Star Worlds Arcade Keeps It Old-School
One-of-a-Kind Business Open in Illinois Since 1985
“I was just a kid with some crazy dream of making this work because I was addicted to video games,” said Pat O’Malley, the entrepreneur behind Star Worlds Arcade. Open for more than 38 years in Illinois, you could say the arcade has worked out.
Also, when Pat says “kid,” he really means it. O’Malley opened the arcade on Jan. 11, 1985, in Maple Park, Illinois, with his mom when in his teens. As a youngster, he started playing during the Pac-Man video game craze. With his parents pushing him to get good grades in school, they decided to dangle the reward of an arcade cabinet in front of him. Needless to say, the grades came up and Space Invaders and Asteroids soon made their way into the O’Malley garage.
“I started collecting more games,” he said. “It was before people even started collecting these things.” Eventually, there were enough to open an arcade. The new Star Worlds Arcade opened with 18 machines, among them Q*bert, Frogger and Donkey Kong.
“Maple Park was a boring town and there was nothing but bars and a grocery store,” O’Malley explained. “There was nothing for us kids.”
Today, of course, it’s a totally different business. Star Worlds is for families – moms and dads with their kids. “I opened up the arcade so I could escape being at home,” O’Malley explained. His customers in the early days were kids his age. Many of them were his friends or went on to become his friends – some he still keeps in touch with today.
During high school, he said he was a quiet kid but having the arcade helped him break out of his shell. “It was cool. Automatically you became the cool kid.” O’Malley’s mother did the book work in those days, but otherwise let Pat run the business. She’d stop in and help on weekends and became “Mom” to a lot of those old friends.
O’Malley also began a route operation about a year and a half after opening the arcade, which helped keep new games rotating in and out of Star Worlds over the years.
By 2004, it was time for a move and an upgrade. O’Malley’s friend Glenn Thomas joined the business in 2002 as a partner and helped usher in the move. Back in the mid-to-late 1980s, Thomas was a multi-store manager for the Aladdin’s Castle arcade chain in Miami.
Star Worlds Arcade has spent the second half of its history in nearby DeKalb, Illinois. Still today, it’s a classic 2,000-sq.-ft, ‘80s-style neighborhood arcade – one of the last of its kind. During the Covid closure, they modernized a bit with new LED lighting, a fresh paint job and neon carpet.
“I wanted customers to have something fresh to come back to,” he said.
Star Worlds has 39 machines, a 50-50 mix of top-end new games and the classics. “We haven’t lost our roots. I still have some of the same games I opened with in 1985,” O’Malley said. “I’m not saying money isn’t important, but the games are important, the arcade is important, and the customers are most important.”
The arcade keeps it old-school with tokens and tickets, a nostalgia factor that brings in the parents, but the kids love of the games is what makes them stay. “I’m now seeing multiple generations of families coming through,” O’Malley said.
He noted that some of their classic games today include Burger Time (his mom’s favorite), Galaga, Ms. Pac-Man and Circus Charlie. “I like to see gamers have an experience like I did.”
Perhaps the most popular games in Star Worlds Arcade are Dance Dance Revolution, Mario Kart and Pac-Man Battle Royale, a favorite among families. They also have some self-contained redemption machines and merchandisers.
As with many old-school arcade lovers, pinball “runs through our veins.” Once that industry started bouncing back, O’Malley was thrilled to get some new pins. “At one point, I never thought I would have a new pinball machine ever again.”
On the route side of things, O’Malley said he focuses on similar types of arcades that cater to the same demographics. He and Thomas were in McFarland, Wisconsin, when they spoke to RePlay, working on an ice cream shop location where they have 35 games. “We basically just put in a smaller version of Star Worlds,” they explained.
They also operate the games at Mission Control, an arcade bar in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. It’s a mix of ’80s and ’90s games and some brand-new Stern pinballs as well. Another location of theirs is Old School Pizza in Malta, Illinois, with its classic mix.
On the route, they have about 20 locations, most of them housing a sizable 20- to 50-game arcade, bringing the total to nearly 350 on location.
“We also do home service and repair, and I do some home sales on the side as well,” O’Malley said of his sprawling business. Of course, he’s still a collector, too. He still has his first-ever Space Invaders and Pinbot, the first machine he bought.
Firsts are a source of pride for O’Malley, as are the lasts. “We’re one of the last remaining neighborhood arcades in operation from the ’80s,” he touted. “We’re still running on tokens and your token is your vote to keep a game in the arcade.”
But a lot of things have changed at the arcade since way back when. He said in the early years, he used to be able to walk into the arcade, turn the games on and basically leave. “Video games made money anywhere you set them back in the ’80s,” he said.
“Today, you have to brand your business now to get people’s attention. There’s so much other competition. If you don’t stay relevant, you kind of just sink to the bottom.
“Star Worlds has made me grow in so many aspects of life,” he continued. “You have to dedicate a lot to everything to make things grow. You can’t be stagnant.” Since the business is family-oriented, both O’Malley and Thomas are sticklers for clean, quality machines.
“I’m one of the behind-the-scenes guys,” Thomas explained, adding he mainly works as a tech keeping everything running smoothly. “Patrick does that as well, but I do the bulk of maintenance, repair and bigger problems. The manager I learned under at Aladdin’s Castle taught me a lot. I was doing things down to the component level right in the store.”
Keeping such a historic arcade running smoothly for nearly 40 years is no easy task and O’Malley was recognized for his efforts in 2016 with an induction into the International Video Game Hall of Fame for community service. The Twin Galaxies Video Game Trading Card reads: “Keeper of the Flame…Supporting the Global Video Game Culture.” O’Malley says he and the arcade are featured on 35 of the collector cards at this point.
As for what’s next at Star Worlds Arcade, O’Malley hinted he’s interested in bringing the biz into its third act. “I’m hoping there’s one more move and one more chapter before I retire,” he said. Learn more about the arcade and drop some quarters at www.starworldsarcade.com.