Underground Columbus: Inside the Bizarre World of Semi-Illegal Japanese Arcades, Drugs, Pinball Money Laundering, and Death Metal Spice Girls Karaoke

Story and photos by Daniel Lee Perea

“Hey come back here. I wanna show you something. Do you smoke up, man?” I was following a strange and eccentric man I’d only just met into a dark alley behind a dumpster in a bad section of town. It led to an empty warehouse. Ordinary people think twice about this sort of thing, but I tend to grossly overestimate my ability to survive by my wits.

“Come inside.” A door opened into a cavernous space, mostly empty with some random lumber and a couple building supplies. The January air was just as cold inside as it was out, and perhaps it was even darker than in the alley.  As the door shut behind me, the thought did cross my mind how much this looked exactly like the sort of place you see TV police forensics teams scrape for murder evidence.

“You have to take a picture of this! I want you to capture it for posterity, man!” This weird man, now pulling contraband drugs out of his pockets for my camera lens, insisted I could write whatever I wanted about him, but I could only refer to him as “Kat Daddy. With a K!” Yet anonymity didn’t seem to be the point, as he also claimed I could ask anyone in Columbus and they’d say “Aw shit! You know KAT DADDY!?” He insisted I photograph his high-end cannabidiol wax (made from condensed hemp oil) which had just been brought in from Colorado, where it’s legal under more free-wheeling marijuana laws.

Shatter wax

“Look at that! Isn’t that beautiful?” he asked, holding the shatter up to the dim, washed-out florescent light.
We were accompanied by a young man who juggled working in construction – which was his real passion – with being an upwardly mobile real estate mogul (perhaps by accident). He kept pleading that he wanted to go work for an hour exposing brick on a project site. At 10:30 at night. I pondered whether it was just a polite excuse to get away. Kat Daddy went quickly into Pied Piper mode, talking the young man into ingesting psychedelic mushrooms or top-shelf LSD instead of working. After an internal mental struggle that played out on the young man’s face, he gave into temptation and opted for the ‘shrooms.

Kat Daddy’s vaporizer and LSD
Cannabis sativa in the raw.

In between waxing poetic about his mind-altering substances, Kat Daddy was trying to sell me on his seminal contribution to the Columbus arcade bar scene, which at the count of at least 8 establishments, is in a state of supernova.  “I build cabinets. Anything you want man. I do it the RIGHT way. With CNC machines and shit.” He showed me phone pic examples of faithful restorations, half-finished projects, and pimped-out custom cabinets that would look right at home on the Vegas strip. He swears up and down the healthy arcade bar scene would not be possible without his direct involvement and paints himself as the patriarch of every bar in town. “There isn’t a bar here that doesn’t have almost half or more than half of its machines come from me!”

IMG_1147.JPGOne thing I learned about Kat Daddy right off the bat. When it comes to arcades, he’s a purist with a love for the artistry and engineering of games. Kat Daddy is not given to the capitalistic leanings of entrepreneurs to chase profit margins above all else. He kept returning to a theme of decrying some businessmen of various establishments in CBUS. According to him, there are some who opened arcade bar models because they saw it as a smart investment – not because they had actual love for the games that drive them. “You know, that [unnamed] guy wouldn’t have known a Burgertime machine from Double Dragon. I mean he does now, but not when they opened. It’s just a way to make money. That’s why I love THOSE two guys so much. They’re in it for the right reasons.”

Mack & Locke

With this last statement, Kat Daddy gestures in the direction of Gotcha Gachapon, a nearby arcade where I’d met him by chance. The two he was referring to were Shane Mack and Anthony Locke, the owners of GG who I’d been interviewing a short while earlier.  The duo operate what is likely the United States’ largest Japanese arcade.

Mack and Locke had explained to me that while consoles effectively killed off traditional arcades in the US, arcades never died in Japan, owing to a variety of cultural differences. Stateside, the conventional arcade for children is dead – now replaced by the nefarious ticket-based “Kiddie Casino.” Game development for the American market shifted pretty much exclusively toward consoles some time in the early 90s. Meanwhile, across the Pacific, the Japanese game engineers never stopped steadily pumping out new games exclusively for their thriving arcade industry. Many of which are rhythm and music based. Some, like Cho Chabudai Gaeshi (Super Table Flip), in which the gameplay consists of raging and table-flipping, are practically inexplicable.  

I’d been in a lot of oddball arcades, but Gotcha Gachapon was by far the weirdest. The games are so radically different and highly evolved, that it overwhelms the senses. It’s difficult to take in all at once. Having started as a passion project by the two friends united by their shared love of Japanese pop culture, Gotcha Gachapon is absolutely unique and indescribably phenomenal.

Where does one find all these Japanese games? That’s a tricky answer. Sometimes you find them in a trailer in the middle of southern Mississippi, and have to embark on a road trip with nothing but a wing and a prayer that your contact from Craigslist isn’t full of shit (or psychotic.)  Other times you acquire them through circumstances of dubious legality.

“Yeah, you probably shouldn’t photograph that one,” the pair told me as set loose my camera on the arcade. “It’s not exactly legal.”

I asked what that meant.

“Well, there are actually Japanese laws preventing the export of some games. That’s one of the only ones of [Game Title Redacted] that got somehow smuggled out of Japan. It’s not illegal in America for us to own it, but we could potentially face legal issues if we went to Japan for having it.”  

“So you’re running an underground Japanese gaming speakeasy?”

“Pretty much.”

Gamers playing at Gotcha Gachapon

Later in the night, Locke and Mack join Kat Daddy, the real estate wunderkind and myself at Old North Arcade as Kat Daddy describes in almost mafioso-movie terms, the untraceable stacks of hard cash generated from pinball emporiums such as Arcade Super Awesome. “They take out HUGE bricks THIS BIG full of 5’s 10’s and 20’s, man! Do you know how much a pinball machine generates in a day? And it’s all off the books!”

Pinball at Arcade Super Awesome – one of CBUS’ many silver ball emporiums

He goes on to explain there’s a municipal arcade permit tax all the establishments in Columbus are subject to in order to generate revenue off the arcade phenomenon. Trying to directly tax the cash proved too difficult since operators could potentially just fudge the numbers and pocket the cash. 

After a round of beers and some half-hearted gameplay, we cross the street to Space Bar. This dive bar full of punks, goths, rivetheads and pink-haired barkeeps is where Kat Daddy has been headed all night. A transplanted Reagan-era skate punk from the West Coast, it’s not surprising this is his haunt and where he’d wanted to sing some Fear or Black Flag at. His actual song pick ends up being Velvet Underground’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” which he sings with 200% commitment. I notice there’s a cocktail cabinet arcade machine in the bar’s corner. Locke and Mack note that arcade machines are so abundant in CBUS that even a non-arcade bar has an arcade machine.


The night continues to get fuzzy from the insanely low priced 16 oz PBRs I keep drinking, yet I notice that over 50% of the karaoke picks have been 90s hits.  I ask the Gotcha Gochapon duo of Shane and Anthony, who along with most of the karaoke performers, are too young to actually have any firsthand connection with 90s pop-culture what the deal is. They confirm that 90s music is now oldies to the twenty-something crowd and concur with my assessment that retro-chic happens in 20 year cycles.

As a blond woman with horn rimmed glasses, red flannel and a Slayer tee belts out the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” in a guttural and impressive grindcore growl at karaoke, Kat Daddy’s face distorts alternately between a grimace of intensity and a grin of ecstacy, the psychotropics now clearly in full effect. He’s the biggest cheerleader in the room of every singer. In essence, it’s a microcosm of his overarching philosophy. That life is not a competition and your success is my success.

Without any prompting, Locke gestures at Kat Daddy and randomly volunteers “You know, he pretty much really is the reason there’s an arcade bar scene in Columbus. He’s indirectly the guy behind all of it.”

The very early hours of the morning wear on and the bar slowly clears out. Outside, I opt for cheese fries from a food truck while waiting for my rideshare. Behind me, a man is closing up shop after a night of burlesque at Bossy Grrls’s Pin Up Joint. I could swear he’s wearing a fake, glued-on beard. Then again, it may just be the intoxication messing with my perception. I note the burlesque sign, and the dubiously beareded man says “Oh yeah. You didn’t know? Every monday night.” I suggest CBUS has a much more active and weirder night life than people outside the region probably think – and propose that perhaps I should move there.

He says “Yeah, why not?”

Why not indeed. Welcome to Columbus. Weirdos welcome.

Video courtesy of Bossy Grrl’s YouTube channel.

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