ARCADE In this virtual reality hot spot, everybody knows your game.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SEATTLE -- You settle into the race car, clutch the steering wheel and glance sideways at your seven competitors. Cameras capture your every expression. This is the big time. The Indy 500 -- or the closest you're ever going to get to it.

It's time. The drivers gun their engines and take off, roaring down the track. You nail the curves perfectly, the tense lines of your face projected onto video screens overhead. No one can touch you. You cross the finish line in a blur, and the roving veejays descend upon you, asking how it feels.

You're pumped. In fact, the only people more pumped may be Steven Spielberg and the cyber-gurus at Sega Enterprises. They're the ones behind this virtual race and the other "bleeding-edge" games at -GameWorks, which opens here tonight in a blaze of media glory.

It is being touted as the arcade of the future, a combination video arcade/brew pub/restaurant/Internet cafe/deejay and veejay venue with 220 games in 30,000 neo-industrial square feet. It's high-tech American Gladiators sipping Starbucks. Virtual reality meets "Cheers." The amped-up next best thing to being wherever.

Already, 100 more GameWorks are planned nationwide in the next five years, spreading to Los Angeles and Las Vegas before the end of the summer. (The company is looking at a number of spots near Washington, but no deals have been signed yet.) But the first test will come here, at 7th and Pike, under a 16-plex movie theater, near several new restaurants and a Nike Town.

Will GameWorks become the final destination of every dollar earned on every paper route or busboy shift in Seattle? The depository of the spare change of all those mid-30s Microsoft millionaires?

Step inside and decide for yourself.

Enter through the Arena, where you can take advantage of the numerous glories of the great Northwest without ever getting cold or wet or smelly. Jump on machines that let you experience the joys of sport fishing, skiing, bicycling and snowboarding. Ride a Wave Runner in the shelter of a big fiberglass wave breaking over big fiberglass rocks encrusted with small fiberglass barnacles. Defy the laws of physics by skiing into a cliff, then emerging, both skis somehow parallel, bindings intact, to continue down the slope.

"That's the beauty of this," says Karmen Johnson, who leads tours of the place and whose snowboarding screen-self lost a hat but no discernible bodily functions in a close encounter with a boulder. "You don't really get hurt when you crash."

There are car races with realistic handling and seats that move as you swerve. The Porsches aren't so great at taking the corners, she confides.

Slightly seasick after a race through Virtual Manhattan, you've got to wonder: Is it fun to total a car? Do you really want to be driving on the freeway with people who've just gotten fully conditioned to crashing and resurrecting themselves?

Get used to it. Futuristic arcades like GameWorks are popping up across the country. One new chain, XS, opens its first place in New York's Times Square this month. And Virtual World, with 20 locations worldwide, is doing a brisk business in San Diego.

Earlier this week in Seattle, behind the red "Danger: Do Not Enter" tape, techno-guys applied the finishing touches to the Interplay game called Descent. Two mice and a keyboard (for fine-tuning the software) emerged from behind each of eight huge, curved screens, but the Game Enthusiast will use a simpler joystick.

In the upper right corner of the display is the ominous pronouncement, "4 kills, 1 death." It's kind of like Flight Simulator, Johnson explains, and you can play it on your home computer, get real good at it, then come in to compete with others.

Two way-cool games weren't quite up and running yet, the Night Raptor (a jeep ride in "Jurassic Park," featuring dino-breath down your neck) and Vertical Reality, a column of video screens surrounded by seats that move up and down depending on whom you shoot and who shoots you. For losers, there's a 24-foot freefall, which -- depending on how many GameWorks Pale Ales you have ingested -- might in itself be worth the $4 or $5 to play.

"It's a monster ride," says Michael Montgomery, president of Sega GameWorks. "We think people will be watching that, and having quite a few conversations about it. That's a lot of what the Arena area is about, celebrating people playing, and making these games a spectator event."

Both of these games, Spielberg's brainchildren, will be available only at your neighborhood GameWorks, which will carry all of Sega's new games for six months before they are released more broadly.

The Loading Dock, where according to the factory fable, the newest games have just arrived, is the loudest, most competitive area, where players can challenge others in the room, or later, those in other GameWorks nationally. Videos of the winners' faces are projected on large screens on the ceiling and around the room.

"People will say 'Great game, I'll play against ya, wanna play?' " Montgomery predicts. "We think it's a wonderful way to interact."

The place can fit up to 1,400 people, but 900 comfortably. There's no cover charge, and games cost anywhere from a quarter to $5, all taken off your Smart Card, which also registers points you win in some games, redeemable for prizes. You can buy Smart Cards right next to the cash machine, where Visa, AmEx, MasterCard, Discover, Exchange, Plus and Cirrus are all very welcome.

At the store downstairs, you can buy Sharper Image robots to build at home and beat in other games. There are also GameWorks golf balls, shot glasses, varsity jackets and T-shirts.

Tucked up under the ceiling, is the Loft, featuring the Elysian Brewing Company and darts, pinball, a jukebox and a comfy leather couch. The nearby restaurant offers four-cheese pizza, vegetable focaccia and shrimp pesto. Past that, under the fake skylight with the fake wet leaves plastered to the glass, is the Internet cafe, where the seats are conveniently tilted so you look not only at your screen but up and out, so you might actually see some of the humans in the room.

And then there's nostalgia alley, the cyberversion of Nick at Night, where old video games come back from the dead: Donkey Kong, Centipede and Pac-Man. The music here will be quieter, more conducive to conversation. This is the area that's supposed to be particularly welcoming to women.

One imagines it might be a challenge to coax clever repartee out of a fella whose index finger is all sweaty from firing at tanks. But maybe that's part of the game.

So this is the future already? You can check it out tonight at 8 on MTV, which is carrying the opening live. Grammy Award-winning musicians Beck and Coolio will be there.

And so will all of us, it seems. Or so they say.

Pub Date: 3/15/97

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