There has definitely been a noticeable trend of arcade bars popping up around The Valley and even perhaps around the country. Trying to compare the new arcade bars in the central Phoenix area isn’t exactly as easy as I thought. Everyone has their preference and when two similarly themed establishments open their doors, most people will tend to consistently gravitate to one over the other.
Bonus Round and Cobra Arcade have each been open for a several months now but the quick, stripped down, and perhaps unfair comparison would be to describe Bonus Round as a bar with a small arcade while Cobra Arcade is an arcade with a bar and on Friday and Saturday nights, a club with an arcade.
I’ve always had a proclivity for gaming and checking out new local bars so I was happy to see these places open. But what makes a good arcade bar? The offerings and service of the bar? The amount of games? Comparisons will undoubtedly be made so this is an attempt to look at more than just how many games and beer on draft one has over the other. So I’ll try to go a little deeper and share a local’s perspective and observation of my experiences at both establishments and declare my favorite.
Each establishment serves both sweet and sour specialty cocktails, is stocked with a full bar, carry a comparable amount of beer on draft, bottles and cans, wine, and non-alcoholic drinks. Both have Happy Hour specials with Cobra’s Happy Hour ranging from 4pm-7pm and at Bonus Round from 4pm-6pm.
Cobra’s specialty cocktails are all retro game based with a beautiful and large rectangular shaped bar that dominates the entrance. Draft selections seem to be both local and national brews. Random fun movies or TV shows play on two hanging flat screens which adds to the atmosphere. It’s a bit rare these days to find a bar that doesn’t serve food but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for the patrons of Cobra. The Paz Taco Truck is parked out front on the weekend with some great food and probably the best you can get in the immediate area when Cobra closes at 2am.
The bar at Bonus Round is a straight counter top with torn pages from comic books laid under the glass bar top adding to its character. Specialty cocktails here are a mix of retro game, comic, and movie references. All the draft beers are craft from breweries both local and from other western states and are rotated out when one runs dry. There’s also a full bar to make your standby favorites and I was surprised to see that their well selection is of higher end alcohol. Bonus Round has a kitchen serving up some delicious pub grub and really do like the fact that they serve tater tots instead of french fries with their dishes. Tater tots, pizzas, grilled cheese, toasted ravioli, and sliders because oftentimes simplicity demands more respect than a dish too complex.
Cobra Arcade has around 40 games and several of which I used to play and still love to this day. What works in Cobra’s favor is the sheer amount of popular games especially the four player brawlers like Turtles in Time, X-Men, and The Simpsons. Even more popular are the Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike and Capcom vs. SNK 2 machines which always have crowds of people waiting to play and challenge the next person up. In short, Cobra does boast an impressive lineup of retro, less than retro, and current pinball machines. Several of their game cabinets are custom painted and all the games I checked out were in great shape and looked very well maintained. With “Arcade” in their name, I’m glad they take it to heart.
Bonus Round has a nice selection of games that includes Gauntlet Legends though it’s listed on their website as Gauntlet: Dark Legacy which are two different games. Dark Legacy being the better game. The surprisingly nice thing about the games at Bonus Round is that all the games are set to free play. To me, quality and quantity can often be overlooked if a less popular game is free to play. If arcade games aren’t your thing, you can play one of the many board or card games they supply or bring your own. There are actually several tables for you to sit down with your group which you can’t really get at Cobra. The more you look around the more you’ll see patrons playing games like Magic or Cards Against Humanity and other games they love with their friends.
Arizonans don’t like to pay for parking. We’re so used to and like spaces for our cars and if you’re going downtown, parking is always on your mind. There is an ASU owned parking lot catercorner to Cobra but I don’t believe they monitor or enforce restrictions during the weekends. Just be mindful if you plan on parking there. There’s also street parking around the block and the Angel’s Ale House lot across the street may be empty after midnight. Even on the busiest of Saturday nights, I’ve never had too much trouble finding a parking spot within a reasonable walking distance. It can get busy but you do have options.
Since Bonus Round is in a strip mall, there will be a parking lot. It’s not the biggest lot but I’ve never had trouble finding parking even on a busy Friday night. There is also a light rail stop directly across and down the street for those who take public transit.
Walking into Cobra Arcade, you’ll immediately notice that it looks like a nice sum of capital was invested into it. Especially if you remember what the building looked like before it was completely renovated into what it is now. It’s wide open with plenty of interior and patio space and the location could hardly be more perfect on the corner of 2nd Street and McKinley. It’s well planned, designed, and managed as it looks like the investors own and operate other successful establishments in Phoenix. In all honestly it’s really what an arcade bar should be. On Friday and Saturday nights it can feel more like a club and the weekend clientele seems to reflect that. Packed with plenty of well dressed ladies, retro gamers, fighting game fanatics, and everyone in between looking for the hot spot downtown. If you’re looking for the club type scene without the pretentiousness of Scottsdale, Cobra is definitely the place to be. I can’t really say anything bad about Cobra and any faults I can find are purely out of personal preference.
Bonus Round is in a small strip mall just west of Central on Camelback in the northern and quieter area of central Phoenix. If you look a little closer you’ll see that this place isn’t just about arcade games but also card, tabletop, board games, and comics as well. You’ll also notice that All About Books and Comics just next to Bonus Round with some of their comics spread around the bar. The pub grub is delicious and just as fancy as it needs to be. I’ve had or at least sampled almost everything on the menu and have never been disappointed. They have weekly events like an open mic night on Wednesdays and Geeks Who Drink trivia on Thursday nights. Small weekly events that you’d see at other local bars. Perhaps designating Bonus Round as an “arcade bar” isn’t the most judicious term to use. It’s a bar that actually looks and feels more like a neighborhood watering hole where you can do more than just drink and play arcade games.
You really can’t go wrong at either place. I do like to think there is a good balance between the two and glad Phoenicians have the choice to enjoy them both. I selected Bonus Round because it checks more of my boxes and satisfies more of my tastes. I feel it’s more of a complete package in a relaxed and niche embracive environment. Cobra has a stronger selections of games but the games at Bonus Round will work for me and even more so that free play means unlimited play. I can casually enjoy leveling up my Gauntlet character, at my leisure while sipping my beer after eating some satisfying food. I don’t have to hassle with bringing cash and making change or using the ATM and dropping more money when my lives run out. I understand that Cobra has to monetize their games as some people would come in just to play and wouldn’t let off some of the more popular machines or let others take turns especially on some of the fighting games. They are an arcade after all and people expect to pay to play.
At Bonus Round it only took my second visit for Becky the bartender to remember me and what I drank the last time. Perhaps it’s because I go on weeknights but it’s still nice to receive individualized attention. Bonus Round feels more like a quaint local business where you could possibly shake hands with the owner while he’s busing tables and running food to help out the staff. Cobra is extremely well done, and it’s also a great and fun local business, it’s just missing the simplicity, scrappy upstart character, and small business charm that I personally notice and appreciate. Cobra may seem like the trendy giant but sometimes the little guy is better at catering to your cares.
Now I selected Bonus Round but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a great time at Cobra Arcade. If you like to drink and game in a welcoming atmosphere, you can’t go wrong at either place. I want to thank the staff of both for allowing me to take pictures in their wonderful bars and how nice everyone has been. I wish the both of you continued success.
Edit: The term “Barcade” is trademarked so I cannot use that term to describe with place without threat of legal action. I’m also usually at Bonus Round on Wednesday nights so if you see me feel free to say hello. I’ll be the skinny gentleman eating two entire pizzas or on the Gauntlet machine.