things. Then over a time period of, actually two or three years, we started trying to pick up one machine a month or every couple of months, and stored them.”
Black's interest in games was much more long-standing, and he'd developed some expertise in the age that Super Bario would come to evoke. “Personally, I used to sell vintage games on eBay. I was always interested in that kind of era, specifically around early 90s to mid 90s games. From that, I kinda grew more interested in arcade games. With the idea of the bar, we had to learn more again about them.”
One of the reasons that many modern gaming bars prefer to go the console route is that, simply, they're easier and cheaper and take up less space. Arcade cabinets take up lots of space, are often dedicated to just one title, and can be a nightmare to maintain. As soon as I start talking around the topic, it's clear George Black doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.
Things went wrong even before day one. A big selling point for Super Bario's opening was an original Mortal Kombat 2 arcade machine primed and ready to go. “That was one we had for opening, and it stopped working two days before we opened. It was then sitting in the basement for a year and a half until we finally got it fixed.”
You might be thinking that speaks badly of the owners, but the reality is that fixing such problems isn't just a question of money but either having or being able to hire the expertise for a specific cabinet. “Maintenance is… maintenance is an issue, to be honest,” says Black. “It’s a kind of waiting game.”
“There are a couple of specialists in the UK that fix screens. You ship them off, y’know, find the parts – and as you can imagine a lot of these aren’t readily available, which is another issue. And then of course, the [Printed Circuit Boards] can go. Again this is a specific thing. There are a couple of expert forums we're on, but a lot of these guys do it as a hobby. You are at their mercy as to whether they have time to fix a problem, whether they know how to fix it, and if they want to.”
While that's simply the reality of the situation, Super Bario nevertheless strives to go above and beyond when it comes to rejuvenating arcade cabinets. Black fondly recalls their first successful project: “Super Monkey Ball was the first one we did it with. That was basically a wrecked Naomi [cabinet] that we picked up and were lucky enough to find the full Monkey Ball kit on Yahoo Auction in Japan! So that came over, it’s a really rare piece, and we were really lucky that it fit that machine.”
The current project is one of the most eye-catching cabinets my younger self ever saw. “We have a Moonwalker machine,” says Black. The full-size multiplayer one? “Yeah, we’ve got the PCB from one of the generic cabinets and we have a 3 player cabinet in storage which is kind of wrecked. We’ve got it to the point now that we’ve got the screen fixed, kinda just need the artwork and the rest of it sorted, and hopefully we can slot the PCB in and it will be our second one.”
There is a passion in the way Black talks about the lengths they go to in these restorations. “9 out of 10 people won’t know what [a particular detail] is, but there are a few that notice,” says Black, pointing out the Confidential Mission cabinet at the back. “The amount of people that are actually into this hobby and you never realised. In my experience, I mean I used to go on forums and sell games on eBay, so I know the market is out there, but you never meet these people in real life. Customers will come in and have hour-long conversations about this game or that game, it’s nice.”
By now it should be apparent that Super Bario’s line-up is a little eclectic, to say the least. I ask about how the owners decide what they're going to invest in. Is it simply personal taste or are there games that people simply expect to find in such a place? “Even now we have been open two years, and that’s us just finally happy with the line-up we have got," says Black. "It’s just one of these things where you’ve got to keep looking. We’ve got a really strong line-up at the moment with maybe one or two we would change, but we just find – especially in a bar with the social aspect – people usually gravitate to the fighting games and the gun games. We’ve got Tekken, Tekken Tag as a more modern one, and we’ve got the Sega cabinet which we always have some version of Virtua Fighter on, and then we have House of the Dead 1 and House of the Dead 4, so either end of that series.”
Of course there are other factors, such as availability. “That became available on one of the forums I believe," says Black, pointing at the Tekken Tag Tournament machine. "So we went for it. It wasn’t a personal choice. A lot of the time it is just what you can get. There are a lot you can pick up cheap which aren’t working or need restored, but we might not have that time or expertise to do that, so we have to take what we can get.”
Naturally all of these arcade cabinets take up a lot of space, but to me Super Bario never feels cramped. “A few people are always like 'I thought it would be bigger'." laughs Black. "The way it’s set out means the front seating fills up quickly, and the back area is the games. It's finding the fine balance between sacrificing the seats or the games. We're about half and half at the moment, which we find quite good. The main issue is on Friday and Saturdays, busy nights, a lot of people like coming in just for a drink, they don’t even bother with the games: they enjoy the atmosphere and the vibe. We like that it’s cosy.”
It becomes clear that Black means this, and I realise it's one of the things that, consciously or otherwise, I enjoy about going to Super Bario. The venue's size means you do end up chatting to people, and encourages the kind of cheery atmosphere where one minute you're discussing the qualities of The Simpsons game and the next handing out a beating in Street Fighter Alpha.
“We're at the stage now that we have just invested in quite a few machines, [and] we have actually got a lot of working machines in storage for the first time," says Black. "We would love to open another one. A lot of people come in and say we don’t have enough space for the games, or we don’t have enough seating, and are you going to get a bigger place...
But we would rather open another one the same size. We like the recipe. We like the fact that it’s quite cosy and a small bar, which is unusual. Most people also like that, and we get a huge mix across all ages; men, women, kids. Everyone is welcome, and it’s not just for people who are hardcore into this game or that.”
Perhaps you have no interest in grabbing the original Super Monkey Ball banana controller while enjoying a nice pint, standing tall against The House of the Dead's zombie hordes with lightgun at the ready, or blitzing all-comers on a freshly restored Mortal Kombat 2 cabinet. If you do, then let me put it this way: most time capsules are intended for future generations, but right in the heart of Glasgow is one for ours.