St. Paul Man pairs classic arcade games with affordable housing

Some guys spent the early days of the pandemic messing up their porch or learning to play the guitar. Healthcare communications consultant Peter Riemenschneider bought and renovated seven affordable housing units on Rice and University Avenues in St. Paul, anchoring Donkey Kong Jr. and Mortal Kombat among dozens of other classic arcade games in his retro -Gaming lounge by appointment only.

The Two Bit Game Room — a sort of exhibition hall for its rental business, aptly titled “Rent My Arcade” — features about half its collection, or about 50 games, mostly from the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, as well as obscure board games and collectibles . It’s a safe place for Gen Xers to revisit 8-bit video treasures — some call them antiques — like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, or Rampage, away from the judgmental eyes of kids and grandkids who grew up with 64-bit PlayStations or Nintendo Switch.

Another 50 classic arcade games are in various states of repair or rented out, usually for a month at a time, in the living rooms and garages of people in the Twin Cities.

The Two Bit Game Room — three hours of unlimited play with a $10 reservation — opened in February as an undercover addition to the neighborhood, directly across from a recently renovated White Castle and down the street from new St. Paul City School-building. Two of Riemenschneider’s converted housing units sit directly above the gaming lounge, and all seven are part of the city’s 4D tax incentive program, which offers tax breaks to landlords who agree to keep rents stable.

Riemenschneider does not rent his games, which he has painstakingly collected over 20 years and more, to saloons or open his doors to the general public for 25 cents a piece. Most of the people he interacts with have a love for the original Double Dragon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that dates back to 1989.

A week’s rental could cost $150. A month’s rent? Only $75. Which rent will become cheaper over time?

“These are fewer journeys,” explains Riemenschneider, who drives the big blue van himself. “I do it because it’s mostly fun. It’s for personal use – not for bars and restaurants because it’s still my collection. I spent my pandemic building an arcade.”

A man stands in a workshop surrounded by video games.
Riemenschneider is standing between several slot machines that he is currently repairing or restoring. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Riemenschneider, a lifelong East Sider, lives in close proximity with his wife Jen and two school-age children — where else? — Arcade Street.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: I’ve driven past the Two Bit Game Room countless times and even walked by without realizing there was an arcade inside. What was there before?

A: It was several things. Originally a paint shop, then Salvation Army, then Milos Furniture and finally a thrift store. The commercial/retail space sat vacant for three years before we took it over in November 2020. It took about 14 months to refurbish the space before we opened it to the public in February.

Q: How does a doctor get possession of a classic arcade?

A: I’ve been collecting video games for about 20 years, even before my daughter was born. We got our first game, I poked around in it, figured out how it worked, did some light restorations. I put it in my basement. I got a few more and put them in my garage. My wife said you have a collection. Why not try renting out some of these?

We started talking about two years ago. People were asking for a place to preview and see what they want. We’ve had dads showing their kids how the games work, which is a nice change.

We wanted more than just games. I collect – well, I don’t collect, but I’ve kept my 80’s stuff for years. Board games and Nintendo Magazines, Atari games, the Nintendo Entertainment System including Zapper and Rob the Robot if you remember. Nothing too modern. I was a Nintendo guy, so that’s what I mostly collected. It’s Mario Kart on the big screen.

Q: Are your kids getting into the classics?

A: Not as much. My son plays PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch. My daughter plays Nintendo Switch. My daughter had her basketball banquet here. I think they appreciate it more when they see their friends’ reaction.

Q: What are your favorite games in your collection?

A: I’m a huge Star Wars fan and we have the immersive Star Wars game from 2010 in the Big Dome screening. They’re recreating a few scenes from the Star Wars movie. You’ll do the original Death Star Run, the Battle of Hoth from Empire Strikes Back, and the speeder cruises through the forests of Endor in Return of the Jedi.

The one I’m most surprised by and love to talk about is Space Invaders. This is mounted to the underside of the cabinet and faces up to a one-way mirror that creates a hologram effect that is backlit with a black light featuring a moonscape. It’s a black and white monitor so they put colored gels on the monitor to add color at a time when it wasn’t available. That came out in ’78 or ’79.

It looks like the aliens are actually floating in space above this moon. As you progress through the game, there’s that fear – the experience of actually descending, whether it’s the lighting or the sound – that makes it special.

Q: Where do you find your games?

A: Part of the fun is the hunt, the hunt. I got games from Little Rock, Ark. about 13 hours one way. I found games in barns in northern Minnesota. Basically there are these old operators who rented out games to bars and restaurants. They ran routes – “Okay, we’ll put ‘Pac-Man’ in these five restaurants.” And then Mortal Kombat would come out and they would stock Pac-Man. And they just sit there in camp waiting for people to find them again.

A man plays a video game with cartoon characters on the screen.
Riemenschneider describes how to play the very rare game Act Interactive Comedy. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

We have a really strong arcade gaming restoration community in Minnesota where guys can fix circuit boards and monitors. You can rebuild the hardware if original parts are no longer available. For example, if a game uses a certain type of chip and that chip isn’t available, they can create a workaround.

Q: What types of groups have rented time at the Two Bit Game Room?

A: We had a baby shower – a very fun and geek-oriented baby shower, a few boys’ nights out, some high school age birthday parties. We’ve had two farewell parties so far. People in their late 50s, those are their games too. … We also had a mother who had chemo and she had her husband and son come and they rented the whole room so she wouldn’t get sick. They’ve been there a few times.

Q: Has modern gaming improved on these classics, or has it lost something important? What’s the difference between the games your kids play and the games you play?

A: My son played the Nintendo DS, a handheld dual-screen game, and he played a Super Mario monitor game. I believe his character has died three times. A P-Wing, as I believe it’s called, picked up his character and carried him across the screen so he could bypass the level. He would literally fly across the plane. I think this is wrong. (In the 80s) you had to surpass that level. You had to beat the high score. You have three lives and that’s it.

Now they don’t want the kids to get too frustrated and play something else. They want to imprison this player. Compare that to “ET” on the Atari. This game was so incredibly difficult that they ended up burying it en masse in a landfill because it was so awful. Now there is a casino style reward system with modern games like Candy Crush on your mobile phones where there are flashy bells and whistles and the screen fills with candy waterfalls that give you that visual stimulation. It’s all gamification. We have representative games from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and you can definitely see an evolution.

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