The “Video Game Capital of the World”… in Iowa?!
Nintendo’s in Japan. Silicon Valley’s in California.
And the “Video Game Capital of the World” is in Ottumwa.
“Who’d believe that could happen, that this small little [city] in Iowa essentially would be revered as the cultural birthplace– the cradle– of video game playing for the whole world?!” asked Walter Day, the original owner of the Twin Galaxies Arcade on Main Street.
Twin Galaxies opened in 1981 just when video game arcades were popping up across the country. It closed in 1984, just as video games started to move from the mall or Main Street to mom and dad’s house.
But Twin Galaxies became something else entirely, in part because, pre-Internet, Day wanted to find out who’d racked up the top scores nationwide on games like Donkey Kong or Centipede. After finding out no one was keeping track, Walter took over, and the rest, they say, is history.
“It just happened because there was a need, and I said, “Hey, let’s start a scoreboard,” and everyone went for it, and the next thing I know, Twin Galaxies is the most famous arcade in the world and Ottumwa’s proclaimed the “Video Game Capital of the World” [by Atari],” Day told News 8.
Almost overnight, Twin Galaxies became revered by serious arcade games across the country as a digital destination. Various TV appearances followed for both Walter and the various world record holders, the arcade’s story becoming so famous that Life magazine traveled to Ottumwa in November, 1982, to photograph the best video gamers in the world outside the arcade.
“It’s become, possibly, the most famous photo of the video game industry,” Day said, “sort of like the Iwo Jima photo of the video game world, because everybody, even if they’re not into video games, they say, “Oh, I know that, I recognize that.” It’s gone mainstream and it’s part of the psyche of the time.”
Twin Galaxies still operates to this day, now an online scoreboard website, it’s 30 year saga captured a couple years back in the popular documentaries “Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade” and “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters.” The Guinness Book of World Records actually relies on Twin Galaxies scores.
But Ottumwa’s past is about to become a big part of the city’s present.
“We’re very proud of it and we’re working to getting a museum,” City Administrator Joe Helfenberger told News 8. “We have a number of donations and artifacts related to the video game industry that we’d like to display in a museum.”
“The dream is to bring the Video Game Hall of Fame here in a big way, in a modernistic and large way,” added Terry McNitt of the Ottumwa Chamber of Commerce, “something that’d be absolutely amazing– larger than Cooperstown.”
A new documentary will be filmed this week there, titled “The King of Arcades.” Besides the planned museum, plaques will go up downtown commemorating the arcade and its unique history.
Even independent video game developers are working to cash in on the new-found interest in Ottumwa’s joystick-wielding past.
“We have that label– Video Game Capital of the World– so that gives us a leg up over lots of other competing towns that may want to have video game production happening,” said Scott Mooney, a third-generation Ottumwa farmer who, along with his family, decided to get into the game industry essentially on a whim.
They’ll release their game “Busterball” in the next few weeks for Apple’s iPods and iPads, with an Android version soon to follow.
“It’s really great Ottumwa has this past, this foundation of video games here,” Mooney added, “because it really gives us a good place to build off of.”
“Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade” is now available to watch on NetFlix.
To learn more about Twin Galaxies, simply head to their website: http://www.twingalaxies.com/