A neon “Press Start Here” sign invites the visiting gamer to take a step back into the 80s at the Neon Retro Arcade. Greeted by banks of brightly colored, back-lit vintage video consoles with neon glowing pinball machines like marching soldiers, the arcade sings in a competitive din like carnival barkers.
Q-Bert cusses and burps, Pac-Man wakka-wakkas, Joust squeals, and numerous other games fill the air with the sound of their arcade fire. But instead of demanding the endless ply of quarters to feed them, the all-ages arcade charges a flat rate of $10 an hour for unlimited classic gaming.
With this day marking their fifth month grand opening anniversary, business owners and college sweethearts Mia Mazadiego and Mark Guenther reflect on the now-busy fledgling business opened with 12 years of savings, a hobby’s collection worth of vintage games, and their own manpower.
“We actually literally ran this place—we don’t know how we did it—for three months, without any staff,” said Mazadiego. “Everyone hears that we run an arcade and says, ‘Oh that must be so fun!’ And it is a ton of fun, but the amount of work that goes into this space, literally every single day of our lives now, is just astounding. Especially when you are dealing with 30-plus year old technology.”
Mazadiego, a Pasadena local who went to La Salle High, said the couple targeted the Crown City specifically for their business after returning to Los Angeles from the east coast.
Prior to becoming schoolmates and friends at USC, Guenther, who’s from the Midwest, and Mazadiego each majored in filmmaking and political science, respectively.
“We met over a pinball machine. It’s sort of how our love developed,” said Guenther. “That’s sort of when the sparks flew.”
After working together on government programs based in DC and overseas for seven years, they came back to Los Angeles in 2009.
“We’d been planning to go into business together for a while,” said Mazadiego. “We’ve just both have that entrepreneurial spirit.”
But when Guenther’s hobby and collection of vintage video games began to grow, so did the idea for the business.
“Mark’s collection outgrew our home, our garage, our two storage spaces,” Mazadiego laughed.
The addiction to collecting began in college for Guenther.
“Back in college, my roommate and I bought a machine together and set it up in in our dorm. From there the bug just hit, you know?” Guenther said. “You get one machine, then it’s so much fun. Then you get two machines. The next thing you know it’s overtaking everything you have.”
“And then just this feeling that there was this resurgence coming. With a lot of different retro gaming, movies, and new games coming out, we could see it was it was just really good timing,” Mazadiego added. “But this was literally ten years of working, and saving and knowing in our minds that we were saving toward something that was really important to us.”
Without any outside PR, and almost immediately after opening, the store got requests in for bachelor parties, birthdays, fundraisers, and even a marriage proposal.
“Someone approached us and just said, ‘I want to propose to my girlfriend,’” said Guenther. “And that was the best way for us to start off. It was just such a great sort of launch for us, if you will.”
And with school out, the store got busier still.
“The Summer has been great, actually,” said Mazadiego. “PCC students and Caltech students, now that they have a little more time on their hands, are obviously enjoying the arcade with that extra time.”
With that, the store now has five employees and three of them are PCC students.
PCC student David Lopez, business administration and management, began working at the arcade two months after its opening. Lopez, who juggles a second job as well in order to pay off bills and save for a car, is a gamer himself. With platforms like Nintendo 3DS and XBOX 360 at home, he enjoys games like Zelda, Pokémon, Call of Duty, and Skyrim.
“As far as classic [console] games, I used to play a lot of Pac-Man,” said Lopez. “But I like playing fighter games, because there’s always a strategy, for certain people who like to think on their feet like I do — analyze what your opponent is doing. It’s kind of like a game of chess.”
PCC student Andy Camacho, graphic design, had peered in through the storefront one day prior to the store’s opening and applied. Also a gamer, his favorite game is Street Fighter II and he said the highlight of the store is watching the families with their kids.
“The people who get the most excited are the parents,” he said. “They take pictures of them playing the games.”
Social media feedback fuels some of the rating selection for their new pinball game additions and consoles. The couple reviews requests to gauge their next purchases for their evolving and revolving line-up of games. Acquiring the games can be an issue, but the time it takes to refurbish them to Guenther’s standards is the primary battle.
“Finding the machines is a challenge, but getting the machines into the right condition is also an amazing challenge. I have probably refurbished 80 percent of the machines myself,” said Guenther.
In order to become a pinball repair wizard, he credits resources found on the internet for repair and maintenance manuals (eBay), handy how-to videos (YouTube), and the community of collectors who generously lend knowledge and expertise in various online forums and social gatherings.
“Pinball certainly takes a lot more maintenance than the average video game,” Guenther said. “All these different resources would be next to impossible to find maybe 20 years ago.”
“For me it’s really about recreating the experience, so putting machines out in the proper condition really makes people appreciate them that much more,” he added. “[A patron will say] ‘Oh this is the game! And it looks fantastic, like it just came out of the factory!’ That’s a huge compliment.”
Basking in the neon glow of success aided by social networking, word-of-mouth, long hours and tenacity, the married couple of seven years certainly have no regrets.
“We just did it. We went all in,” said Mazadiego. “It was definitely a gamble that—at least in the five months that we’ve been open—I couldn’t be prouder of.”
And the game that started it all, a Street Fighter II pinball machine, still remains close to the hearts of the 12-year couple.
“My friend and old roommate still has it,” said Guenther. “So I tell him, ‘If you ever want to get rid of it…?” and laughs.
“But it’s in his home, so we can visit it,” Mazadiego adds. “He hasn’t been willing to sell it yet, but we’ll get it eventually.”