PLAYING GAMES : Choose Your Arcade Right and You Might Take Home a Rubber Dinosaur

Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

It was an exhilarating game. Now, flushed with victory, you face your toughest call. Should you blow the wad on a genuine plastic back scratcher (available in fashion colors and a steal at a mere 30 points), or save up for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle doll, tantalizingly priced at 1,500 points?

You go for the back scratcher. And you are proud.

That's the beauty of an arcade. Here, in this golden land of $100 sneakers, family arcades offer an entertainment equation that's hard to beat: Adults and kids can both play, the games are reasonably cheap and you can take home some nifty souvenirs. (You can never have too many rubber dinosaurs.)

If the mention of arcades brings to mind teen-agers crowned by backward baseball caps and squinting into the glare of a blaring video game, take heart. There are several arcades scattered around the county whose atmosphere and variety attract a large family audience. The ones described below represent just a sampling of what's out there.

Playland Arcade and Bay Arcade, Balboa Peninsula, Newport Beach

Located within a Balboa Bar's toss of each other, these two Fun Zone arcades offer roughly 140 video, pinball and skill games between them in a well-lit, reasonably welcoming atmosphere.

According to Playland manager Mark Torre, pinball games, formerly a poor second in popularity behind the flashier video games, are enjoying a resurgence among all ages. The arcade has about two dozen pinball machines of varying vintages, ranging from a 1970s "Playboy" machine (not to worry, parents, the decorations are relatively tame) to a late-model "Simpsons" game, a current favorite among customers.

When it comes to video, Torre says most of his customers look for fast-paced action and sophisticated graphics. Although many--such as the "Street Fighter II"--stress violence, there are several popular sports-themed games to choose from.

The Bay Arcade offers a similar, but slightly smaller collection of video and pinball machines. But it has the added benefit of a $2 photo booth, where players can capture that glow of victory in living black and white.

Sure, fine, you're thinking, but how about that back scratcher? Both Playland and the Bay arcades feature a variety of skill games, including Skee-ball (my favorite) and Pokerino, which dispense tickets for accumulated points. Players can cash in their tickets for prizes ranging from cheapie combs and key chains to such biggies as a portable mini-TV, a hefty investment at 16,000 points.

Playland Arcade, 703 Edgewater Ave., Newport Beach. Winter hours are Monday through Thursday, 2 to 10 p.m.; Friday, 2 p.m. to midnight; Saturday, 10 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Most games are 25 cents per play. (714) 673-7740.

Bay Arcade, 706 E. Bay Ave., Newport Beach. Open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Most games are 25 cents per play. (714) 673-0324.

Wizardrome, Tustin

As arcades go, Wizardrome, tucked into a folksy shopping center in old town Tustin and offering hundreds of different home video games, is a breed apart. In fact, co-owner David Scott, who opened the store with wife Debra in June, 1990, shies away from the term, instead stressing the "friendly, family environment."

For $4 per half hour, or $7 per hour, players, who range in age from pre-teens to adults, can pick and choose from more than 750 games for play on popular home systems, including Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Genesis and TurboGrafx. Players gather around seven large tables, each sporting four 19-inch color televisions. For the true devotee, a 48-inch big screen is also available.

And--this one's for you, mom and dad--the games don't make a sound. Headsets are provided to each customer, a thoughtful move that not only helps players' concentration, but provides a peaceful environment for parents and onlookers.

"We get a lot of families who come in together," said Scott. "The parents will sit next to the kids and watch the game or read or pay bills."

Because several games involve up to five players, it's not unusual to see a whole family playing together, he added. Between games, players can fuel up at the soda machine or snack counter.

Video novices need not worry, Scott said. Wizardrome staff members are trained to offer assistance and suggest games whenever necessary. And, if you find yourself hooked, the store also stocks a wide variety of systems and games for sale at "competitive prices."

Wizardrome, 540 E. Camino Real, Tustin. Open Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday noon to 6 p.m. Closed Mondays (except school holidays). Cost is $4 per half-hour, $7 per hour (10-hour cards sold for $49). (714) 730-6280.

Huish Family Fun Center, Fountain Valley

Diversity is the operative word here. Miniature golf, batting cages, a skid-car track and bumper boats are among the entertainments supplementing the center's two arcades, which are stocked with nearly 100 video, pinball and skill games. (Yes, there are prizes.) And, should you manage to work your way through those, the neighboring Bullwinkle's restaurant offers yet another small arcade with games and rides geared toward young children. According to group sales and marketing director Steve White, the 23-year-old center attracts as many as 5,000 children and adults on a weekend day.

Video games reign supreme at the Family Fun Center, and White promises players will find "the hottest games around," including the recently-introduced Dragon's Lair II, a laser disc game, and a state-of-the-art game that features hologram characters that White says are "so lifelike you want to reach out and touch them."

Huish Family Fun Center, 16800 Magnolia St., Fountain Valley. Open Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday till midnight. Game tokens sell for 25 cents each. (714) 842-1111.

There are too many other arcades in the county to list, but a few more worth noting are:

In Anaheim, Camelot Golfland and Pizza (3200 E. Carpenter Ave.) with 200 video and pinball games, as well as miniature golf, a pizza parlor and a water slide (re-opening in the spring). At the La Habra Family Fun Center (1180 S. Idaho St.), you'll find 43 different video and pinball games. Terry's Arcade (3533 E. Chapman Ave.) in Orange offers 33 machines, plus--and this is important--easy access to an In-N-Out Burger.

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