In the depths of Northeast, one business preserves relics of old-school video games
In a basement in Northeast Minneapolis people climb into giant mechanical robots to duke it out on the planet Solaris VII.
While they never have to leave Minneapolis, these people are playing as pilots in the once-famous simulation games of “BattleTech” at Fallout Shelter Arcade. Co-owner Frank Galatis started the business after falling in love with the game as a teenager. A couple decades later and the old-school video game hasn’t loosened its hold on Galatis or his community of pilots.
Fallout Shelter Arcade is well hidden inside the Strong-Scott Manufacturing Company building on Taft Street in the Mid-City Industrial neighborhood. To find it, just look for the small, bright-yellow sign, follow several hallways and stairs into the basement and eventually you’ll hear the hum of the pods, the arcade’s main attraction.
There are only two games to play at the arcade, “BattleTech: Firestorm” and “Red Planet.” The video game franchise is part of a 33-year-old world of “BattleTech” games, novels, media and more. It has drawn in a passionate community of pilots and enthusiasts, Galatis included, thanks to its deep and detailed history.
Galatis’ obsession with “BattleTech” started when he was a 16-year-old on a band trip in Chicago in the mid-’90s. The Minnesota native found himself in the city’s North Pier where he stumbled upon a pod, a large cockpit designed to make the game’s giant fighting robots or mechs come to life through multiple screens, complex controls and a dozen speakers. Galatis would make monthly “pilgrimages” down to the city with friends just to play the game, which has players going on missions to fight and compete against human or computer players in a futuristic gladiator scenario. “Red Planet” transforms the pods into cockpits of vehicles racing through mining colonies on Mars.
“You climb in the cockpit and close the door, and you can pretend the outside world doesn’t exist,” he said.
Years later, Galatis would have the opportunity to buy his own pods, each high-end gaming machines back in their day.
Fallout Shelter Arcade was born. It just happened to be in a co-owner’s garage at the time. Galatis and his team would open it up on certain days and broadcast over social media. When it got too popular — and the co-owner’s family wanted their garage back — the business settled in Northeast Minneapolis.
There were only about 144 pods in existence and a couple dozen have been destroyed over the years. Only a few places in the country remain where people can play “BattleTech” on such devices. Fortunately for them, Galatis and his four co-owners have collected 20 over the years and have fixed and sold others.
“As far as I know, we’re the only people on the planet that refurbish and resell these. It’s hard to convey just how valuable there are,” he said. “Think of the rarest arcade game that you can think of. These are rarer by an order of magnitude.”
The rare opportunity to play the games has drawn in many would-be pilots since the arcade opened in 2009, including several with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of 10-minute missions to their name, or callsign. Galatis, who goes by the callsign “Cyd,” estimates he’s played more than 2,000. A few of Fallout’s regulars may have even have more.
“There a few pilots who legitimately have multiple 1,000-mission pins on their lapels,” he said.
While fewer and fewer people are stumbling upon the pods like Galatis did, it’s not impossible. Keith “Sham” Dalluhn, another co-owner at Fallout who has played about 1,200 or so missions, chanced upon the arcade’s games at a convention in the Twin Cities and has been hooked since.
“I was taken. I was smitten,” he said.
Galatis said the games and the 21-year-old pods, fossils in today’s world of multiplayer video games, have their charms. Because they can’t play online, “BattleTech” pilots compete with others in the same room and can’t troll or trash talk from afar. Dalluhn even credits three marriages between pilots to the pods.
“It’s a social game as much as anything else. It teaches a sense of decorum,” Galatis said.
One issue on their radar is the growing popularity of Northeast Minneapolis, which threatens to raise rent and push the arcade out of its building. Galatis said it’s very possible they’ll be leaving for a new home with a storefront in the next year or two.
“We don’t make money here. We bring in enough revenue to keep it running,” he said.
But Fallout’s community of pilots have little to worry about for the time being. Galatis is committed to maintaining the pods and keeping his favorite game alive no matter where they take him.
“It would take a lot to buy me out,” he said.