If you were a child in the 80’s and you tell me that you don’t have fond memories of either Atari or Chuck E. Cheese, I’ll have to call you a liar, punch you in the liver and challenge you to a duel. So I’m sure when you hear that Nolan Bushnell, the man behind both of those cherished jewels of late-20th century pop culture, is starting “an entertainment dining experience that can’t be had anywhere else” and “an interactive, social restaurant where at the table touch screens let you be in control of your meal and your fun,” you’re harboring the same high hopes as I am. The thinking behind the Bushnell’s new uWink Media Bistro, which opened several weeks ago in Woodland Hills, is that games exist to bring us together:
uWink is about social interaction through games, with eight of your friends or with a hundred if you want. That’s important – IF YOU WANT. At uWink you can stay safely within your social group, or branch out, meet new people. We’ve got it all, games between friends at the table, matches against the room, matches against those girls at table 12, matches against other locations around the US. It’s game night at a friend’s, but so much more.
So what does that mean in the real world? Really just that every table’s got multiple screens from which you order food, drinks and video entertainment and manage your tab, and also that there are large multiplayer games to occupy you in the entry area while you wait for a table. Everything is networked together and you get to control the whole experience. Think of it as a sophisticated Dave & Busters. Sounds like it’s could be pretty neat, right? But oh, uWink, how you have set us up for disappointment.
But let’s not start on a down note because there are a few things that aren’t disappointing. To start, the food is actually very good. Nosh is where a lot of these concept chains drop the ball and happily the executive chefs a uWink have avoided that curse. We didn’t sample an especially wide variety, but everything we ordered was tasty and well prepared and the menu options, while similar in category to other bar and grill type spots, were varied and interesting. Ordering off the touch screen is very empowering, though the customization options weren’t always intuitive or available. Still, the process is relatively easy to grok and I’m sure that it will get fine tuned as time goes on. The service was also great. The waiters and hostesses really seem to be excited about the whole experience and are happy to explain how to work things or how to manage special requests. And to make things even more exciting, we, like our friends at losanjealous, also spotted Bushnell at the bar.
Sadly, unlike losanjealous, my group wasn’t as tickled by the rest of the experience. I want to say that the biggest problem is one or two major things that can be fixed, but honestly the whole package really needs a lot of ironing out. The six-person Pong setup in the waiting area offers only four games, two of which are Pong variations and none of which are very fun. The virtual foosball is easily the best of the lot, but if you’re going to offer foosball why not have an actual foosball table? The two Pong games are almost embarrassingly outdated, with unresponsive controls and gameplay that’s less than captivating. Even the table itself is a little disappointing. It’s an arcade-style custom cabinet with a few trackballs and some unmarked buttons and no actual screen. Instead, the display is projected onto a linoleum tabletop by a misaligned video projector suspended from the ceiling. In the era of huge HD flat screens, it leaves a lot to be desired. Likewise, the games that you can play at your table are no different from those quarter-operated bartop machines that occupy lonely bar goers everywhere: trivia and memory games. In fact, I swear that some of them are the same bartop games that I’ve played before.
But these are symptoms of a larger scale problem: the whole vibe feels very out of touch with the current state of interactive entertainment. There are plenty of people exploring alternative gaming theories and digital social interaction and frankly they’re all doing it 1,000% better than uWink. uWink feels like what your dad spent some time on YouTube and Yahoo! Games and was inspired to open a restaurant. You have to wonder if Bushnell has been near a console for the last several generations, played any of the many party games that have been popular in the last few years, or ever heard of Xbox Live. And worse, the promised social interaction features are all either missing or not yet implemented. We couldn’t even play a multi-player game at our table, let alone with other people in the room. I know they just opened, but why open if your flagship product isn’t working yet? And even if they were working, they don’t sound that great. Who cares about being able to play a game against somebody across the room? People have been able to play other people on different machines in the same arcade for years, and those of you who are big into bar trivia know that you play against people nationwide all the time. Where’s the depth? How about challenging people at your table and the loser gets stuck with the tab? Or offering a free drink to whoever in the restaurant scores the highest on a certain game in the next 10 minutes?
I think another six months in the cooker may have resulted in a more polished product, but fortunately for uWink that means that there’s still a lot of potential waiting to be tapped. Whether they step up to the plate and fix the bugs or a copycat comes along and pulls a MySpace to uWink’s Friendster remains to be seen. It’s still worth a trip just for the novelty, and you probably won’t be disappointed by your food, but if you’re looking for something to remind you why you loved Chuck E. Cheese so much as a kid, uWink’s probably not going to cut it. You can check it out yourself at the next LA Geek Dinner on November 14, and I’m very interested to see what Heather and the other LA geeks have to say about it.