An Arcade Art Gallery Arrives

The Babycastles Independent Video Game Arcade Takes a Leap from Ridgewood to Midtown

by David Ko

An art gallery stands far from the dazzling sights and sounds of Times Square.  Its placement is considered an oddity to this eastern stretch of 42nd Street, where businessmen and women roam in and out of high rise buildings, Duane Reades, and fashionable boutiques.

Canabalt, a game where one must run and jump over obstacles in the midst of an alien invasion is one of the first games featured in the Midtown Gallery

The facade features its own sights, monstrous chain-smoking poppets, one month, and brightly decorated cardboard buildings, meticulously trimmed with golden and aluminum foil, and multi-colored plastic for windows the next.  What lurks inside are even more sights and a lot more sounds, a video game arcade.

Several wooden caskets stand in the back of the gallery, each of them painted wildly different from one another.  One is painted with a black silhouette of the city on a red background, another with a pink psychedelic rainbow, and one made of wooden planks stick horizontally atop one another.  Each of these cabinets blare terrible punk rock, 8-bit hip-hop, and electronica from their somewhat small speakers.

“We are trying to create an arcade experience,” said Syed Salahuddin, the co-curator of Babycastles, a Queens-based, independent video game group.

For the fall of 2010, and into January of next year, Babycastles will host a series of two-week exhibitions of video games made by independent designers from around the country and even the world.  Featured pieces include games made by graduate students from New York University and the University of Gothenburg, as well as smaller companies located in Oakland and San Diego, California.

Syed Explains Deceptive Platformer to a Guest

From their headquarters in Ridgewood, Queens to a Third Avenue art gallery is a relatively big leap for the group, which usually caters to the hipster crowd who mainly come for the drinks and the musical acts that accompany their exhibitions.  This time, they will be subjected to the mercy of a public who views gaming as either very childish distractions, like Kirby, or extremely violent and just as complicated blockbusters like Halo or Call of Duty.

“There is no awareness of this sort of games culture,” said Kunal Gupta, the other co-curator of Babycastles.  By showing these games in midtown, the public will have “a place to get their hands” on these sort of games, as well as to provide a view into the independent video game art scene.

At any given time, up to six games will be set up in lavishly painted arcade cabinets running on very low budget Windows computers.  Each game  is usually free to play off the Internet, and will have relatively simple controls, with only a directional pad for movement and one or two buttons to jump or attack.  Every two weeks, the games will be switched in and out to accommodate every new exhibition.

For their first exhibition in the Chashama space in October, Babycastles showcased games that were displayed in the Queens location in the past year, naming it “A Retrospective,” similar to a best-of showcase.  Just about all of these games were platformers, where the player is on a two-dimensional playing field and must either go left or right to complete the goal.

Games ranged from the seemingly simple Deceptive Platformer, a game that switches the directions of left and right after every move, to the multi-directional UltraQuest, where an eyeball monster on a sneaker must successfully navigate a jungle full of spikes by going upside-down or right-side up in order to survive to the next level, to Canabalt, where a man must run and jump to avoid obstacles in the midst of an alien invasion while heart pounding music plays.

KillJet is made by Tristan Perich and is a "one-bit game."Photo from

A more unique game was KillJet, in which the entire game is on a two-inch circuit board attached to an old television.  An earlier version of the game was played on a television the size of a car battery, while this version required the player to hug the chassis to press the buttons on the side to navigate a plane through obstacles.

Babycastles is composed of a core of several people, with Salahuddin and Gupta as the leaders, with many regular and irregular volunteers. For their day jobs, Mr. Salahuddin is a freelance programmer, while Mr. Gupta is a musician currently on tour.  The group takes its name from a bakery treat that are “bite-sized Portuguese cakes in Japan.”

When Gupta watched a video of an indie game titled Charles Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden, a role playing game that is also a parody of a terrible 1990s property starring the eponymous basketball player, he decided to create an arcade.

“Kunal had invited me to help decorate the cabinets,” said Salahuddin when he learned that one of his games was going to be featured in the arcade.  “I’ve stuck around ever since.”

The group operates from the D.I.Y. music space, Silent Barn, found in a basement in Ridewood.  Every month, similar to their current incarnation, they would showcase a few games to spectators, with each opening accompanied by a few musical acts.

“It is an ecosystem that attracts a certain type of species,” Jessie Fuchs, another member and a game designer, said of the Silent Barn space.  Young hipsters in the area would enter the bar and lounge on “decaying sofas,” play games, and listen to live-bands throughout the night.  “It’s an oasis of funkiness.”

From old and saggy furniture to an art space that appears to violate a few building codes, the Babycastles group found an opportunity to showcase indie games to a wider breadth of New Yorkers.

Working with Showpaper, an arts collective that also prints a bi-weekly newsletter to events around the city, the group was given an opportunity to showcase these works to the general public. Open around lunchtime, six days a week, the public can walk in and view the art that Showpaper has on display or to play currently installed games.

Even though it is two avenues away from the United Nations, and one from Grand Central Terminal, turnout in the daytime has been quite sporadic, compared to the night time when musical events are held to party-goers’ benefit.

“There is always room for improvement,” Mr. Fuchs says referring to the unsteady traffic into the gallery as well as the current offerings of the fortnight.  Though there are about six games at one time, it doesn’t mean that the quality of each game is usually stellar, pointing to the fact that each cabinet uses either a trackball mouse or a game controller, rather than the joysticks and plated buttons seen in a regular arcade.

For the newest exhibition, the games featured were chosen from this year’s Independent Games Festival, which takes place annually from San Francisco.  The games are definitely more well-known compared to previous exhibitions, featuring games that have been made for download on video game consoles such as the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360.  Of all the games that were exhibited, Super Meat Boy by Team Meat would be the most notable, having made the rounds of gaming media outlets like Kotaku, and Joystiq.

Rafi Diaz, an assistant game designer for a social games company, was pretty impressed with the opening of this exhibition.  One game in particular caught his eye was called Enviro Bear 2000, where a bear is supposedly driving a car and is controlled using only a mouse.  “The mechanics of the game make no sense,” as he laughs at his frustration of the game.

Dee Viez, a 23 year-old art student, agreed with Diaz’s comments, despite her limited knowledge of video games.  “I have no idea how to play them, but it’s very cool.”
At a time when video game arcades are on the verge of extinction, as home based consoles become more technologically advanced, BabyCastles is trying to create more opportunities for gaming in a communal context, rather than socially online.

“Even if I play [a game] on an iPhone or PlayStation,” Mr. Fuchs said, “there’s something more meaningful to play it in an arcade.”