Interview with Art Santana from Ground Kontrol

Published by in Interview, The World They Live In on September 24th, 2011 | Comments Off

Remember the ambient noise emanating from an arcade when you first walked through the door? With the Portland Retro Gaming Expo coming up this weekend, Fangwheel decided to stop in and have a chat with Art Santana of Ground Kontrol. For those of you who may not be familiar with Ground Kontrol, it is the only video arcade in Portland, Oregon that operates over 60 classic video games and 27 pinball machines, that is also a bar after 5pm. Founded in 1999 and purchased by its current owners in 2003, Ground Kontrol has gone on to become one of the premium establishments in the Portland, Oregon area. They also sell refurbished Atari 2600 consoles, Nintendo Entertainments Systems and Super Nintendo consoles to boot.


Fangwheel: How has the introduction of social media benefitted Ground Kontrol?

Art Santana: It’s been a great help, one of our employees several years ago, you know actually it started I guess with Myspace. We’ve been around for a while when Myspace was really the only thing to use and so we messed around with that for a while. At the time we were doing a lot of live shows and Myspace had obvious connections with live music so that made it really easy to promote our live shows and bring new people down here.

FW: You held live shows here at Ground Kontrol? Are you still doing that?

AS: Yes we did. No, we used to have the space for it and a decent sized stage and an area that we could devote to that. During our remodel we decided that we needed tables and seating more than we did the stage, so we changed our focus back to that. For several years we were doing live shows pretty regularly and for a couple years we were doing two or three a week; and Myspace helped a lot with that. One of our employees, once Twitter started to really take off, though none of us really used it yet; that employee came up and said “Hey, I made a Ground Kontrol Twitter account.” Luckily he got our name before someone else did, we started using that but I think Facebook is the one where we have the most followers and it’s great to have that interaction. I’ll find that while a lot of people like to hear about special events they also like to talk about their favorite game from when they were a kid. When you put out questions like that it gives a business more of a personality than just a place where you go and spend money at and where you don’t really get to know the people that work there. We love to talk to people when they come here too, but if you’re killing time at work it’s nice to still be able to connect with like-minded people. Oh and I should say in addition to that question, social media was a big help for us when we were doing the Save the Arcades 2 contest in 2010. It was a contest that Stride Gum sponsored where we got voted in as one of the final arcades that people could play for us to win a $25,000 grand prize. Being able to promote the game and the website, people had to go play an online game to donate points to their favorite arcade, so being able to promote that website through Facebook and Twitter; we wouldn’t have won without that. Obviously we had a lot of followers in Portland but there were people outside of Portland that were playing for us, so being able to have that was huge. We did end up winning that which was a total surprise and that helped us do our remodel.

FW: Do you want the business to become more prominent, like a chain, or do you think it’s better as a niche bar?

AS: People have said that we should have a Ground Kontrol in this city/place and it’s something that the owners have thought about a couple of times but this place is enough work as it is; trying to figure out how to make it exactly what we want. Just keeping it running let alone improving it definitely is enough work for us right now. It’s also tough to just start something new like that, you have to have a good selection of games and you have to be able to put a lot of work into it and plan to not make money from it for a very long time. This place has gotten to the point where it’s finally the arcade that the owners and myself has always hoped it would be, it finally looks really good and we feel like we’re happy with where things are going. I feel like if we had another location it would just suck a lot of time and energy away from this place and I think both would suffer. Unless you wanted to compromise what we’re doing here and not have that many games or do something like that, I just don’t think it would work anytime soon. You never know, we’ll obviously keep thinking about it as the years go on because I would love for this one to be bigger, there may be a time where we just move this one and expand it. For a very short period there was one on SE Hawthorne. This was when the previous owners owned Ground Kontrol. There was a location around 34th and Hawthorne but it only lasted a few months because it ate the business from this one and neither really won out. We were really just competing with ourselves at that point so it didn’t really last that long. Right now the focus is just on this place and keeping it going and trying to improve it any way we can.

FW: So how often do you guys buy and sell consoles and cabinets?

AS: The consoles stuff that we trade in like NES, SNES, Atari 2600, Genesis, we buy and sell all the time, right now we don’t have a great way to display it because we had to sell off our old console display case. We’re building a new one that will fit into the space that we have for it. Some people know that we still do it and we’re trying to get the word out here and there. If someone comes in and asks, we can usually show them; here’s all the Nintendo games we have right now, take a look! We do that on a day to day basis, arcade games we usually tend to hold onto for a long time. If we have to take a game the floor chances are we are going to want to either bring it back out again someday or we may even need some crucial parts from that cabinet. We really have to look at the long term impact of getting rid of a game, they’re not making them anymore and certain things like the monitors, and no one is manufacturing the cathode ray monitors anymore.

FW: Out of all the games what goes down the most?

AS: I don’t think any one game is leading in that right now, the trouble games we have to take off the floor eventually like Battlezone, a vector based tank game; and the joysticks on it break all the time. They snap in half, partially design and partially the plastic they are made out of got brittle after 20-30 years. I would say that the games that are more sensitive and prone to failure are probably the pinball machines because there are so many moving parts and there are so many things that can go wrong. Back in the day when they were selling them, when the industry was doing really well, they would expect to be replaced within a few years. Fortunately we’ve been able to keep them going because there are parts available for most of them and people reproduce parts. Even though pinball alone is kind of a full time job for at least one of our repair technicians, we’re able to keep them playing really well because we do take the extra time to work on them. As far as video games; like the vector based games are always a little bit sensitive mostly because the displays will sometimes go out. The displays are hard to repair, they’re a specific type of display and you can only use a special monitor for those. Games such as Star Wars, Tempest and Asteroids, they’ve held up for a long time but they’re a little more prone to failure than your average game like Ms. Pac-Man. There’s something more unique about those games that makes them a little harder to maintain, but things have been going really well on that front fortunately.

FW: How hard is it to repair and find some of the parts that you need?

AS: Repairing the games, like I said we have one full-time technician; another guy that’s basically working full-time now that is learning the ropes and taking on a lot of the stuff that the other guy can’t get around to. All four of our owners contribute in their own way, a couple of them are really well versed in pinball repair while the other two are good with video games; one is our vector games expert and the other one knows a lot about video games in general. They all contribute where they can, it’s gotten to the point where fortunately they don’t have to be here 10-15-20 hours a week to repair games and our employees can actually do it for them. A lot of people have to contribute to that so it is pretty difficult. Finding the parts is generally not that bad, unless it’s something special that you can’t use a generic replacement for. A lot of video games probably starting in the late 80’s thru the 90’s came with more standard controls so you could put regular joysticks and buttons in just about any game that you found from that era. There are games, especially earlier on in the 80’s and whenever somebody decided to do it they would put a special type of joystick on there that is unique to that game. Like Tron, it has an amazing lit joystick that no other game has and if you want to find one of those you have to get a reproduced one at this point. If you want one that looks good; you have to buy one that looks just like the original but it’s actually something that’s casted, molded and brand new. I believe the one we have on there right now is a reproduction. Some specialty parts are definitely hard to find and there have been things that we’ve had to search for a while or even gotten to the point where one of our owners that has a pretty good workshop may even start reproducing some parts himself, just to keep us going and avoid the search and cost.

FW: Has sponsoring the Portland Retro Gaming Expo increased business or awareness?

AS: I hope it does, it’s kind of hard to measure we definitely see a fair amount of people from the show come through Ground Kontrol that weekend. We try to offer drink specials and things like that for someone with a badge or button from the show but really for us it’s more about having a presence there at the show and connecting with people there. We do sell old school console games, we’re hoping to sell some arcade games there this year as well and that usually does pretty well for us in addition to being there to promote ourselves. You know it’s been more and more just a great experience to go there and talk with fellow classic game enthusiasts and just meet people and tell them about the place. A lot of times, people have never heard of us and so they eventually will come down here and check us out, I wouldn’t say that we have seen a huge boost because of sponsoring it. It’s more like a long term thing that we want to remain a strong part of that community and we’re all avid gamers ourselves. We would be there anyway even if we weren’t sponsoring it, we’d buy a ticket to go and check it out. It’s definitely good for us in the long run and we do make some money that weekend selling games and stuff but that’s not the main reason why we go there.

FW: Are you guys selling cabinets there?

AS: We are looking to sell cabinets there, hopefully we’ll actually make a deal; we put some pretty low prices on a few games we’ve been holding on to for a while that we don’t plan to operate again. I think Xevious is one that is going to be on the list and probably Moon Patrol may also be sold there. We’re kind of weighing a couple of other options just depending on how well the games are working.

FW: How about PAX, do you guys ever get involved with it or plan to?

AS: One of my co-workers and I have gone to the past, I’d say 5, we go almost religiously every year; it’s one of my most important vacations because I always have a blast there. We’ve never done anything official, there is some talk of interest in having pinball and classic arcade games there. So I am technically talking with them about trying to make something like that happen up there and there are people in Seattle that would probably help us out with that too. Northwest Pinball and Gameroom Show, which is a really great obviously mostly pinball show, but also they have a lot of classic video games there now. There are a lot of collector’s up there that might help us make something like that happen in a small room or something, because it’s been happening at PAX East thanks to the people who work with Funspot there and I would love to see it happen over here too because I know people want to play those games they just don’t get the opportunity. A lot of people at PAX are younger kids and they’ve never seen these games, the earliest thing to them is possibly the original Playstation and original Xbox. There are kids that are 15 years old and have hardly seen anything earlier than that point. There’s tentative plans to try and do something like that, it’d be pretty difficult, but I think that if we figure it out it’ll be awesome. Regardless I’ll be there anyway and I meet a lot of great people and tell them about Ground Kontrol; it’s fun to go and promote on that level but it would be great to have a real presence there.

FW: Are there any consoles/cabinets that are extremely rare that you don’t have here but you would love to get your hands on them if you could find them?

AS:  Console wise I’m not sure what our holy grail would be, there’s a system called the Vectrex that is a tabletop vector arcade system, it had graphics similar to games like Star Wars and Asteroids where everything is drawn with lines. It’s all built into one unit so you’ve basically got a special TV with a controller connected to the front of it, that’s the entire thing right there; you don’t need anything else for it. You couldn’t even play those games on a regular TV if you wanted to, so you have to have this special monitor. Those are obviously really expensive and hard to come by and we’ve had a few of those come through this place over the years and I think we’ve got a couple of them in storage right now that we’ll probably bring to the show. Finding stuff like that is always great for us because it’s such a unique system and it has a direct tie to arcade gaming than an NES might. There are a lot of oddball systems out there that I personally would love to just see. Arcade wise that’s also a good question, you know one of the harder to find arcade games that we happened upon several years ago is Discs of Tron, the sequel to the original Tron. That’s just a hard game to find and we happened upon a really nice version of it that was in a church youth group storage room. They’d operated years ago and just held onto it and someone finally said, “Hey, you know we should probably clear this out and sell these games”, and called us to offer them up, so we bought several games from them. People always ask us to get games like Dragon’s Lair which would be a cool game to have but it’s very hard to find in good condition, and it’ll fail pretty soon because the laserdisc player inside of it isn’t the most reliable thing. I guess the ultimate arcade game that people want to know if it even exists is called Polybius. It’s an urban legend that basically there’s this video game tested in arcades in Oregon in the late 70’s, early 80’s that would give people these bizarre reactions such as seizures and headaches, men in black would come through and take notes on the game and what the players were doing and experiencing. It is this crazy thing and people thought that it would mess with people’s brains. People have claimed over the years that they saw one back in the day, their friend worked on it or whatever. Just recently there’s been one or two websites claiming that someone in Astoria or something found one and that was all they really said about it. So it is one of those games that I would just love to know if it’s even real because it’s such an urban legend. That would be an ultimate find, if you could find that game and hopefully it wouldn’t give people seizures and things like that, it would be amazing.

FW: Which games in the arcade see the most action? I see a lot of people here are playing many things.

AS: Our pinball is really popular, we have a really great selection of pinball and it’s pretty easy for anyone to walk up there and find a game to play. Anything that’s got multiplayer like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or our six player X-men (FW: I saw that, I’ve never seen it before), that cabinet we had to redesign and do some custom work. The control panel and the artwork is custom, we used some of the original elements but the whole background we had someone illustrate it because we had to redesign and rebuild it, anyway so we went all out for that one. It is a really neat cabinet. The four player Simpsons, anything that’s competitive like the driving games, NBA Jam, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, those games tend to attract a lot of play. Oh, and obviously the 4 player Pac-Man Battle Royale, it’s really fun. People really, really dig that game. It’s basically Pac-Man but you can play with four people at the same time, you can compete with each other and eat the other ‘Pac-Men’. All of those games really do pretty well for us and we like to be able to offer games like that where you can play with two, three, or four of your friends at once.

FW: How hard is it to find a legit working game today when you have the over abundance of eBay and Craigslist (where everyone claims that they have the best, most perfect system ever)?

AS: It’s a little bit tough whenever you see something on Craigslist, someone emails you or on eBay you want to see a lot of pictures, you want to see every corner of the cabinet if you can to look for common damage that are deal breakers because sometimes if a game doesn’t have side art it’s not worth getting. You want something that looks good. Then you want to make sure the person knows what they’re talking about: does it work, does it power on, does it play well, does it reset after two seconds, does it have any issues? It’s not too difficult, there are a lot of games out there but it’s finding one that is the mix of good condition and good value is probably the toughest thing. There are a lot of people out there that they either think it’s worth more than it might be, they have sentimental attachment to it, they don’t know that it will take x amount of to repair the thing to operating condition. We sometimes have to go through those negotiations; it’ll cost us $200 to even fix this up so it’s not really worth it. It’s tricky, our owners are constantly looking at eBay and Craigslist and always, always interested if someone calls us and says they have games sitting around. We try to follow up on as many of them as possible which would mean going to see them in person ultimately, to know if it’s a good deal. It’s tough enough that you can’t just say I want to get a Tron machine and have one by the end of the day; but fortunately right now it’s not impossible and there are enough people that are interested in trading games. Tron might not be their favorite game, they really want Spy Hunter, if we have a Spy Hunter we might be able to trade with them. There’s a lot of that going on in the community too, sometimes their more interested in getting the game they ultimately set out to get, sometimes someone will buy a single game and not even really want that game; knowing that later on down the line they’ll swap it for something else. You never know what you’re going to come across; it’s definitely a mixture of effort and luck.

FW: On average, how much would a good condition, least maintenance cabinet cost?

AS: It varies wildly, some games it’s like buying a car. There’s no real market for it besides the collector’s and the people that operate arcades. It’s super hard to say, I mean a game is worth more to us in the long run because we can make money off of it hopefully. To a collector they may want $500 for something in pristine condition, they may want $1000. I do see Ms. Pac-Man; which is a very popular game, if it’s been refurbished and has good artwork someone might be asking $1000-$1200, they know they can get it from that one person that’s going to want it really bad because it’s the only game they want. So sometimes you can see that, we can’t really afford to spend that much on a game and we don’t, we’d rather put in the work ourselves to fix it up. It totally varies; you can kind of gauge what people are selling it for if you talk to a lot of people that collect games. When it comes down to it, it’s more about what the game is worth to the person that’s selling it than anything else. If they don’t want to let it budge for anything less than $500, that may be a good deal for us or it may be ridiculous for us to spend that much money if we’re going to do additional work. There’s a decent amount of negotiation involved, and knowing the popularity of a game is really important. If a game is only going to get played by one in forty people, it’s not really worth us getting it, we really need games that are popular. A lot of games that we like will go off the floor because no one played it, and we’ll put it in storage because we want to hold on to it, even though it’s a great game and people love it, it doesn’t have the appeal of games like BurgerTime, Frogger, and Q*bert.

FW: What’s the furthest location that you’ve bought and transported something?

AS: I think we got a couple lots of games from southern California within the past few years, that’s probably the farthest that we’ve actually made a deal and sent someone down with a truck to go and get stuff. A lot of times the cost of doing something like that just outweighs the deal that you’re getting, we bought enough games, we worked out a good enough deal and a lot of them needed work anyway. It ended up working out okay. Sometimes if we get a pinball machine that’s new, it’ll get shipped from the Midwest where they’re getting manufactured and distributed from. As far as actually taking a trip ourselves I would say that somewhere in southern California is probably the furthest we’ve traveled thus far.

FW: So most of the arcades have come from the Midwest?

AS: Yeah, I would say. They may have a history where they started out somewhere else, a lot of games were manufactured in the Midwest so they started out originally pretty far away. Sometimes we’ll get a pinball machine or something that where you insert the coin has a label with deutschmark on it so it’s spent time in another country. As far as us going to get it, we haven’t made too far of a trip yet because it costs so much money to transport these games. You’re going to need a truck, if you do freight that’s really expensive. (FW: I couldn’t even imagine shipping the Cruis’n World arcades. A lot of the older ones are smaller but those ones are extremely large. I would not want to ship that.) Exactly, local purchases are definitely 99% of what we do.

FW: I see that you guys do a ladies night? How popular is that?

AS: Well it’s our first one! Sunday October 16th will be our first one; we decided to call it Ms. Ground Kontrol, sort of a reference to Ms. Pacman. We decided it was time to do something like that, we get all kinds of people in here, we obviously get a lot of girls/women coming through here. We just felt like doing something that was geared more towards them, not in a way that’s like, “Oh, you only like to play these certain games.” More that you want to hang out with other ladies and you want to invite your friends; there may be a few guys in here because we are letting guys in but they have a higher cover as standard ladies night structure. We wanted to have a night that was just dedicated to ladies that like to play video games that maybe even haven’t checked this place out because they’d be more comfortable with all of their friends and it wasn’t just a bunch of guys yelling at the games. Sometimes it can feel that way a little bit, if there are a lot of guys playing NBA Jam or something that are real agro about it.

FW: How about tournament play? You ever get into any of that?

AS: We did a series of tournaments for a little while that we coordinated with the local fighting game community for games like Super Street Fighter IV and a little bit of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 happening but when it came down to it, it became too popular for us to be able to fit everybody in here. The guys that were helping us run it, they’re called Best Bout Gaming, they actually set up their own space to have tournaments. They have those kinds of tournaments out there on a regular basis and we work with them whenever we can, so we sort of had to shift our focus to arcade game tournaments instead of console game tournaments. We’ve done a couple for Pac-Man Battle Royale that were really fun that Best Bout helped us organize, did open registration and saw who the last person standing was through several rounds of four player Pac-Man. Arcade game wise we’ve done a couple of Ms. Pac-Man challenges, I want to do one that’s a bigger draw than the previous ones. We’ve done them as a part of special events that we’re running, like when we were in the Save the Arcades 2 competition we stayed open for a full 24 hours. It was the final 24 hours of the contest so we wanted to invite people down to play the games to win us more points, hang out, eat pizza/donuts, and we did a few Ms. Pac-Man score challenges just to break up the evening. We do a really big pinball tournament every year called the Portland Pinbrawl, it usually draws 130 players which are about the most that we can handle. I want to get into tournaments more, but I’ve found that it can be tough to get people to compete on some games they just want to play for fun.

FW: So what’s your favorite game this gen?

AS: I think by default for hours spent playing would have to be Fallout 3 because I spent a ridiculous amount of hours playing it. I liked Fallout New Vegas too even though it was buggy, it was still fun to play, still kind of working through DLC on that one. (FW: What’s your favorite console?) My favorite console, current gen I spend most of my time on the Xbox 360. It’s where most of my friends play games (FW: Xbox Live is an incredible model), they do that better than anyone else right now. Going back though I was sort of a Genesis kid growing up, so the Genesis was my favorite one from that generation, after that the Playstation 2.

FW: How do you feel about Kinect, the Wii, and the Move controls?

AS: I was really excited about the Wii when it first came out; I even waited in line overnight that first Christmas just to get one because I was so excited about it. I kind of lost interest in it after a while just because the games I wanted to play were not on that system as much, I’m looking forward  to playing the new ‘Zelda’ game and there were some interesting oddball games in there like MadWorld. I think all of that stuff is really cool, I’ve messed around a little bit with Kinect at a friend’s house but I haven’t picked one up for myself quite yet but I probably will eventually because they’re integrating it so much. I’m excited to try Rise of Nightmares, it looks goofy but fun. So I think that stuff is cool, I’m interested to see where it goes but I don’t think people are going to give up traditional controllers anytime soon.  There are some people especially in the fighting game community that don’t want to play with wireless controllers because they want a wired connection because of that instant response. I’d rather have fun playing a game and not strain myself to much, a little bit is okay. FW: Could you imagine executing the actions in Fallout 3? Holding your gun for 7 hours? Digging through things, and carrying things. FW: Walking around with a 30lb backpack. Could’ve been good for me, I’d probably be in better shape.

FW: I see why this place draws so many people; it’s not just a bar. If I go to a bar all I’m going to do is just sit there, they might have some newer arcades but it’s going to be something like Big Buck Hunter Pro, stuff that isn’t all that fun. It won’t be 25-50 cents; it’ll be around $1-$2 just to play it. Coming here there’s such a vast variety of games; I would come here for lunch if I were closer. Is there ever a point where it’s all ages to enter?

AS: Noon to five is all ages every day, after five is when we start serving beer, we have the full kitchen and it’s 21 and over to enter. We see a lot of families especially on the weekends; it’s great to see little kids trying out the games that are 10-20 years older than they are. I love current gen gaming but I do feel that you at least need to try out the older games, the game play on these games has lasted so long and I think it’s going to last much longer than your average current gen game.


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