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January 19, 2006

REVIEW: GameWorks

One day during our kids’ winter break, my wife and I were trying to think of a fun activity to do as a family. After a while, we both came up with good ideas at about the same time.

Her idea was to take them to Smaland, which is not only the fun “small land” in IKEA stores, where kids can run and jump and play; it’s also the region in Sweden where IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad (the man who put the I & K in IKEA) grew up. Who says my columns aren’t educational?

My contribution to our little plan was to spend some quarters (i.e. swipe some Play Cards) at GameWorks, which really wasn’t much of stretch for me, given my gaming proclivities. And we knew that the kids loved it, because we’d been there during their summer vacation.

As it turned out, since IKEA and GameWorks are about two minutes away from each other, a strategy began to emerge...

We decided to take........ A Multi-Activity, Day-of-Wall-to-Wall-Family-Fun Field Trip!

* the crowd goes wild! *

So we loaded the cargo hold with the necessary provisions; hardtack, beef jerky, and of course, lemons, to stave off scurvy. Can’t be too careful.

At IKEA, the kids crawled through tunnels, drew pictures, and of course, jumped into Smaland’s big ball pit with mildly wild abandon. A good time was had by all.

One question for IKEA, though: If you make the kids take their shoes off and run around in their slippery socks, why oh why would you make the little climbing wall/pile of faux boulders slippery and not grippy?

Where I come from...slippery surface + slippery surface + height + kids = bad idea...with the accompanying liability issues. Unless, of course, I signed some sort of waiver.......................... D’oh!

In our case, my daughter ended up saving the day by catching my son as he slid down the slippery rock pile. All’s well that ends well, I guess, though that was not the kind of excitement we expected to have that day.

So as we left IKEA for GameWorks, we loaded the cargo hold with the necessary provisions; Swedish meatballs, Swedish fish, gravlax, and of course, more lemons. Can’t be too careful.

When you first walk into GameWorks, you need to buy the aforementioned Play Card at the front desk, then it’s off to the races.

While not every game is suitable for young kids (e.g. there are many shooting games suitable for older folk – and if you’re trying to shield their young eyes, you’ll need to be on your toes, as those games are sprinkled throughout), there’s a lot to like at GameWorks. Here are some of our highlights, starting with the Big Three:

Mario Kart Arcade GP

This was the highlight of the trip, hands down. You not only get the wonderful, kid-friendly Mario Kart experience, but you also get to race against up to three of your friends (or siblings, kids, parents, etc.).

Of the many fun features in this game, one in particular stood out. Each game is equipped with a camera, and before the race begins, it takes a photo of the player and superimposes it onto his or her chosen character from the Mario family. So as you race around the quirky Nintendo tracks, you also get to see your friends’ bright shining faces as you pass each other.

Ironically, we almost didn’t get to play the game, because it’s designed for big kids only. Although the seats slide back and forth, the pedals are just too far away for little legs. However, instead of giving up, we split up into teams - girls vs. boys.

My son sat on my lap and we shared steering duties. My job was to work the pedals and he was in charge of firing items at the other drivers. My wife and daughter worked out their own arrangement, but I wasn’t paying attention to the specifics, ‘cuz I was in pregame, baby. In case you were wondering, the girls beat the guys twice in a row, including a come-from-behind photo finish.

Brave Firefighters

This was another favorite, though your younger kids will need some help, due to the weight of the “controller” - a heavy metal fire hose. You play a heroic firefighter on a lifesaving mission. You aim the hose at the screen, and a red or blue circle (depending on which player you are) shows you what you’re currently dousing. It’s an exciting game for parents and kids to play together.

Dance Dance Revolution / In the Groove

I don’t know about your kids, but mine love it when my wife and I are willing to make fools of ourselves for their viewing pleasure, and nothing quite fits that description like me on an arcade dancing/rhythm game. Now don’t get me wrong, as a drummer, I have rhythm in spades, and I can dance when the funky spirit moves me. But these games aren’t so much dancing as a really vigorous game of hopscotch, set to music. I suck at hopscotch.

Old-School Arcade Games

They had a few of my old faves on the 2nd floor, but not only were they few and far between – they had about five games – but the games had no sound and hazy, tired flickering screens. These games are out there to be had, and I’m guessing a lot of the moms and dads out there would enjoy a wider selection of working classics from the golden age of arcades.

Sports Games

If you include racing, sports games make up a large percentage of the games at GameWorks. Not only do they have a four-player Madden football game and some Midway sports games, but they also have a litany of experiential “ride-on” games, which can be traced back to mid-‘80s games like Hang-On, Out Run & After Burner, from legendary Sega designer Yu Suzuki. And if any of my students are reading this, yes, that will be on the midterm.

There were many racing competition games, including several with hydraulics that moved the “cars” the players were in to reflect what their on-screen cars were doing. Similar games included baseball, tennis, soccer, skiing & horse racing. Two of the other sports games - basketball and football - were really carnival games, as the action never transferred from the real world to a TV monitor.


Speaking of carnival games, there were many ways to “earn” tickets to buy fabulous prizes. And yes, I’m being sarcastic. Keep reading.

You know the kid of games I’m referring to: skee ball, and...um...more skee ball. I don’t remember. They all look the same to me. But the common denominator is that they all delight my kids when they spew forth their recycled cardboard bounty, especially since the games are designed to have a very low threshold for earning those tickets.

Of course, when they retrieve the prodigious pile of tickets from their pockets and proudly plop them onto the counter, they are invariably disappointed when they realize that they have no shot at the plush Nemo doll they had their little hearts set on. In fact, their tickets only qualified them for a plastic spider or a mini-pack of Skittles. Thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin.

Since we’d been there (as well as the arcade at Gurnee Mills - the ginormous outlet mall between Chicago and Milwaukee) before, I had already talked to the kids about enjoying the experience of playing those games and earning tickets, but not focusing on what those tickets could buy. The games aren’t the means to the end of buying a cool prize, but rather the end in itself of having fun. And ever since we had that talk, the kids have done just that.

Something to keep in mind is that GameWorks changes some of their games every once in a while. For example, the carnival bowling game the kids enjoyed in July was nowhere to be found in December. They did have some new games, though, including Mario Kart, and a two-story parachute simulator thingy. It (the parachute sim, not Mario Kart) looked pretty cool, but it was definitely for older kids, because they strap you in and lift you off the ground. So we skipped it.

Overall, I felt like we got our money’s worth. Every game charges a different number of credits, but since you get to choose your games a la carte, you can decide what is and isn’t worth it. In addition, the customer service was solid. When the air hockey machine malfunctioned in the middle of our game, they let us play two free games of Mario Kart, which added up to more than double the credits we should have been refunded.

In the U.S., GameWorks has 18 locations in 12 states, so depending on where you are, it may not be feasible for you to get to one any time soon. In the meantime, there’s always Chuck E. Cheese, which, of course, was created by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell (midterm!).

We had a great time at GameWorks, with Mario Kart Arcade GP being the favorito de tutti favoriti. Even if it were the only game at GameWorks, the trip would still have been worth it. And since we saved it for last, we ended the day on a high note, which made the ride home real peaceful-like. And that’s all any parent can ask for, isn’t it?


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