For a video-game enthusiast like Billy Smith, walking into Crab Towne USA is like walking into a shrine — one you can play for 25 cents a pop.
"Holy heck, it felt like I just stepped out of the 1970s," Smith, 23, says after spending some time with the 120-plus arcade video games and pinball machines at the Glen Burnie eatery. "This is probably misty-eyed nostalgia talking, but these are just so cool."
Stepping into Crab Towne is, indeed, like setting foot inside a time machine, going back to a day before consoles brought video-gaming into the home, when the nimble-fingered had to plunk a quarter into a machine to play Pac-Man, Space Invaders or Galaga. Step into the annex the owners have built to house their arcade, one of the few left from a time when there was one in just about every mall and shopping center, and the first thing you see and hear is a Pac-Man merrily chomping away. Walk a few rows over, and there's Q*bert, merrily hopping from one square to the next. A few feet away, the original Super Mario Bros. are busy hammering away on their latest construction job, while one row over, Dig Dug is frantically digging away, blasting away at red and green monsters as he goes.
Smith, who lives in Glen Burnie and blogs about gaming under the name Dr. Gonzo on the website thatguywiththeglasses.com, can talk video gaming with the best of them. He knows his home systems, can wax poetic about the various versions of Mortal Kombat and instantly relate the merits of one home system vs. another. But Crab Towne, which houses what may be the largest video arcade still operating on the East Coast, leaves him searching for the proper adjectives.
"It was amazing," he says. "These arcades, they were a social setting for gamers, it was almost like a convention. You just went and had fun, all that fan-boyism was just left at the door. It wasn't about which system was better, you just went and played and competed with other gamers."
Like video games themselves, Crab Towne USA's story begins with Pong, a basic, extraordinarily simple video game in which a point of light is bounced back and forth between two straight-line paddles. About 40 years ago, Donald and Barbara Coulbourn leased one for their Glen Burnie restaurant. The customers loved it, and before long, the Coulbourns were adding a wing to the north side of Crab Towne to hold all the arcade games that would follow in Pong's wake.
"The machines did that, they paid for the wing," says Barbara Coulbourn, 72, who has run the family-owned business (it started out as Coulbourn's in 1956 and became Crab Towne in 1991) since her husband died in 1999. "We started out with Pong, and the customers really seemed to like it. He kept telling the vendor that we needed another machine, and the guy kept putting him off and putting him off. So eventually, he just went out and bought one himself. That's how we started buying our own machines."
The Coulbourns — including Barbara's daughter, Babette Brady, 50, who helps her run the place — have never stopped buying; just last week, two newly reconditioned games, Desert Assault and Ghosts & Goblins, were added to the collection. Even while home video consoles have made arcades almost obsolete, leaving remaining arcade owners depending on bigger, more expensive and elaborate games, Barbara Coulbourn remains a true believer. The restaurant is all paid for, she says, so overhead is low, and the games bring in enough to pay for their upkeep and for the $5,000 annual license fee she pays to keep the arcade open.
Plus, she enjoys being the last survivor. She gets a kick out of the tributes to her arcade that get posted on various websites ("I haven't put any of that stuff online," she says proudly, "my customers did all that for me"). And she marvels at her gamers' dedication. Several have shot videos of their own in the arcade or organized mini-conventions, she says. There's even been a wedding.
Nowadays, maintenance of the Crab Towne arcade falls to Tom Hintenach, who operates Electronics Unlimited out of Eldersburg. While plenty of places might have a video game or two, there's nothing like Crab Towne when it comes to vintage arcade games, he says. Even the arcades on the Boardwalk in Ocean City can't match it.
"There is no other place like it," he says. "You really get that arcade feel, with the pinball machines, the classic games like Asteroids and Ms. Pac-Man. And believe it or not, the kids get into the games as much as the adults. It's someplace where you can take your kids and say, 'Here, this is what I was telling you about.'"