IN THE NEWS: 1980s-themed Hillsboro arcade opens amid pandemic
The year is 2084, and you’ve been selected to pilot a time travel shuttle 100 years into the past to retrieve the history’s best arcade video games and bring them back to the utopian world Earth has become. But on the way back, the shuttle and time traveler drop out of the time warp and land in the present day.
That’s the story Eric Milavetz and his partner, Shana Nelson, want people to delve into when they come to their new 1980s-themed arcade in Hillsboro. Milavetz and Nelson say they’ve endured a particularly difficult four months. They expected to open Arcade 2084, located at 248 E Main Street in the heart of Downtown Hillsboro, soon after statewide lockdown orders came into effect due to the coronavirus.
In early July, after having to delay the opening of the arcade, Milavetz and Nelson were finally able to open their doors with special sanitation and social distancing measures in place. They say their business model, with its meticulous attention to the atmosphere giving people an immersive ’80s-style arcade experience, would be foolproof under any other circumstances.
On a hot July day about a week after Arcade 2084 first opened, with video game and pinball machine lights flashing inside the arcade and Ozzy Osbourne’s “Shot in the Dark” playing on the loudspeakers, Milavetz gave a double thumbs-down when asked how business has been. It has been a rough start for the new business owners, who invested much of their savings into opening the arcade, as people are still wary of going out while new cases of coronavirus in the area continue to break records. “It has been a really surreal time to try to open a business,” Nelson said. Following lockdown orders, Milavetz and Nelson weren’t eligible to apply for any of the small business grants that local governments made available to try to relieve business owners’ rent and other expense obligations. “We’re the kind of place that has gotten overlooked,” Nelson said. “We had legally signed a contract for (the building), so we were still on the hook.”
Within two years, Nelson was laid off from her job twice after working as an executive assistant for the previous 14 years. About the same time, Milavetz, 51, who worked as a private security provider for years, went back to school to study political science and graduated in 2017. He wanted to work for the U.S. Department of State as a diplomat, but after the election of Donald Trump, who has overseen massive cuts to the diplomatic corps, Milavetz couldn’t find a job.
Nelson says she realized she didn’t want to keep working as an executive assistant as Milavetz was struggling to find work. The couple sold their house, cashed in their retirement savings and hatched a plan to buy the original ’80s arcade games they enjoyed as kids and open the business in Hillsboro. Nelson says they went all in and “never looked back.” “It would have been very easy for me to just throw some games in here, no particular theme, just open the doors up, no paint, no narrative,” Milavetz said. But he didn’t do that. Milavetz built what looks like a cockpit to the time shuttle that is at the center of the narrative for the arcade’s time-traveling character. He also made a futuristic-looking spacesuit.
People can’t sit in the cockpit at the arcade. Instead, he and his friends made an hours-long video showing the arcade’s main character sitting in the spacesuit at the cockpit piloting the time shuttle. The video is played through several TVs positioned at the arcade. Milavetz says he wanted people to feel like they were back in the 1980s when they walked into the arcade, so the TVs playing the video at the arcade aren’t modern flatscreens. They’re ’80s-era CRT monitors he had to order from a supplier in Alabama. That’s just one of the arcade’s details.
The menu above the bar, where people can buy beer from breweries established in the 1980s, is a plastic, backlit menu like you would see at any arcade snack bar during that time. The arcade features 18 classic ’80s games like “Robotron 2084,” a game set in a fictional world in the year 2084 from which the arcade gets its namesake. Milavetz says he plans to have many more games in the arcade, but impacts of the coronavirus have delayed or canceled shipping parts or the entire machines.
Arcades hold a special place in Milavetz’s heart. Milavetz’s parents were separated when he was growing up, and when his dad would visit, they would typically go to the movies and the local arcade, he said. “This was not something that was alien to me,” Milavetz said. “I knew that I could acquire the machines, I knew that I could maintain the machines, and I do have a relationship with this form of entertainment. I love it. And I want to share that love and the joy these machines bring.” He says the arcade is for everyone, from experienced gamers who want to play their favorite games for the first time in years, to kids who have never played the games. Milavetz and Nelson intentionally didn’t acquire overtly violent games because they want the arcade to be accessible to anyone.
With no end in sight for the pandemic, the future is uncertain for Milavetz and Nelson. “We got past the hurdle of opening up — now we just need people to come in and play,” Nelson said.