The only arcade in Europe with a DDR 2013 machine, as well as IIDX and pop’n music (very soon), Astro City in Southend, Essex, is a novelty in the british arcade scene. Not only does it carry well maintained, rare machines that are almost impossible to find anywhere else in Europe, it also comes with an outstanding community and arcade hall feeling that is hard to come by anymore nowadays.
We spent 1 week at Astro City in June and tested everything out.
I visited Astro City for about a week, testing out nearly every game they had and, of course, meeting the people who made it all possible. The feeling you get when you walk through the entrance doors is quite unlike anything else – I’ve been to a number of arcades before, but Astro City was the first one that made me feel like I entered a whole different decade. I was greeted with tens of different machines spouting their intro loops at me, cheesy 80’s lights above the pool tables and a dim and recluded atmosphere – for the first time, I felt like I’d walked into an actual back-alley arcade hall from the last century. Beyond the first, tiny entrance room containing the PIU, retro machines and a few flippers lies a small corridor leading to the actual highlights of the arcade – a 75 sqm hall full of brightly flickering machines of all shapes and sizes. The DDR to the right, Ghost Squad to the left, and a few pool tables in front of me, I made my way to the bar, where I met Paul, the owner. We talked for a bit, I explained why I was here, and he introduced me to the regulars, who I found out to be probably some of the most dedicated rhythm gamers on the planet.
The community at Astro City, while not massive in size, is absolutely astounding. Not only do they include some well-known names like al2k4 (the Z-i-V admin)and uk.ADAM, but they also do everything within their abilities to support the arcade, and of course the rhythm games in it! The IIDX and pop’n machines, for example, are entirely sponsored by the music gaming community who wanted to see them in the arcade. They also invest a lot of effort into advertising, graphic design, and repairing machines wherever possible.
There’s also smaller groups of people who meet up regularly for pool sessions, as well as the occasional fighting gamer in there. Overall, there’s a regular player base of about 40 people, most of which are rhythm gamers or pool players. Of course, the thing that always draws them back to Astro City for their weekend meetups isn’t just the retro arcade feeling – it’s the games themselves.
Of course, the most important part about any arcade are its games – without fun, interesting, and well-maintained games, an arcade just isn’t worth visiting. Luckily, Astro City has us more than covered on this one – there’s no less than 35 cabinets in there, many of which are incredibly hard to come by in Europe, the obvious highlights being the DDR2013 and the soon-to-arrive IIDX and pop’n music. It is also one of the last arcades in Europe to be in the possession of an EZ2Dancer, a DDR-clone featuring hand movement sensors that was distributed throughout the U.K. for a very limited time during the early 2000’s.
During my stay at Astro City, I had the privilege of witnessing some of Europe’s best DDR players on the dance machines, all of which attested that the DDR2013 is pretty much in mint condition. One of them, Adam, is also responsible for tuning the pads every few weeks, and due to this continuous maintenance, it plays like a charm. The Pump It Up also got completely overhauled recently, and plays similarly well. The only cabinet I’ve ever had problems with was the EZ2Dancer, although, to its credit, it’s still fully functional, albeit slightly unresponsive (probably due to it being almost impossible to get spare parts for it nowadays).
In the non-rhythm-game department, Astro City offers a wide range of shooters, fighting and retro games to choose from. Aside from the mandatory Mario Bros, Pac Man and Space Invaders, there’s other titles such as Street Fighter, DonDonPachi, and Gauntlet Legends.
A game that deserves special mention in my opinion is Fighting Mania, which was also developed by Konami in the year 2000. It’s an arcade retelling of the story of the Anime Fist of the North Star, featuring the player taking the role of Kenshiro and literally boxing his way through his enemies. It’s an incredibly over-the-top fun game that is definitely at least worth a try, even if you’re not into boxing at all.
The other stuff
Astro City Southend is run by Paul, who you can find behind the counter of the snack bar most of the time. He’s a really sympathetic guy who will gladly help you out with anything, and probably also the only arcade owner in Southend who cares about the games and will go to great lengths to get them fixed – if something is broken, tell Paul and you can be 99% sure it’ll be fixed on the next day.
At his bar, you can get almost any snack bar you can imagine, as well as a wide variety of drinks (they have coffee, too!).
You can reach Astro City very easily by train, either from Victoria Station (it’s right opposite of the backside of the shopping center), or from the Southend Main station (two left turns from the main entrance, then to the right of the Victoria Plaza). For a location map, see the end of this article.
Currently, Astro City is the place to be in Europe if you’re into rhythm gaming – you’re not going to find any other location that will soon have all of the 3 classic Bemani series in one hall. With DDR, IIDX and pop’n, it’ll be easy to lose 2 or 3 hours in this arcade, and you’re nearly always going to find someone to play against. If I had to point out any downside (and I do, since I’m a reviewer), I’d make a remark about how the air in the back of the main room is often too thick, and it’s easy to get sweaty while playing DDR, despite the ventilator they’ve installed next to the cabinet. However, you can get fresh air at the bar though (since that’s where the windows are), so this isn’t that much of a problem, and definitely doesn’t make the arcade itself less worthwhile.
As an avid rhythm gamer, I am really glad to know that there’s a place in Europe that is this dedicated to these games and its community. Bemani has never been as strong as it currently is in Southend, and I hope that, with the continued success of Astro City, we might see a few more places pop up that will consider buying and supporting Bemani games.
Here’s some more pictures from inside to give you an idea of just how massive the place is (click to enlarge):