Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Chuck E. Cheese: an Investigation

Going into this weekend I was very excited. After 20+ years, I was finally going back to Chuck E. Cheese’s and as I remember it, that place was so frickin’ awesome! Mom lets you drink gallons of pop, and run around between the sweetest video games ever, and then thrash in the giant ball pit!

In reality, the place is now lame and sad, even though nothing has changed since the 80s. CEC is now a publicly traded family-fun-product mega-corporation, but they never forgot the basics: like keeping the pizza sub-Pizza Hut inedible. It’s simply horrible. And the portions are so small too.

The one thing that’s improved since the 80s is that they serve beer, in an environment of shrieking and corporate shill-itude, beer is so desperately needed like rain in a desert.

And do you remember the life-size animatronic stuffed animal band? Well it’s still there up on stage singing Happy Birthday and other royalty-free songs and it’s still incredible creepy. Occupying the uncanny valley between familiarity and horror.

At this particular location, the Dog Drummer robot was missing a hand but he still rhythmically shook his arm to flail his imaginary drumstick. Maybe to teach kids with severe disabilities – that if they work hard and believe in themselves, that they can pretend to accomplish anything.

Remember how you spent tokens in games and get tickets you could redeem for prizes before leaving? Only now the exchange rate really stinks, like post-inflation Argentina or the Weimar Republic stink. 6,000 tickets will earn you a $6-7 off-brand Lego block set.

But here’s the catch: the most tickets you can ever get from a token is 20 -- if you roll a perfect game of skeeball. More typical is 1-2 tickets per game: so at a quarter for a token for a ticket, it’ll cost you $1,500 to take home your own set of ”Lay-Go Blocks”; half that if you’re lucky; and only $75 if God himself came down from the clouds to grant you the power to play supernaturally perfect skeeball.

All the video games are all old, many were broken. I spent my tokens playing the hottest, freshest game in the place: Off-Brand Ultimate Fighting from 1996. The graphics were not quite good enough to see a fighter being decapitated, but still good enough to make my 6-year old opponents cry when I beat them, which was every time.

Another thing I noticed, was the décor included severely out-dated band parody posters on the walls. And by parody I mean they took a known band and put Chuck E. Cheese characters in place of the humans. Two that struck me as inappropriate for different reasons:

#1 Public Enemy – Chuck E. as Chuck D. that part kinda makes sense, but the whole “Fight the Power” and “Fear of a Black Planet” thing didn’t seem to mesh well with the CEC corporate mission. Also today’s four to ten-year olds don’t appreciate a finely crafted pop culture reference from 1988.

#2 Michael Jackson - from the “Bad” album. They have the CEC Dog posing in a leather jacket as the King of Pop and it’s called “Bad Dog”. Sure the Dog has one hand and MJ wore one glove, that part is fine; what’s not fine is the whole infamous pedophile on the wall of a children’s restaurant thing.

That does not make any sense, unless it’s like supposed to be a wall shrine to the most famous Chuck E. Cheese’s regulars.

Besides making money, CEC seems designed with a secret agenda in mind: lay the groundwork for today’s children to become tomorrow’s gambling addicts. The flashing lights…the games of chance…the tokens—these kids are at least 2 decades away from having home mortgages, but they’re already guaranteed to lose them at some future Indian casino.

With the ticket exchange rate, kids learn that the house always wins. And like Vegas, they learn that what happens at Chuck E. Cheese’s stays at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Which probably explains the Michael Jackson poster.


Nick said...

Again, your research fails you.
Chucky Cheese always served beer...its the reason my dad was always happy to take me there. no matter what time of day...or if i wanted to...

but you are right about the pizza...ketchup with kraft cheese singles on a piece of wonder bread would be better than their pizza.

Paul said...

3 things:

1) Beer - I had no idea they served it back then. The research team is getting fired for this screwup.

2) Pizza – they are obstensively a pizza restaurant, so you’d think they’d invest a little in their reason for existing. It can’t cost that much to upgrade from horrible pizza to merely mediocre pizza.

3) Balling – In the ball pit a little boy didn’t want to leave it and his mother shouted that he’d been “balling for over an hour!”

Anonymous said...

You guys are totaly out of it. The idea is to have fun, it's not the money or the tickets.
Don't know what beer you been drinking or CEC you been visiting but the pizza is not that bad.

Paul said...

The beer was Miller; the CEC was the one in Bellevue, WA; and the robot-dog sadly had only one hand.

The research team was sent there specifically for fun, but they also had to eat too. And that’s when they researched some god-awful pizza.

DaveWilkerson said...

I know you wrote this years ago and I'm sure you still go there a few nights a week but you made me laugh. Why laugh? Cause I took my kids there when they were growing up and back in the 80's it was a great place to have lousy pizza and a bad salad while listening to Elvis (Pre MJ) for less than $5 bucks. Donkey Kong was the hot game then....Fine, also Ms. PacMan....

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