His obsession was born at the world's largest Entertainment McDonald's. It was there, at the Orlando behemoth, that sixteen-year-old Jourdan Adler began playing Mortal Kombat. And he's never really stopped.
The original Mortal Kombat was released in 1992, the same year that Adler got his first job, as a McDonald's fry cook, and it transfixed the teenager. Through Mortal Kombat, he could separate himself from the demands of work and home and homework and enter another world, albeit one behind a screen. The game demanded energy and attention in a different way than his teachers and parents did: It challenged him, and although he'd never had good grades in school, he fought for high scores here. His time with Mortal Kombat was his own; he was in control. And he was in good company: In the arcade, Adler never wanted for companionship; he was surrounded by combatants taking on Galaga, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong.
"I had played the traditional arcade games before, the other classics, but suddenly it clicked," Adler remembers. "It was this completely separate world, this world full of energy, where I could go whenever I wanted. All I had to do was touch the buttons." So between shifts, he poured quarters into the stocky black-and-red machine, then watched the square screen light up and quickly, craftily launched his attack on other players. Sometimes he won, sometimes he didn't — but gradually he got better. Good enough, in fact, that he considered going for a world-record title and applied to Twin Galaxies, the governing body of gaming score-keeping. But his messages went unanswered, and eventually he moved on.
But not from games. "Man, if I had only known that a hobby would become a career," the 36-year-old Adler says today, tugging at a black Atari T-shirt. "Actually, I probably wouldn't have done anything different. I'd probably have kept playing games."
"Jourdan's a genius, but that didn't show in school," confirms his father, Woody Adler. "It comes out in games, though, and the way he's made them his life."
And now he's about to begin the biggest game of his life: the Kong Off II, to determine the world champion of Donkey Kong.*****
It took some time for Jourdan Adler to really get into the game of games, though. He thought he wanted to be a graphic artist, but he lasted all of three semesters at Skidmore College. However, it was there in upstate New York that his obsession moved to a new level: He bought his first two arcade games — Ms. Pac-Man and Mortal Kombat II — which he took with him as he bounced from state to state, job to job and school to school, eventually landing in Colorado, where his parents had moved, in 1999.
He took a job at Wahoo's Fish Taco in Boulder, and worked his way from server to franchise owner. In January 2006, he and a business partner opened their own branch of Wahoo's in Austin, Texas, where Adler put a Mortal Kombat game in his office. He soon realized that where it really belonged was out on the floor.
"When I grew up, it was hard as a kid to get into bars and places that had these games," Adler remembers. "You had to go to real arcades, but when you did, there was this community. I always missed that sense of community, and I wanted to re-create it for adults."
As he continued to collect games, Adler started researching adult arcades, which had begun to crop up around the country. He drew particular inspiration from Ground Kontrol, Clay Cowgill's arcade in Portland, and Barcade, the concept from Kevin Beard, Scott Beard, Pete Langway and Paul Kermizian that merged games and craft beer; from Brooklyn, it soon expanded to Jersey City and Philadelphia. Adler decided the time was right to bring a variation on the theme to Austin.
Past time, actually. Adler had finally collected the number of games he thought he needed to put his plan into action when he noticed a sign across the street from his Wahoo's location boasting "Vintage arcade bar coming soon." It turned out to be the Kung Fu Saloon, which still thrives in Austin and has expanded to Dallas and Houston. "It was devastating," he remembers. "I felt so close to my own arcade." But he didn't see enough room for two adult arcades in the area. So he sold his games to his competitors and cut his ties to Wahoo's. And he didn't stop making changes there: He also ended a failing marriage and decided to return to Colorado.
One thing didn't change, however: He was still obsessed with games. So before he started packing, he Googled "Denver bar arcade" and found a comforting zilch online. That inspired him to start collecting arcade games all over again, searching Craigslist and eBay and scouring rare warehouse sales for both popular and obscure titles. Adler made a wish list of games he'd played as a child, and he found them all. And when he moved to Denver in July 2010, so did 23 games, packed into an enormous Penske truck and then stored in his father's garage while they awaited a permanent home.