Retro gaming arcade is cool for all ages

Walking into Lost Levels, the new arcade that opened in the Claremont Packing House on October 27, is like stepping through a time machine.

You’re immediately met with those familiar beeps and boops of classic arcade games such as Frogger, Mario Bros and Pac-Man.

For co-owner Steve Torres, re-introducing retro gaming to Claremont is more than just a smart business model; it’s a passion.

“I grew up with it and it’s all I did as a kid,” Mr. Torres, 38, said. “I grew up in the 80s, there was no Internet. It was just consoles, Nintendo, Atari, Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64.”

Dozens of classic arcade cabinets line the perimeter of the shop, which occupies a highly visible space across the hallway from Packing House Wines. Mr. Torres opened his first location in downtown Fullerton a few years ago, but he noted he had been trying to open up in the City of Trees for just as long.

“This whole area, this whole city, it’s beautiful,” he said. “I love the timing, as far as it feels. It feels like you’re in the ‘80s, in some parts of the city.”

Mr. Torres also runs Retro City Festival, a massive gaming festival at Fairplex in Pomona that is dedicated to the history of gaming. According to Mr. Torres, 70,000 square feet are filled with arcades, pinball machines, consoles and anything else that would satisfy the most hardcore gamer. It’s the largest retro gaming convention in California, he said.

Coincidentally, one of Retro City’s patrons just happened to be the Packing House’s landlord. Mr. Torres took the golden opportunity and sat down with him to pitch his idea of a retro gaming arcade in Claremont.

“I came to him and said, ‘Hey look, this is what we want to do, this is what we have been doing, talk to our previous landlords, everyone we have been working with loves us, we have been growing,’” he said. “And he wanted to have that happen here.”

In his pitch to his future landlord, Mr. Torres said Lost Levels was “the only media missing in downtown Claremont.”

“There are amazing restaurants in downtown Claremont, amazing places to go, but there’s really not much to do here, as far as staying,” he said. “There’s not a buffer where people can come and play arcades for a bit and then go have a drink and then go get dinner, and then play arcades for a bit and go and shop.”

“This is a venue that will keep people around,” he added.

The landlord was sold, and Mr. Torres got his Claremont location.

He feels Lost Levels is filling a vital gap in the Claremont village—a place for residents of all ages to stop by and play some games for as long as they want. Every arcade game is only a quarter to play, but two pinball machines on the upper level are a dollar.

“We always try to fill in that gap, we want everybody to feel like they’re welcome,” Mr. Torres said. “That’s why we decided not to have a bar. We want people from all ages to just walk in and play.”

For Mr. Torres, finding his passion for opening a classic arcade began after leaving his day job. After graduating from San Diego State University, he worked for Home Depot as a regional asset protection manager before getting laid off.

“That kind of woke me up,” he said. “I thought, ‘It sucks, I did everything right, went to the police academy and did all the stuff I needed to do to get where I needed to get.’ But I love how I experienced all of that, because I think it brought professionalism to this.”

He started researching how to open his own business, and realized he should open one centered on what he’s passionate about: retro video games.

“As a collector, I kind of thought it would be cool if somebody opened up a store that cared about the customer, not just the product,” he said.

This, he said, sets his business apart from his competitors—it’s a retro arcade run by people who are dedicated to the culture.

Mr. Torres also wants Lost Levels to serve as a go-to spot for tournaments. In the basement of the space lies what he calls a “Fire Mountain Dojo”—a fighting game league. The basement is full of classic fighting games such as Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Tekken.

He aims to host a casual tournament every Friday, and one competitive tournament every month. The Claremont location will serve as a hub for fighting games, while the Fullerton location will focus on pinball machines.

“I want each venue to have a different theme, and I want people to have the need or want to come visit each location because they’re going to offer something different,” he said.

But ultimately, Lost Levels is a labor of love for Mr. Torres, who has channeled his passion for video games into a successful business. It’s more that just an arcade, he said, it’s a community.

“I opened this up out of sheer passion,” he said. “If you love what you’re doing, and you’re doing this all the time, you’re above another level.”

—Matthew Bramlett


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