WITHOUT THE SUN
To drive the rolling roads around Lake Winnipesaukee
is to risk arriving, entirely by mistake, in some
other decade. The Moultonborough general store rears up
out of the year 1781. The area's grandly named little motels pull you straight back to the 1950s. The motor
ship Mount Washington has been carrying passengers around the lake since 1940. And then there is one
little corner of Laconia where it is forever 1983,
and robots are trying to take over the earth.
The robots are villains in the 20-year-old video
game Robotron, and their home is the Funspot, a sprawling arcade and mini-golf center which among its many attractions
has slowly become the single largest repository of out-of-circulation video games in the known world.
It's hard to miss the Funspot, even if you are trying.
Its cartoony green dragon blows smoke on billboards
for miles around, advertising vast quantities of alarmingly
wholesome family pleasure. What the Funspot does not advertise is the room on its third floor, above
the 20 bowling alleys and the Skee-Ball and the D.
A. Long Tavern, (the room) that holds a dense, blinking cluster of 185
working arcade games built between 1971 and 1987.
There are people who travel to New Hampshire just to visit
this, the Classic Game Room, where original units
of Pac-Man, Centipede, Galaga, and Space Invaders Deluxe
are arrayed side by side in their original pixilated
glory, as if Diffrent Strokes were still on prime time and
the second Reagan administration was still a distant
"There is nothing else like this room, anywhere,"
says Gary Vincent, the manager of the Funspot and
the man responsible for the fact that there are people in
Finland who have come to visit a rambling arcade a
half-mile from the edge of Lake Winnipesaukee, "And I've
asked, believe me."
If you were not aware that there was such a thing
as a "classic" video game, you are not alone.
But if you are younger than 50 and once played video games and eventually
stopped, bewildered by the hyper realisticfighting and cripplingly loud soundtracks, then you
will understand the pull. At the peak of their popularity, video arcade games were novel and cute and went boing.
They featured appealing characters like Pac-Man, Q*Bert, and the little frog in Frogger. When those
games disappeared, a whole generation walked out of
the arcade and never walked back in. Unless they stumbled
in the Funspot.
"You could go up there now, there could be a
50-year-old woman playing. There could be a 20-year-old
guy," says Vincent. "If you come here on a weekend
or rainy day, I'd say most of the people playing there
are in the 25-to-45-year-old age group."
In a sense, the Funspot is a 55,000-square-foot testament
to the idea that in a fast-moving world, you can go a long way just by standing still. In 1952, two brothers
named Bob and John Lawton launched a small business at nearby Weirs Beach featuring a nine-hole
indoor miniature golf course, ping-pong, and a half-dozen mechanical arcade games. They bought more arcade
games. Needing room to expand, they settled on a parcel away from the beach. They bought a chain
saw, cleared trees, and laid out a new outdoor miniature golf course, featuring hand-built wooden New Hampshire
landmarks, that still stands today.
In the past four decades, the Funspot has branched
out into every brand of kitsch diversion imaginable.
There was the Indian Village (1967-1983). There was the
Storybook Forest (1976-1984). "We used to have
a beautiful slot-car track," says Vincent, dragging
out the beautiful with appreciative gusto. It was
eight lanes wide. "But one video game would do pretty much
three times the amount of money as the slot-car track."
That was on the cusp of the 1980s, when video games
seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut. So the Funspot undertook an ambitious plan. The Lawton brothers
expanded to a half-dozen Funspots around New Hampshire
and Maine. There was even a franchise in Port Richey,
Florida - the first beachhead in a campaign to populate the nation with Funspots.
But youth culture changes as fast as youth does.
Once there were scores of Indian villages, and now
to find even one would be extraordinary. By the mid-'80s the
bottom had dropped out of the arcade industry. Mall
arcades shrank, then disappeared, and their owners
raced one another to ditch their arcade rooms. As
games became increasingly fast, violent, and more tightly
targeted to teenage boys, tens of thousands of Pac-Man games and Defenders and Zaxxons were mothballed, auctioned
off for low multiples of $20.
Then there was the Funspot. Through inertia or principled
stubbornness, the Funspot held on to its original games, keeping them in working order for years. And
years. When kids in Boston were paying 50 cents to blast away at three-dimensional zombies in the wide-screen
game House of the Dead, kids in Laconia could still pay a quarter to slowly pilot a homesick frog
across several lanes of highway traffic - if, that
is, anyone wanted to.
"We took a lot of flak here for many years for
the old games, from 1988 to about '99," says
Gary Vincent. "People were like, 'What do you keep all these
junk games for? Nobody plays them.' But we stuck to
In fact, Vincent did not merely stick to his guns:
He had an idea. His idea was the first annual Funspot International Classic Video Game and Pinball Tournament,
in 1999, which drew dozens of former video game champions out of their semivoluntary retirement to
compete once again for high scores on Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Dig Dug. Word got around that there was
a place in New Hampshire where you could find working versions of all these games.
"It went from 'Why do you have them?' to 'I
can't believe you have this!'" says Vincent.
Vincent found himself taking phone calls from people
who saw themselves as donors to a cause. Curt Vendel, who operates a website called the Atari History Museum,
donated seven games, including an original Breakout. Another man offered Vincent a collection
of 111 games. None of them worked, but Funspot's head technician, Randy Lawton, has been around since
Asteroids was a gleam in some programmer's eye, and he set to work. Now the arcade can boast a rare
working version of Lunar Lander, the early black-and-white arcade classic that endlessly frustrated millions
of teenagers in 1979.
Today, the catalog of Funspot games reads like the
fantasy afternoon of a long-vanished adolescence:
Joust, Tron, Galaxian, Qix, Tempest, Wizard of Wor. There
are older black-and-white games like Sea Wolf and Space Invaders. Of course there is pinball. And floating
through the room is a 1980s soundtrack of Run-DMC and the Romantics.
Enthusiasts of classic video games - and there are
a lot - have pointed out that the variety and sheer
creativity of early-'80s games is a direct result of the minuscule
processing power available at the time. The brain
of Tempest, very advanced for its day, wouldn't power
a modern telephone. With realism out of the question, game designers compensated with an outrageous profusion
of clever ideas. But the creativity wouldn't last.
"About mid-1987 was when the game Double Dragon
came out," says Vincent mournfully. "It
went from puzzle-type games, fanciful-type games, to nothing
but players trying to beat each other to death. That,
in my opinion, ended the whole innocence of the arcade industry."
While dozens of 30-somethings recapture that innocence
on the Funspot's third floor, Gary Vincent's own headlong rush backward has taken on the energy of
a crusade. The next step, as he sees it: nonprofit
status. Vincent envisions a new addition to New Hampshire's
roster of curious attractions, which he calls the
Classic Arcade Museum. But even he concedes that "it's
never going to make money, and that's a fact."
For now, the Funspot - and the Classic Game Room
- is still a business and needs to behave like one.
Vincent passed up the chance to buy a two-player version
of Computer Space for $3,000. "How do you go
to the company and say I want to spend $3,000 on a game
that'll take in two, three bucks a week?" he
says. "They'd look at me like I just sprouted a second
These days, if the classic game room is looking a
little crowded, it's because dozens of games were
evicted from a neighboring room to make way for simulated
video golf, a grown-up pastime that attracts year-round golf leagues. And Vincent has his hands full as the
manager of a center that employs, depending on the season, between 55 and 90 people. It all still seems
extraordinary to a man who took a job as a teenager almost exactly 22 years ago.
"They said, 'Can you help us for the last four
weeks of summer?'" he recalls, shaking his head.
"Somehow, the last four weeks of the summer of '81 haven't ended
Not everyone, of course, comes to New Hampshire to
play video games or miniature golf. The hilly roads
off Routes 3 and 104 offer excellent leaf-peeping as
they wind around several of the area's lakes, including Wnnipesaukee, Waukewan, Wickwas, and Winnisquam.
Across the street from the Funspot in Laconia is
the Weirs Beach Go-Kart Track, open weekends through Columbus Day, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Just down the hill from the Funspot, at the corner
of Route 3 and Scenic Road, the bustling lobster shack called the Tamarack serves clam strips, french fries,
and lime rickeys through the end of September.
Situated on a narrow channel that separates Lake
Winnipesaukee from Paugus Bay, Weirs Beach is the state's white-hot nexus of water sliding, fried dough,
and arcade games.
The water slides are closed after Labor Day, but
sightseeing is in full swing. The historic 230-foot
lake cruise Mount Washington departs from Weirs Beach with a variety
of sightseeing day trips, dinners, and family deal available. Call 888-843-6686 or visit www.cruisenh.com.
"The Weirs" is also a stop on the Winnipesaukee
Scenic Railroad, which departs every hour on the hour
for sightseeing trips along the shore to nearby Meredith.
For details, call 603-279-5253 or visit
For inveterate antiquers, the stretch of Route 3
between Route 104 and the Funspot offers a key stop:
Just uphill from the 104 interchange is the Burlwood Antique
Center, a three-story barn with items from 170 dealers, focusing more on housewares and memorabilia
than furniture. It is open daily till October 31;
call 603-279-6387 or visit www.burlwood-antiques.com.
There are also antiques and handicrafts in Meredith.
On October 5, the town will host the 15th annual Chowder Fest, when restaurants and hotels put their
best soup forward in a big tent near the town docks.
And if you really are traveling to Lake Winnipesaukee
just to play video games, the Funspot is not the only place to find a working Robotron. On Weirs Beach,
the funky Half Moon arcades on the main drag have
an eclectic collection of arcadiana, including a full
Old West shooting-gallery diorama. They are open weekends until Columbus Day.
By STEPHEN HEUSER
- Reprinted from the Boston Globe September 14, 2003
Page: 27 Section: Magazine