On a typical weekend night, Madison’s I/O Arcade Bar is abuzz with activity. The multicolored lights from the dozens of video game screens bathe the crowd in a shifting neon glow. The electronic sound effects mingle with the lively chatter spread around the tables and central bar. Bartenders scurry back and forth, delivering drinks like the main character from “Tapper,” one of the many games in I/O’s collection.
In the northwest corner, the relentless rattle and thump of pinball can be heard. The twin rows of machines entertain guests with flashing lights and voice lines from their specific IPs, such as Jurassic Park or Scooby-Doo. Small wooden stands for drinks are situated throughout this space and the rest of the arcade, allowing players to grab their favorite cocktail or beer with a free hand between games.
It’s not everywhere you can sip on a White Claw while enjoying a product from the ’80s, and I/O excels at this type of experience. Past and present collide, to great effect. Yet if you look behind the dazzling ambiance to the circuitry beneath, it becomes clear a lot of effort goes into running an operation of I/O’s caliber — an operation that required a few thumps to first boot up.
The idea for an arcade bar began to form when Mitchell Turino was 22.
At the time, Turino was a recent graduate of UW–Madison. He held a bachelor’s degree in communications and was working as a local bartender, trying to figure out his next step, like many people in their early 20s.
Inspiration soon struck, but in an unlikely place — outside Madison, in the bustling city of Columbus, Ohio.
In 2013, Turino ventured from one state capital to another due to a fascination with “Dota 2,” an online multiplayer game he has played for thousands of hours. Upon hearing of a “Dota 2” tournament taking place in Columbus, he and a friend traveled down to watch the event over the course of a weekend. Yet it wasn’t what he saw at the tournament that stuck with him, but what he found outside of it.
“We met some people from Columbus who went, ‘Oh man, this is your first time here? You gotta come to this bar, it’s so cool,’” Turino says. “So we went to a place called 16 Bit Arcade in Columbus, and that was when I went, ‘Oh my god, Madison needs something like this.’”
Now in its fifth year, Madison’s I/O Arcade Bar remains a top local attraction, blending different elements together to create an enjoyable experience for everyone. Turino’s journey to get his business to its current level of fun wasn’t easy, but worth all the blood, sweat and quarters operating the city’s first arcade bar requires.
Bringing the idea for an arcade bar back home with him, Turino’s vision was nurtured by friends and family. He wrote up a business plan and, after some inquiries, eventually found himself in talks with the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation. The group is a nonprofit organization that funds first-time entrepreneurs and others who face barriers to starting or growing businesses — provided hopeful applicants can make a good case.
“I showed them my idea and showed them my experience bartending,” Turino says, “and my experience playing video games my whole life, which was the first time that came in handy.”
To further show the group he was serious, Turino explained he’d bought a few broken arcade games and had spent hours dismantling and putting them back together to see how they worked. These experiences, combined with proven interest in an arcade bar from a Reddit petition Turino created, were enough to give him the green light.
With the business loan secured, Turino found a space on Madison’s Williamson Street and began construction on what would eventually become I/O Arcade Bar. Preparing for the grand opening took longer than expected, however. The process wasn’t slowed by one factor, exactly, but by many small ones.
“A lot of it just came down to having to make every decision,” Turino says. “The hardest part isn’t figuring out what color you want to paint the bathroom, or what you want to do with this wall, or what game goes where — it’s doing all of that at once while all of it is swirling around you.”
I/O Arcade Bar officially opened in November 2018, three years after Turino first set out to fulfill his dream in 2015. A healthy amount of anticipation had built for Madison’s first genuine arcade bar by then, and almost immediately I/O became a success. This success was largely fueled by adults who grew up playing classic arcade games now looking for a hit of nostalgia while drinking their favorite tap beer.
Based on this strong engagement with customers, I/O proved to be an effective and innovative business model. Dan Olszewski, a business expert and the director of the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship at UW–Madison, agrees.
“This example of an arcade [bar] is a good one, as we’ve had bars forever and we’ve had arcades for a long time,” Olszewski says. “Arcade bars have a different target customer than a traditional arcade.”
Yet grown-up gamers weren’t the only demographic Turino welcomed. When building I/O, he envisioned his business as a community space for everyone — from hardcore “Galaga” fans to simply the mildly curious. He furthered this philosophy by catering to underage players on certain Sundays every month — times when the arcade became an alcohol-free zone — and by building up a board game library for those who might prefer a quieter gaming experience.
Just when I/O started to take off, its success and those of many other Madison businesses came to a screeching halt in 2020. COVID-19 hit Turino’s bar hard, coming to life like an enemy from one of his classic games — an enemy he couldn’t beat, but only endure.
Turino closed the bar in March 2020, before briefly reopening in June following health guidelines. I/O closed again weeks later and stayed that way until October when Turino started taking reservations for small parties.
Again, the new model didn’t last.
“When I think of the companies that got hit the hardest [due to the pandemic], it’s fine dining,” Olszewski says. “That’s a hard business. Even if we are not in a recession or pandemic, you’re going to have a lot of restaurants and bars close every month.”
Knowing I/O was struggling with its current customer rate, Turino decided a change was needed. He began searching for a new home for his business — a bigger space with an increased capacity limit.
He didn’t have to search long. Even before the pandemic began, Turino had set his sights on a certain location — the old Prism nightclub building, located a few blocks down Williamson Street. But for a while, the building already had a bar and was unavailable.
“When it was open and available, we moved everything over here in one day,” Turino says. “Every box, every game, we took the taps out of the wall and brought them over here … we literally emptied the place.”
Turino’s big move paid off. Relocating from a 3,200 square-foot facility to a 6,300 square-foot one nearly doubled I/O’s space, allowing ample room for the 55 arcade games and 21 pinball machines that now line its walls in addition to other attractions like Skee-Ball and Dance Dance Revolution.
Of this collection, Turino’s personal favorite game to play is “Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom,” but its steep learning curve may keep some away. That’s OK — because for every game that isn’t one’s speed at I/O, another one is. The arcade bar’s new location helped it weather the worst of the pandemic, but its ever-growing list of amenities cements its place as a Madison mainstay.
Walking through the arcade equates to a walk through history. Upon entering I/O, customers are first met with a modern rendition of “Pong,” one of the first computer games ever created, before moving on to such arcade gems like “Space Invaders,” “Ms. Pac-Man” and “Street Fighter II” in the main area, traversing through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s with every step.
Yet Turino doesn’t skimp on the “bar” side of his arcade bar, either. In addition to the typical drinks available, he and his staff enjoy coming up with video game-themed cocktails on a regular basis, based on the games in I/O’s collection. For example, the Mind Flayer drink, a purple Vodka Cranberry, is based on the “Stranger Things” pinball game, which is itself inspired by the popular Netflix show.
Between the games, drinks and colorful ambiance, it’s hard not to be swept up in the electric fever dream I/O offers customers. For some, this atmosphere is even more addicting than trying to net a new high score, leading to a place that not only draws in newcomers but new employees as well. Together, they make I/O what it is.
“There’s moments of clarity when there’s 200 people in here and you get to go, ‘We built this,’” Turino says. “My staff is the best in the world. They all believe in this place as much as I do … and it’s great to see the whole machine working at once.”
The first line on I/O’s website refers to itself as “an open and inclusive space for drinkers with a gaming problem.” Cheekiness aside, it’s easy to believe in that statement after visiting Madison’s prime arcade bar. Turino’s machine hums along, providing a fun mix of entertainment for anyone looking to chase their drink with another round of “Mario Bros.” or “Mortal Kombat.”
They just need to press start.