I Knew Chuck E. Cheese, and You, Sir, Are No Chuck E. Cheese.

usuck.gifIf 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.

10 Replies to “I Knew Chuck E. Cheese, and You, Sir, Are No Chuck E. Cheese.”

  1. The restaurant’s Zone 3 has what they call a “social interaction lubricant game.” Bring some rubber gloves and the lube fly. Sounds fun!

  2. The restaurant’s Zone 3

    There’s another interesting point. I didn’t wander around and check out every nook and cranny, but the place is nothing like what’s depicted in that map. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

  3. I am a child of the 80’s, but I never went to Chuck E Cheese. Instead, I went to the now-nonexistant Bullwinkle’s in Irvine. It was better than anything I’ve heard of the creepy mouse place. Besides, how can you beat an animatronics show that includes Rocky and Bullwinkle?

  4. If you went to any of those (Bullwinkle’s, ShowBiz, etc.), you basically went to a Chuck E. Cheese. They’re all just knockoffs of Bushnell’s original.

  5. Unnecessarily harsh review. I’ve been there and the Pong table games are a lot of fun. Ironically, the foosball you tout was the least favorite in my group.

    “if you’re going to offer foosball why not have an actual foosball table?”

    -Are you serious? Why don’t bars and arcades have real poker tables instead of the video variety? C’mon.

    “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.”

    -What are you expecting, Gears of War? Of course the games are going to be similar to bar fare, they both have touchscreens as their only mode of interface. And you’d swear wrong, all the uWink games are made exclusively for the restaurant though some are knockoffs.

    “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.”

    -Care to name a few? In a restaurant environment?

    You have a point about the social interaction features, those do need to get up and running fast. But I still had a good time at uWink. There’s not another place you can have that type of dining experience, even as is. In a review that admits outstanding service and food, with free games as a bonus, is it really fair to deliver a verdict of “uSuck” soley on the basis of currently untapped potential?

  6. About the foosball, this is not a sports bar. A real table would look out of place in a bar dedicated to digital amusements, and would NOT occupy the same space as you said–because right now it’s part of a virtual multi-play unit along with Ping Triples, Pong, etc. Couldn’t play those on a real foosball table.

    As far as the games go, there is a world of difference between playing them at a bar and at a table. It is more socially interactive to have them right there in the midst of a group. And the entire restaurant has access to these touchscreen games. It’s not just a couple trivia games in the bar corner. I think you are setting up a false dilemma scenario here, that uWink either has to be firing on all cylinders (which I too would like to see), or it’s “nothing,” no better than Jerry’s Deli for interactivity. It clearly is more interactive than your average corner bar’s offerings.

    And you are comparing full-fledged arcade units at Dave & Busters to these tabletop touchscreen games? You listed racing games and mech games with huge custom control cabinets?! Imagine playing them at the table. They’re completely different animals, really.

    Jillian’s and D&B charge money for their games. You have to leave the table to play them–imagine playing a multiplayer mech game at the dinner table. With uWink, games sit alongside the menu. I’ve seen tons of people who eat at D&B and Jillian’s but never bother with the games, but I’d doubt anyone would leav without trying a few of uWink’s. It’s going for a different social atmosphere. Honestly, D&B & Jillian’s have more in common with your average arcade than uWink. They’re just big arcades that serve food.

    I don’t know why you cited the Grove or Taco Bell. Just because they also have touchscreens? They’re completely different types of businesses. I pay on a touchscreen pad at Von’s too.

  7. This looks like it’s headed into arguing about the examples rather than the ideas behind them, but more importantly I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere because it looks like we disagree about a few fundamental points. And that’s okay with me. If you’re digging it, more power to you. I hope they find their audience.

  8. I can agree with you that uWink needs to add more games, more entertainment features (many like videos, internet, and horoscopes still listed as coming soon), and networking the restaurant’s touchscreens for competitive play is critical. I just thought you were a little too hard on what is the first restaurant of its kind, currently in a beta phase. True, it’s now open for business and diners are essentially paying to be beta testers at right now, but I feel I got my money’s worth.

    Bottom line, I want to see this place do well and reach the potential of what is a very promising concept. I would hate to a buildup of negative buzz that lessens its chance of survival before it’s really had time to get up to speed.

  9. Thanks for your response, Ted. I think we have a difference of opinion between what constitutes “unneecessarily harsh” and “honest.” If it’s not clear, this isn’t me hammering on uWink all on my own. All five of the people in my group agreed on these points unanimously. But obviously everybody’s got an opinion and I’m sure that there are plenty of other people that won’t be as disappointed as I was. But to respond to your points:

    Are you serious? Why don’t bars and arcades have real poker tables instead of the video variety?

    Of course I’m serious. Bars and arcades don’t have real poker because it requires a poker table, cards and a dealer, and more importantly they’re trying to fit it on a bartop. With the foosball, you’re talking about playing a poorly implemented and unresponsive game of virtual foosball on a machine that occupies the same space as a regular foosball table. You’re sacrificing gameplay for novelty, and when you’re supposedly championing gameplay that’s a huge mistake. Bushnell would do well to remember that just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean it’s good. Ask anyone who played the first-gen VR game Dactyl Nightmare.

    -What are you expecting, Gears of War? Of course the games are going to be similar to bar fare, they both have touchscreens as their only mode of interface. And you’d swear wrong, all the uWink games are made exclusively for the restaurant though some are knockoffs.

    That’s just sillly. There’s a huge spectrum of possibilities that lie between Memory and Gears of War. And when you promise “an entertainment dining experience that can’t be had anywhere else” I expect, obviously, something that I can’t have anywhere else. Not knockoffs of games that I can indeed play on the bartop machine at Jerry’s Deli.

    I don’t think you can promise to push limits of technology and then, when it’s not working, respond with “What do you expect, it’s the limits of the technology.” I also think that it’s less about the actual games and more about what they’re doing with them to create this socially interactive experience. Which, at this point, is nothing.

    Care to name a few? In a restaurant environment?

    Well, I didn’t say in a restaurant environment, but even Dave & Busters has more interesting digital social interaction options than uWink (in it’s current phase) has. Just D&B’s multi-player mech game and huge banks of networked auto racing games which display the leaders on overhead video screens are both more advanced and more fun that what uWink is currently offering.

    As for people exploring alternative gaming theory and digital social interaction, how about Simmer Down Sprinter as one example? If you think nobody else is out there exploring those issues then you probably not doing much reading on the subject.

    There’s not another place you can have that type of dining experience, even as is.

    I totally disagree. I can have as much fun and social interaction at Dave & Busters, or Jillian’s for example. And as for touch screen ordering, I do that every time I go to see a movie at The Grove. Hell, the Taco Bell on Baseline and Boulder when I was college has had touch screen ordering in 1993!

    In a review that admits outstanding service and food, with free games as a bonus, is it really fair to deliver a verdict of “uSuck” soley on the basis of currently untapped potential?

    Well, I didn’t say the food and service was outstanding. I said it was very good. But in my opinion it wasn’t good enough to make up for the rest of the experience (some of which, like problems with the touch screens crashing, I didn’t even mention). Like I said, it’s still worth a visit, but I won’t be going back for awhile. But of course there will be other opinions. The people from losanjealous liked it as well, and I’m not discouraging anybody from trying it at least once.

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