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All Houston Nightlife is Onscreen at Joystix's Pac-Man Fever

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Joystix (1820 Franklin) is not a bustling nightlife spot by nature. As a matter of fact, it operates Mondays through Saturdays as a retailer of classic video-game and pinball machines. It's done so since 1987.

But for the past 18 months or so, on the first and last Fridays of each month, Joystix opens its doors from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., sets its dozens of games to free play and leaves customers to their own ­button-mashing devices. It's an unadvertised event called Pac-Man Fever that, essentially, is every seventh-grade nerd's nonsexual fantasy. But it's way less retro-douche-y than it sounds.

Eighteen Twenty, the adjoining bar also owned by Joystix's Charlie Kalas, is a little more in line with typical nightlife venues and where most Pac-Man Fever nights usually begin and end.

With booze and free video games, Joystix is a button-mashers' paradise.
Larami Culbertson
With booze and free video games, Joystix is a button-mashers' paradise.

It's what you'd assume a bar located a few hundred feet from Minute Maid Park and owned by a guy who still goes by "Charlie" would be: laid-back, sporto nonclubby vibe and lots of hats. Large leather lounge chairs and wood-paneled walls give the room a rich, dark feel but do little to hide the fact that the bar's owned by a guy who's spent the better part of 20 years making a living off video games: The room's centerpiece is the humbly titled Boxer video game, where a punching bag hangs waiting to be pulverized so it can assign a quantitative score to players' manliness.

It seems a novel idea at first, but paying dollars to punch an inanimate object quickly becomes old hat if you're playing alone. However, it's highly contagious when the inevitable group of guys decides to see whose dick is the biggest. Inebriated onlookers are customarily found shouting really helpful tips like "Stroke that ho!" and "Take your shoes off!" More often than not, Boxer makes an auspicious start to an evening of video-game goodness.

The games next door, about 250 or so, joyfully touch on nearly all fronts. There are the obscure — somebody made a Congo pinball game, really? — and the nostalgic. Seeing Scorpion from Mortal Kombat again is like seeing an old friend — an old friend with a penchant for spearing people in the chest, but an old friend nonetheless.

There are even a few games that require players to be somewhat athletically inclined. We'd like to egotistically mention here that we set a recent evening's high score on Street Basketball, a game where you shoot actual balls into an actual goal: 301, bitches.

We did play basketball in college, after all. Not for the team, mind you, but several times while we were in college.

Trekking through the expanse of titles reveals a somewhat unexpected turn of events, though: By attempting to distance itself from the prototypical club experience, Joystix has inadvertently backed its way into becoming a microcosm of Night World (Houston) as a whole.

Joystix houses more than just games and wistful memories. They are digitized petri dishes of all sorts of Houston nightlife cultures. You're not missing out on a night of club-hopping by coming here, because the games are the clubs.

For example:

Double Dragon: Set in a "postapocalyptic version of New York City five years after a nuclear war," the opening stanza of this beat-'em-up role-playing game sees one of the protagonists' girlfriends get gut-punched by a gang member and then carted offscreen. Based on the anarchic backdrop and male-on-female-violence angles alone, the comparison here is obvious: metal and hardcore beacon White Swan (4419 Navigation).

Paperboy: A game where you ride around on a bicycle and deliver newspapers? Clearly, this game represents the likes of Hush (15625 Katy Fwy.), Drink Houston (7620 Katy Fwy.), Bond Lounge (2700 Milam), Toc Bar (711 Franklin) and any other venue that is MySpace friends with those places. Why? Because these places are all wack and redundant, and you're likely to run into a breakdancer acting like a prick at some point. Just like the game.

Street Fighter II: Championship Edition: Remember that big melee back in 2006 at Walter's on Washington (4215 Washington)? The one that began as a noise violation call to the police and ended with some people, including a member of Two Gallants, getting Tased? Remember Blanka, the SFII monster who could make his body all electric? Hardly a coincidence, we think.

Big Game Hunter: Simply because we're not above stereotypes: Whiskey Creek (2905 Travis), Alice's Tall Texan (4904 N. Main), Tumbleweed (13101 Kuykendahl), Wild West (6101 Richmond). Ready...aim...

Michael Jackson's Moonwalker: In hindsight, the plot to this game is really quite unreasonable: Michael, the well-dressed and misunderstood hero (obviously), uses his mind-boggling musical and dancing abilities to rescue kidnapped children from the dastardly Mr. Big, who also has a death laser on the moon aimed at earth. Or something like that.

Anyway, fancy attire, a modicum of semi-pedophiliac creepiness, an overemphasis on dancing ability and glitz originating from any number of unnamed insecurities? Obviously this is the parallel of any velvet-rope Midtown spot.

We could go on and on matching titles (Mario Bros.) to bars (The Next Door, 2020 Waugh) and explaining how they're correlated — it's not terribly difficult to score the occasional mushroom at either place — but the revelation here is clear: Pac-Man Fever is way more than it appears.

Plus, Joystix has Arch Rivals. And Arch Rivals owns.

 
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