As the commercials say, Chuck E. Cheese’s is a place “where a kid can be a kid.” Started in 1977 by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, the chain advertises itself as the 9-year-old’s ultimate arena for pizza, games, and cheap prizes. But what of adults seeking entertainment, who long for a place where they, too, can be a kid? I wanted to find out if my old birthday stomping grounds still had that magical appeal, so The Gameological Society sent me to the very same Chuck E. Cheese’s of my childhood just north of Chicago in scenic Skokie, Ill.
Because Chuck E. Cheese’s does not want to be a place where a pedophile can be a pedophile, you can’t enter the premises unless you’re accompanied by a child. I enlisted some help in the form of a family friend and her two more-than-willing daughters, and my own parents tagged along too, presumably to supervise me. After going through $30 worth of tokens and scouring every spotless inch of the establishment, I came away with this guide. It’s the best and worst of what the modern-day Chuck E. Cheese’s has to offer a nostalgic adult.
I never thought I’d feel so alone at a Chuck E. Cheese’s. I couldn’t find Cyclone anywhere. This is one of the standard games for any arcade that offers prize tickets. You watch a light zing around a circle full of numbers until you hit a button to stop it. If the light stops at the number “3,” for example, you get three tickets. But if you time it perfectly and the light stops directly in front of you, you’ve hit the jackpot. Legends were built around its storied 500-ticket payouts. Was it truly possible to hit it big? Everyone knew somebody who knew somebody who had broken the bank. But at this establishment, I only managed to find Cyclone Junior, a smaller, single-player imitation of the game, tucked away in a corner. It wasn’t the same without the thrill of a captive audience. I was hoping for at least one “IN YOUR FACE, BILLY!” moment where it would be borderline acceptable for me to yell at a stranger’s son or daughter. Instead, I got eight tickets. At least the tickets won’t ask me to vacate the premises.
The Ghost Hunter
The Ghost Hunter is one of those games where you drop a token into a gun and try to shoot it into an inexcusably small target. Most of those games are total rip-offs, but this one lets you load four (!) tokens into the gun at once. Now that’s value, for some reason! The playfield is sparse, sporting just two spooky targets. Apparently, if you hit both targets in succession, a drawbridge drops, and you can shoot for a vampire worth the big tickets. I imagine children would be terrified if they were actually able to lower the bridge, but that will never ever happen. In under a minute, I had gone through eight (!) tokens. Still, I had a fat stack of tickets to show for it.
Dog Pounder is a hilarious game, whether it was meant to be or not. A humongous, blood-red bulldog bellows, “BOY! AM I HUNGRY” every three seconds that some hapless youth isn’t playing it. The premise is simple: Feed this dog as many plastic balls as possible. By any means necessary. Balls are strewn about below the dog’s horrible maw, and you have to launch the balls mouthwards by repeatedly plunging a giant dog-bone handle like you would a bike pump. The few 4-year-olds who tried Dog Pounder before me were awful. Thanks to my relatively superior physical condition, I managed to get six tickets and a lot of disapproving looks from area mothers. Oh, and pride. Lasting pride.
NFL 2 Minute Drill
When I came across NFL 2 Minute Drill, a game where you toss mini-footballs into holes for points, I was skeptical, but I decided to soldier forward. In high school, I realized that the only sport for which I had any natural skill was volleyball. In college, I spearheaded an intramural C-league volleyball team. Our first year, we finished 0-6. I extended my record of athletic perfection by notching zero points in my sole attempt at this game. The 9-year-old next to me scored 120 points. Kids, learn to throw a football before it’s too late.
Photo Ride With Chuck E. Cheese
Getting your picture taken in the middle of a roller coaster ride is one of the best features of any theme park. I’m always willing to shell out a few bucks for a particularly funny snapshot. So imagine my delight when I came across Photo Ride With Chuck E. Cheese. Not only do you get to ride back and forth in a choice red car with Chuck E. himself, but the machine also takes a picture of you and the massive rodent. The best part: It doesn’t even charge you an extra token for the print. Score!
Though the machine is clearly designed for use only by children, I poured my slight frame into Chuck’s jalopy and had a fantastic time. It might have been a tight fit, but it was worth it. I was going to have my picture with Chuck E. Except the photo never printed. I waited for a long while, but no luck. I stuck around for a few extra minutes advising hopeful children that the printer was broken. The lesson: Just because an anthropomorphic mouse gives you his word doesn’t mean you can trust him.
I don’t remember Egg Timer from my Chuck E. Cheese salad days, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s considered a classic among Chuck E. enthusiasts. It looks like it’s been around for a while. The game imagines Chuck E. as a simple chicken farmer, and you have to help him count his eggs before they hatch. The eggs are put through an intricate system of treadmills, and they dump out into the world’s slowest waterwheel. To gather the eggs, you make Chuck’s outstretched hand smack into a target that empties the payload into your basket. Get the timing right, and an egg or two will come barreling down. Each egg counts for one prize ticket, so you know you’re getting your token’s worth with this one.
Chuck E Cheese’s Sketch Book
I had already been burned once before by the promise of a free commemorative picture, so I was wary of Chuck E. Cheese’s Sketch Book. This time, I exercised caution. I let a couple of mother-daughter pairs go ahead of me, so if the printer was on the fritz, they’d take the hit. Let no token go to waste. I determined that the machine was in working order, so I went ahead and chose the two-person portrait option (despite the fact that I was going it alone). The machine amusingly “sketched” out my picture before my eyes, and the wait wasn’t too long before my masterpiece tumbled down a chute. Unfortunately, the end result looked like something you’d see pinned up at the post office. Do not wear a beard to Chuck E. Cheese’s.
Chuck E.’s Marathon Runner
I used to have a hamster named Speedy. Like many hamsters, he had an affinity for his hamster wheel. After spending not 20 seconds in Chuck E.’s Marathon Runner, I don’t understand why Speedy or any other hamster would find pleasure in such a device. My trek through stationary hell commenced only after I warded off numerous toddlers who were intent on sitting in the wheel. Within moments, I had overexerted myself. My glasses were slipping down my nose. At some point, a small girl entered the area. The distraction led me to fall on my face. To add insult to injury, I didn’t even get any tickets. Hamsters don’t know anything about anything.
Chuck E.’s All Star Hoops
At this point it’s not a big secret. Sports aren’t my thing. I like a good game of alley basketball, though, and free throws I can handle. One summer at camp, I even proved to be half-decent at this game called Spectrum with mini-basketballs. So I thought maybe I had a chance at Chuck E.’s All Star Hoops, but then the backboard moved away from me mid-shot. Bullshit. Avoid All Star Hoops. It’s rigged.
Say Cheese [smartphone app]
At some point in the last few years, the familiar cartoonish iteration of Chuck E. was scrapped in favor of a totally hip Chuck E. who’s animated in full 3D. The newest extension of the Photo Ride and Sketch Book attractions is an augmented-reality app that lets you snap a picture with this virtual Chuck E. Cheese. “Say Cheese” is one of the more unsettling ways to document your time spent at Hausse De Fromage.
I first noticed one of the app’s signature posters at our table. It tells you to “Say cheese here!” in order to take a picture. The idea is that you fire up the app, get your kid in the frame, Chuck E. shows up, and voila: an instant photo memory that you will cherish for a lifetime. It’s awkward, though, because if you’re the picture’s subject, you can’t see what Chuck E. is doing on the screen. This very well might be a good thing, because the animators make the mouse burst forth from the sign like an otherworldly being tearing a rift into our plane of existence. Then he dances around a little and strikes a pose.
I noticed a handful of these signs littered around the establishment, but in my three hours there, I didn’t see anyone else use the app. Above you can see my dad trying to give Chuck E. a high five, though.
Wheel Of Fortune
Wheel Of Fortune, the game show, is simple. You spin a wheel and play hangman on TV. Pat Sajak ribs you in front of a national audience. That’s about it. Wheel Of Fortune, the coin pusher game, is evil. Coin pushers are those games where you drop a coin into a machine full of other coins, and you hope that your coin forces those other coins to fall down. Because they’re right on the edge! Just look at all those riches!
First of all, the coins never fall. That’s standard. But Wheel Of Fortune adds insult to injury with a bonus wheel that simply does not spin and an ersatz Price Is Right Plinko board that appears to do nothing.
While Laura, the younger of the sisters who accompanied me, managed to win 100 tickets on her first token (again, evil game), Amanda burned through a huge chunk of coins with little to show for it. She only managed to push a few coins down twice, which gave her four tickets. She announced her intent to stop after two more turns. Four tokens later, she turned to me and said, “I always make these promises to myself that I know I can’t keep,” and put a few more tokens in the slot. Chuck E. Cheese’s: teaching kids hard life lessons since 1977.