Four Quarters: Peckham, Hackney, Elephant And Castle
Kicking things off with our favourite of the lot, Four Quarters, whose expansion into Elephant and Castle is straight up good news for Street Fighter fans.
Peckham's the OG, and we doubt the newcomer's going to shift it from its status as our favourite FQ site: the dive bar vibes, leathery banquettes, dim lighting, dark corners, the punchy and weirdly pleasing drinks list (didn't think we'd ever say the doubtful words '...actually really nice?' about a cocktail with Red Bull in it but Four Quarters is a growth experience). Then there's the magnificent array of games, from the couldn't-call-yourself-a-gaming-bar-without-it ones like Street Fighter II and Ninja Turtles, to lesser known Tetris-esque tile-matchers, shooting games, and a bunch of consoles and screens.
The price is also magnificent: £1 gets you four quarters — a quarter per play means you don't have to be *insert name of famously proficient arcade game player* to get a decent amount of good times from a fiver.
One of our favourite places to pre-game, post-game, or just plain game, in the Rye Lane area.
Big, brash and loud, NQ64's huge neon basement in Soho's crammed with OG arcade games — all, at our large random sampling, apparently in perfect working order — and hyperkitsch cocktails. The games cover all the classics, plus a few more specialist titles to thrill completists. And (shooting it high up into our list of favourite post-dinner nightcap places in Soho) open till 3am every night apart from Sunday, though the combination of subterranean cocoon, power-up sound effects and huge neon gives it a trippy, den-of-vice feeling that makes it seem nicely like 2am at all times of the day or night.
Heart of Gaming, Croydon
We visited this Croydon homage to the golden age of arcade gaming a few years back — read more about it here.
The summary: Mark Starkey's the last qualified arcade machine engineer in the UK. He was the only person taking the course in his year, and the next year they stopped running it due to a lack of applicants. Arcade engineers are a dying breed because the arcades themselves are so few and far between these days. Starkey's arcade moved to Croydon from Acton some years ago, and might well move on in the future — if the Westfield intended for the land ever actually gets built — but for now it's happily acting as a welcoming pitstop for people looking for a retro hour or two on the machines as part of a night out, and a community for committed gamers.
Rowans, Finsbury Park
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Rowans is — in our professional opinion — Everything. Purveyors of late night, chaotic, sticky, beautiful, arms-slung-over-everybody's-shoulders, feeling-of-immense-warmth-towards-the-entire-world evenings out. You probably don't go to Rowans specifically for the arcade games — more likely it's the bowling or the karaoke that got you through the doors — but like everything else at Rowans the arcade section is huge, dishevelled, bathed in red neon light, and wonderful. Extra points for having a late licence, and letting you order Dominos — and only Dominos — for delivery.
Four Thieves, Clapham Junction
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The Four Thieves team have turned the upstairs space of their pub — an old Victorian dancehall — into a gaming centre. The focus is more on group experiences than solo or two player arcade games — with a lot of the space given over to a VR experience, a tiny crazy golf course, and a remote control racing track. But they fit in a good number of retro machines around the edges, and the sheer amount of stuff they've got crammed under one roof (gin garden, pizzeria, pub, arcade, sports screenings) make it a low effort night out if you're in the area.
Power Up at the Science Museum, South Kensington
Once a highly popular pop-up, Power Up — the Science Museum's gaming experience — is back on a permanent basis. An homage to the past five decades of gaming, there are 20+ themes and sections, including ones dedicated to different iterations of Zelda (and Mario, and more), a physical gaming section devoted to Wii Sport, Kinect, Guitar Hero, and VR experiences, and a section to explore PC classics. The most family-friendly of the venues on this list, they also have a scattering of adults-only evenings for when you don't want to get humiliated at Street Fighter IV by a tiny child.
Novelty Automation, Holborn
A highly original arcade secreted away in Holborn, Novelty Automation is a passion project by British engineer, cartoonist, writer, and inventor, Tim Hunkin. The majority of the homemade arcade machines in the collection are made by him, with a few featured machines from guest inventors. You can fly drones around a mansion to pap celebs, launder bank funds, and decide whether a lamb is 'pet' or 'meat'. It's psychotically good fun.
The magnificently weird origin story, in Hunkin's own words:
"I became hooked on making arcade machines in the 1980s... The first one was the Chiropodist, which has a hole at the bottom to insert your foot for treatment. At the time I was unsure if anyone would even take their shoe off, let alone put their foot in a dark unknown space — but they did... In fact 20,000 people did every year."
In 2023, we revisited to play on a rather fun new tube train game.
Novelty Automation's open Tuesday to Saturday, and stays open till 8pm on Thursday.