I've been born, raised, and living in North Kansas City for the vast majority of my life. In that time, I always thought arcades were an amazing luxury experience. I'd sometimes literally dream of some gigantic super-arcade. And I'm not talking something like the Galloping Ghost Arcade in Chicago that has 500+ machines (amazing place though, I've been there myself and plan on going back). I always imagine that 90s setup; laced with neon lights, loud colors, and machines turned on loud. And my arcade growing up was a place that filled that quota and then some. Even better, it was contained inside of a mall I loved so much that I wrote about the mall for my “Professional Writing” final in college.
This is my experience with the Fun Factory in Metro North Mall.
For me, arcades always seemed like super-consoles. I first got into videogames when the SNES and Genesis arrived on the gaming scene. During this time, many of the best selling 3rd party games were ports of successful arcade games; "Mortal Kombat", "NBA Jam", "Street Fighter II", "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"/"Turtles in Time", etc. Hell, Sega created a special chip just for an arcade port of their hit title “Virtua Racing” and sold the game at a triple digit price. As time went on, a major focal point for many a console maker was to be as close to arcade perfect as possible. The PS1 ports of "Tekken" would get pretty damn close and tack on enough extra features to easily pick up the slack. And while Sega would never blow the trumpet too loud, their Saturn and Dreamcast consoles were often made to match the production specs of their arcade hardware at those times, which led to games that finally closed the gap in many gamers' eyes and earned the title “arcade perfect”. Even a few years ago when Capcom re-released their hit, high-demand fighter “Marvel vs. Capcom 2”, a main selling point was that it was built on the foundation of the Dreamcast edition and not the ports for the more popular, more recent PS2 and X-Box consoles.
But until that gap was closed, the arcade versions of games always seemed like the premium versions of those games. Sure, playing "Mortal Kombat" at home at the totally-appropriate-age of 6 was a treat, but playing the arcade version was louder and more colorful. The sounds were better, the graphics were better, the tried-and-true stick and buttons control was better. It was as if you were training up at home for the day, whenever it may come (and when I was younger, I'd only go to Fun Factory maybe once or twice a year) you were face-to-face with the cabinet and whether you took on somebody walking up to the machine or you were left alone for an entire session, your skills were tested. And boy did it take the piss out of you to go down in the first match, but it was also sweet validated victory if you could win in the arcade. It was one thing to beat Johnny Cage at home a million billion times, but it was invigorating to KO him on the grandstage.
Lil' ol' me having a go at "Mortal Kombat"...probably getting smacked by Sonya Blade. That's how all of my experiences with the original MK went in the arcade.
Fun Factory in Metro North Mall was the place where all of this unfolded for me. It's a shame so many people remember the Metro North Mall as more of a punchline of sunken business, but it had a hell of a prime. It's also a shame not so many people share these memories of the Fun Factory arcade (or at least, not enough to have much photographic evidence the place still exists. In the mid-late 90s, I'd only go a couple of times a year but it was memorable every time. The games I remember best from that time were an authentic "Street Fighter II" dedicab (arcade cabinets designed specifically for a game, as opposed to a machine made for a previous game with the circuitry swapped out to support a different game), a large-screen cabinet running the original "Mortal Kombat" (I bet that made the parents really happy), and a full-motion video shooting game consisting of nothing but wild west duels. I went years believing it was "Mad Dog McCree", but it was exclusively made of these quick-draw duels and scolded the player and took a life from them if they drew the gun too early. It even included a video of an actor, in full wild west getup, demonstrating on an actual arcade cabinet to keep the gun holstered. Little kid me would never listen to this and just wanted to get to blasting. It took my dad helping me out with the game, telling me when to draw the gun. I've never seen a cabinet of this game since, and I'd love to give it another go, just to exercise an old gaming demon. That Namco shooting gallery game with the exploding coffee cup is fun and all, but I'd love to take on the genuine FMV article.
When my time with the Fun Factory hit its peak was in the turn of the new millennium. This is when my gaming skills, interest, and disposable income were at their peak. On top of this, I also had more access to the mall, as we had business in Gladstone multiple times per week, and my mom would often just drop me off at the mall and have me meet her at a given time.
This was in the aforementioned age where many home consoles were starting to get close to “arcade perfect”; the Dreamcast architecture was based on Sega's NAOMI arcade hardware and made making/porting games from arcade to home without minimal compromise easy. Capcom approached what I consider to be their golden age of fighting games, with a slew of quality fighters that were first introduced in arcades (along with many obscure fighters that are highly sought by collectors, such as the "Rival Schools" series). King amongst these were the “vs.” games, be it "Marvel vs. Capcom" (1 or 2), or "Capcom vs. SNK" (which really hit its stride both critically and financially with the 2nd game), all 3 of the aforementioned were contained in the Fun Factory.
Midway's sports series was sortof on the way down, but the big screen, 4-player "NFL Blitz 99" was a dream to me. The home release of the prior year's "NFL Blitz" contained a playbook creator, and in the N64 edition, you could bring your memory card to an "NFL Blitz 99" machine and use your created plays. Looking back, it seems very shoddy and unnecessary that it only let you use created plays (in a game series known for rubberband AI, no less) and never unlocked any extra content within either game or let you port your win/loss record. But to 13 year old me, hot diggidy damn was this the coolest thing! Not only was this a hidden feature that few had access to, I WAS PART OF THAT FEW!
It was also neat that the game included the same codes that the home console Blitz had, though one of the updates of this game included “counter-codes”. If you put in the infinite turbo code at the “Tonight's Match-Up” screen, the CPU would instantly put in that code too. If you put in fast turbo running (a code that, when combined with the infinite turbo code, could rip the AI to shreds), the CPU would enter “Powerup Defense”, which boosted ALL aspects of their defense. The only way out of this conundrum would be to enter the tournament mode cheat, which disabled all codes and powerups (including your own). In the original "NFL Blitz", whether console or arcade, it was possible to abuse these codes and get easy games out of the machine, a rare oversight of Midway's rubberband A.I.
Of course I could never mention an arcade without teeing off on the light gun games. Fun Factory had a handful of well-known light gun shooters. Many of them were simple, like "Virtua Cop" and "CarnEvil" (though I thought the idea of an antagonist named “Professor Von Tokentaker” was so on-the-nose it was hilarious). The Time Crisis games with their foot pedal for ducking out of cover bothered me when I was younger (“You gotta hold down a button to shoot enemies? That's stupid!”), but it became so second nature to me when I got older that I'd try to use a foot pedal in shooting games that never had it. I was more used to "Time Crisis 3" than any other; to this day I can still snooze my way through Stage 1, knowing the exact order of the stage and which weapons to swap to at which points in the stage. While Fun Factory never carried this version, I still played plenty of "Time Crisis 2". They also had two "Silent Scope" machines. The tech in those always impressed me, as looking into the scope of the rifle on the cabinet provided a second screen which zoomed in on the action. I'd often look off-scope to find targets quicker, which I always thought was a cheap trick but now I think might have been the intended "pro strat".
Fun Factory never carried anything real classic by those day's standards; no Donkey Kong, no Namco classics, not even one of those "Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga" duo machine that became popular around that time. The oldest game the arcade had was "Sega's Title Fight", a boxing game with a special controller setup and dual monitors. The controls were two sets of grips (one for each player) and a monitor for each player as well. Moving the grips in a certain direction provided you a variety of punches and dodges, but anyone who was anyone just jabbed and spun the grips as fast and randomly as possible and assumed this was the key to winning (even though just the 2nd CPU opponent would put you in your place for doing that). It definitely made for frantic 2-player action though, that was certain.
Curse my photographic memory, I'm pretty damn sure I'm getting ripped apart by Ryu. I had NO answer for him spamming fireballs back in the day.
And I'd be remiss to not mention racing games. Fun Factory had those in spades as well, with many multi-cab games that allowed 2 players or more. I remember when I was younger they'd have "Virtua Racing" right next to "Daytona USA" along the back wall, which made for quite the sight when playing something else. Eventually, they whittled it down to just "Daytona USA", but would also carry "Crusin' USA" (and eventually "World"), and my favorite arcade racer at the time, "San Francisco Rush". The jumps and ramps in the game made that game straight-up crazy to play in the arcade, compared to the grounded Daytona USA and low-ramp Crusin' games. What I never understood was that the Fun Factory would eventually carry "Rush; The Rock", which was a revised version of the original game. But then, not long after, it regressed back to the original SF Rush cabinet. They also had a 4-player "Suzuka 8 Hours" cabinet for the longest time, which would often sit in the back corner idle. I don't think I ever saw anybody play that game in its closing years.
And eventually, as much of Metro North Mall did, the arcade eventually shut down around 2003. They started to present a wider variety of machines, but once the “for sale” signs with price estimations appeared over on each machine, that spelled out the end. I still remember the final time I visited, I put my last tokens into a "Street Fighter Alpha 3" machine, a game I owned on the Dreamcast and knew well enough to have confidence that my session would last awhile. Choosing Rolento and the A-ISM (my preferred character and “setup” of choice), I ran through the arcade mode in short order, all the way up to M. Bison. And no matter how close I got, he stuffed every super I threw and I fell victim to his Super Psycho Crusher, a move limited to this final boss rendition of M. Bison and couldn't be used by a player just picking M. Bison. I lamented that what was surely my final game ended without a victory, but looking back, that was always the nature of arcade games. To beat an arcade game was to always beat the system. The entire point was to get you to drop more tokens into the machine while still dangling the carrot in front of you that this next session would be the one that got you over the hump. So, as well-versed as I was in "Street Fighter Alpha 3" (I'd just played the hell out of it at home hours before, knowing I'd likely give the game a good run), the arcade needed one last victim of its greedy ways.
After this, the arcade was cleaned out and gated shut, with only the carpet, wallpaper and the outlines of the neon lights left. Eventually, the arcade was walled over, as if the place was never there. There was still a window right outside, showing some evidence the place existed. But otherwise, just as Metro North Mall is now, the Fun Factory is no more than a memory...unless you live in Hawaii, where the franchise is still going, but has no intentions of leaving its Hawaiian roots again.