This post is part of Kool Stuff, a companion book to Long Live Mortal Kombat: Round 1 (available now!) that contains interviews I was unable to do before hitting Long Live MK’s deadline. Subscribe to Episodic Content to keep up with news on Long Live MK, and to follow along with Kool Stuff as new chapters are published.
John Tobias described Galloping Ghost Arcade to me in one word: Mecca. He was right. I visited with my wife in September 2022—as part of our anniversary, no less; she’s a keeper—and was awed at owner Doc Mack’s vast selection. Galloping Ghost is more than the largest arcade in the country, with 900 games as of this publication. It’s a museum where you can interact with any exhibit.
Playing any of Mortal Kombat’s five arcade titles at Galloping Ghost feels right. The arcade isn’t too far from the studio where Ed Boon and John Tobias dreamed up, created, and grew the MK franchise, and where it continues to flourish today. I talked with Doc Mack about his roots in Chicago, meeting MK’s actors, how Ed Boon set him on an indirect path into the industry, and more.
David L. Craddock: Are you a Chicago native?
Dock Mack: Yeah, I’ve lived in Brookfield my whole life. Never thought of being anywhere else. Brookfield is a small town. It's a pretty quiet town, and I just never was never one to venture too far. I have everything I need.
Craddock: Do you remember the first arcade you visited, and the first game you played?
Doc Mack: Oh man, the first, well I remember playing my first arcade game in a restaurant when I was five years old. But the first true arcade that I went to was probably one called Lions Family Fun Center. What was that first game you played in the restaurant? Asteroids was the first [played in the restaurant]. I was hooked immediately. I had by then been playing Pong and Atari 2600, but the difference in how the screen was glowing on the arcade version of Asteroids captivated me.
Craddock: One topic I cover in Long Live Mortal Kombat is how even when console hardware had left arcades behind, many players still preferred arcades.
Doc Mack: Yeah, the difference in arcade hardware was still pretty drastic. It was cool to play Double Dragon at home but it wasn't that true arcade experience. So, mainly it's had that edge over consoles even through the 16-bit era and really probably the worst side of it was when you saw games not being designed on arcade hardware but with consoles in mind. So, even the subtle differences were still so drastic. For me it was a pretty solitary thing when I would go to arcade, but just the fact of being out [made] it more of an experience and cooler to be playing out in the wild rather than just nestled away in the house.
Craddock: There’s also something magical about meeting strangers and learning from them. Not just learning how to play certain games, but arcade etiquette. I remember seeing someone playing a Street Fighter II Hyper Fighting cabinet. I walked up and inserted quarters, and this guy, he was a teenager and I was maybe 12, he exploded. He was trying to beat the game. It freaked me out, but I felt bad more than scared. I wasn’t trying to ruin anyone’s game. At the same time, it’s a public place.
Doc Mack: For me, especially back in my early days, I had a lot of social anxiety so I didn't spend much time around other people. I would watch things happen and just kind of learn from other people playing and everything, but I didn't have too many interactions with people because of social anxiety.
Craddock: Chicago is the home base of so many coin-op legends. Pinball and Mortal Kombat to name a couple. What was the arcade scene like in Chicago during the early ‘90s?
Doc Mack: The arcades were always packed. We had so many places to play. Every restaurant had arcade machines. The pool hall, the laundromat—there were arcades everywhere. When MKII dropped, my local arcade offered a chance to get an autograph from Dr. Philip Ahn [MKII’s Shang Tsung]. It was just crazy that there were actors behind the characters that you could actually have chance encounters with and I was fortunate enough to meet many of them.
COVID was difficult because it was during our 10-year anniversary, which was such a milestone for us. To have all that gutted was a new challenge.
Craddock: As someone who has both played a lot of arcade games and now owns the world's largest arcade, you've probably seen a lot of unique cabinets. Off the top of your head, what’s the most unique coin-op machine you’ve ever seen?
Doc Mack: Cosmic Cruiser has a lot of unique and cool stuff going on with it. You look at the cabinet and the added costs they had to take, and the risks of design and development that went into making that cabinet work. It's just cool to see. I’ve talked with so many industry people now and learned how the different companies, like Gottlieb, Midway, and Sega—everybody had a different approach. It's interesting to hear why some games would get this special treatment and why some artists would get special treatment. It's a fascinating thing to have access to so many of the creators and have heard so many stories. There's just not a lot of information like that out there.
Craddock: When Midway transitioned from developing for coin-op hardware to focusing on consoles in the early 2000s, arcades were on a decline. How would you describe how one of the arcade industry’s and one of Chicago’s most important coin-op developers changed the arcade scene?
Doc Mack: It was definitely a heavy hit. For me, not seeing them put out Mortal Kombat in the arcade… I was still a diehard Mortal Kombat fan, but [a console exclusive] just felt different. It was not the direction I wanted to see them go. To me, the concept of consoles is pretty limited from a hardware standpoint. You get your set piece of hardware and this is what you're using. Whereas the arcade, there are unique controls, and [studios] would make boards, especially Midway, to work with the games that they were designing. Engineers like Mark Loffredo would work with software guys, with game creators—that made the arcade so amazing. It wasn't, “Well, these are our limitations.” It was, “How can we do this?” That led to so much innovation.
You look at the humble beginnings of when you had limitations on how big a sprite could be, and then hearing how they had to tie multiple sprites together to make larger characters. The creativity they had to infuse to make games look bigger and better was astonishing. Whereas now, engines like Unity changed the whole format of how games are made. You don't have any of those limitations [from the 1990s]. Unfortunately, you'll miss out on what made Mortal Kombat so amazing and unique and cool. There are other games that were using digitized art, but none really did it like that. We had Warren Davis who worked with digitizing stuff that kind of perfected that art, and from it spawned Mortal Kombat. There's so many cool things like that that you just won't get when it goes to a much more standardized console platform.
Craddock: Since you grew up in arcades, I’d love your thoughts on the rivalry between Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. I’m sure I know the answer to this question, but I’ll ask anyway: Even though both are fantastic franchises and have their merits, which did you prefer?
Doc Mack: Yeah, I love both series. I've played both of them since day one. But for me, Mortal Kombat just hit differently. I knew I wanted to work in the gaming industry. But it wasn't until Mortal Kombat that I wanted to make video games and create characters. Mortal Kombat was such a heavy influence on me.
Craddock: How did that influence start? What do you remember from the first time you saw MK?
Doc Mack: I very much remember it. I'm actually writing an article about it right now. Seeing MK in the arcade for the first time at a family fun center. They had the volume turned up so the sound of the hits was just booming. I was a huge fan of NARC and digitized artwork. I just thought it looked amazing, and Mortal Kombat was next level. The characters were huge. The way the game played was amazing. Everything about it just stood out. My passion for it was instantaneous. As much as I loved playing Street Fighter, this is what I wanted to be on.
We went to venues that had arcade games and noticed that most machines weren't working. If we're going to put out arcade games we've got to hope that the arcades get better.
Craddock: There’s usually a distance between fans of a game and the people who made it. What are some of your experiences meeting MK’s designers?
Doc Mack: I knew Midway was local, but once I started meeting the actors and designers—it was just the craziest thing, meeting Daniel Pesina and Rich DiVizio at a CES show and talking with them. I was working at Babbage's in North Riverside the first time I met John Parrish. I was at Golf Mill [shopping center] when I got to meet Ed Boon for the first time. And each time, it was such a unique experience. It was like, man, these are the guys. These are the actors, and these are the designers and these are the developers. And they're right here. They're right here in our area. It's incredible.
Craddock: What stood out to you about Ed Boon the first time you met him?
Doc Mack: The first time I saw Ed Boon it was... I couldn't even tell you what year it was. Probably around MK3. I was so nervous to go talk to him. He was just in the store shopping. I knew exactly who he was, and he was just walking around enjoying his day. I didn't want to be a weirdo coming up to him. Because he's Ed Boon. He's made these amazing, phenomenal games. But I had already decided I wanted to be in the industry. I had already been doing character design and stuff.
I went up to him and I was like, “Mr. Boon, I love your work. I'm a huge fan. You're an inspiration. I'd love to one day get to work at Midway. I've been working on characters.” He was kind of like, “Yeah. It's really tough to get in this industry. Good luck with it.” It wasn't what I was expecting, and it certainly wasn't what I wanted, but it really pushed me. That was like the final catalyst of, “I'm opening up Galloping Ghost Productions, and we're going to make our own digitized fighting game called Dark Presence.” It was like, if I can't work for Midway, I still want to do this. So he was helping me out.
In hindsight, [I realized that] somebody creating games doesn't want somebody else's ideas. We see it here now: “You should do this and you should do that.” Yeah, well, you don't have any information and you don't know what we know. It's not what you want. I was having lunch with Ed [after our first meeting]. We were walking and he's like, “Yeah, I get the arcade. But how do you handle production companies?” And I'm like, “Oh, it's because of you. You don't remember this, but 27 years ago, I met you at this store.” And who would remember that? I was just some kid, and it was honestly one of the best things in the world for me. I owe that man so much. Not only has he made games that people absolutely love, but he pushed me in the right direction in an unexpected way. Being in the position I am now, I totally see things much more clearly.
Craddock: That’s a great story. What do you remember from the first time you met John Tobias?
Doc Mack: The first time I met John was at the arcade. He came in and I'm looking at him and he's chewing gum. We don't have a lot of rules in the arcade, but not chewing gum is one of them. This was really early on when we opened. And he's like, “This is an arcade. This is a functioning arcade. You're not selling any of these?” I'm like, “No, no, it's a real arcade.” And he's chewing his gum, and literally I'm just focusing on that. I don't know who he is. I know he looks familiar, but I couldn't place him. He's like, “Can I take a walk around?” And I'm like, “Yeah, yeah, of course. Look around.”
We probably had 200 games. He's walking around and he comes back up to the front counter, and he's like, “This place is really amazing.” I'm like, “Oh, thank you.” He's like, “I'm John Tobias.” And it was like getting punched in the face. It was like, oh my God, John Tobias. How could I not recognize John Tobias?
I was just an amazing thing. He's like, “I see a bunch of my games here.” Now I've talked to John over the years and we've had him as a guest at Kombat Kon. We did a panel with him. Just being able to talk to him and hear his story and his thoughts on game design and how he created characters, that guy's a true artist. His foundation is amazing. It's incredible to see how it all is tied together. I've been able to talk to guys like [Midway designer] Jack Haeger, who basically brought John on. It's an incredible thing to see the history of it all. Most people, they just see the games. I’m very fortunate to have such a behind-the-scenes look at so many things. Jack was telling me about when John was getting interviewed, John had given him a Ghostbusters comic book. Jack was like, “Man, this artwork is awesome. I'm going to hire this guy just because of the artwork in this one comic book.” Had John not given him that comic book, who knows if John would have been brought on at Midway? If John's not brought on at Midway, there's no Mortal Kombat.
I was talking with a guy from TechnoSoft about game design. And he was like, “Are you with a company already?” I was like, “Yeah, I'm with Galloping Ghost Productions. We're going to make video games.”
Craddock: You’re still in the industry: You’re working on your fighting game, and you’re also one of the foremost leaders in preserving the history of arcade games. How did you go from wanting to develop games to doing that along with running Galloping Ghost Arcade?
Doc Mack: We started working on Dark Presence in 1994. We were getting close to releasing it in 200 when we hit development hell. We were at this point where the game was close to being done, but looked dated, so we were like, okay, we have a choice. Do we release it as is? Or do we reshoot it all and redo everything? We opted to redo it all. In 2005, we went back to the filming studio, and we upped our game. We reached out to Daniel Pesina, Katalin Zamiar, and Tony Marquez, because we were thinking, what if we got some original actors from Mortal Kombat in our game?
I had met Daniel at the CES show and knew where his martial arts school was located. I reached out to him. He was all on board. He got me in touch with Tony. With Katalin, I had given one of my Mortal Kombat cabinets to her years earlier. She had tried to buy a Mortal Kombat bezel from eBay. I recognized her name and was like, “You’re not the Katalin Zamiar?” She was like, “Yeah.” So I built a relationship talking with her. They were coming out to the studio and were very supportive. Then it kind of got to where we were filming and they were getting concerned about how much time it was going to take. We had a massive moves list, and because it was HD, each filming session was, like, four to six hours. We literally filmed every day for years. They had to back out [due to time commitments], but let us use some of their martial arts students, which was cool.
As the game progressed, we were finishing up at our film studio. This was around 2007. We started to look at, well, how are we going to sell? Let's go to various arcades. We went to about 80 venues that had arcade games and noticed that most machines weren't working. And it was like, man, if we're going to put out arcade games we've got to hope that the arcades get better. We wrote a business model for the ultimate arcade would be: making sure the games worked, a lot of rare games, involvement from the industry people, and promoting the people who made the games. Getting prototypes and rarities. It all kind of lined up in 2010 when I found a bunch of games for sale at next-to-nothing prices, and we opened on a whim. The focus was never to hold up working on Dark Presence, but it put a six-year hiatus on our game.
The rest from there just kind of snowballed; the place kept getting bigger and bigger.
Craddock: That was my next question. Was there a point where you realized, “If this keeps growing, Galloping Ghost could become the world’s largest arcade?” Was that ever a goal, or did it happen organically?
Doc Mack: It was very organic. When we opened, we had 130 machines and there was a website called AURCADE. It was a location tracker, basically. We helped that website as we went to all the arcades, keeping track of who had what games and trying to tell people where you can play stuff. When we opened, we weren't even the top 20 largest arcades. There's so many GameWorks and Dave & Buster’s out there that have a lot of games. There are places like Fun Spot that have 500+ games. It wasn't even something we were thinking about.
Craddock: Where did the name “Galloping Ghost” come from?
Doc Mack: The original concept for the logo came from some artwork painted on a World War II bomber. My brother was transcribing a World War II book, and he had taken a similar logo and redrew it for a band he was in. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, so I took it, redrew it again, made some changes, and it became my production company: Galloping Ghost Productions. I got a tattoo of it before the production company opened.
I was talking with a guy from TechnoSoft about game design. And he was like, “Are you with a company already?” I wasn't. I was just a kid. But I was like, “Yeah, I'm with Galloping Ghost Productions. We're going to make video games.” That was kind of the first time that it was used as a company name. By the time the arcade was opening, we weren't sure what we were going to call it. People were already asking about Dark Presence, so it had a little bit of recognition. We just went with Galloping Ghost Arcade.
Craddock: I drove an old car for a while that kept breaking down. I reached a point where my shop admitted they were having trouble finding old parts. They weren’t being made anymore. Galloping Ghost has so many classic games, many of which run on bespoke hardware from the ‘70s and ‘80s. How do you keep those games going so that if they were stop working, you’d be able to repair them?
Doc Mack: So many of the board components, like the cabinets, are just wood and glass and plastic, mostly. If something happens to those components, we can restore them. Same with standard controls like joysticks and buttons. The unique controls, for us, it's been probably one of the most impactful things that keeps us going. We've helped over 40 arcades open since we share the business model. We’re help build the community, teach all sorts of stuff, how to repair stuff.
We've got Galloping Ghost Productions, Galloping Ghost Reproductions, and we've got Galloping Ghost Garage. Those three legs are instrumental in helping the arcade function. When we need artwork, I go down to Galloping Ghost Productions, I tell Brandon, our lead artist, “Okay, we need this artwork.” He'll either recreate the artwork from original files, or we'll reach out to the industry people and get original artwork files because we have strong ties with them. Once it’s ready, we send it down to Reproductions to be printed. If it's bent plexiglass, they can do all of that. We've got guys who can make molds and stuff like specialty joysticks and light gun housings. We can recreate it, we can 3D print it, we can do molds and cast them and help other collectors and people doing restorations. Our Afterburner seat break recently. We just called our mechanic and had him bring his welder over and weld it all up.
Galloping Ghost being so much more than an arcade has really helped with the preservation side of things.
Craddock: You played a key role in helping the MK actors reunite at Galloping Ghost Arcade. Some of them hadn’t seen one another in years. How did that come together?
Doc Mack: We had done the first year of Shang Tsung's Fight Night. We were running tournaments. The initial one was supposed to be a 24-hour fighting game tournament. Most of the players weren't able to hold out for that. We had had some of the original actors from Mortal Kombat: Daniel Pesina, Rich DiVizio, Philip Ahn, John Parrish, they stopped by. That happened because we had reached out to them and were telling them, “We want you to come out to this.” They were all pretty hesitant, like, “That all happened a long time ago. Nobody has been talking to us about any of it.” They hadn't even thought about that in decades.
For me, honestly, most of our events like Developer Days, they're selfish: I want to hang out with the Mortal Kombat actors and hear their stories. I want to hear the history of all these games. As a creator, to hear these guys' stories is inspiring to me. I just love that behind-the-scenes aspect to it. That was really the concept: “Let's bring this group out. If I want to meet them, I'm sure many people want to meet them.” It just kind of grew from there. We had a few of the actors out. Next time, we tracked down a few more. It grew and grew.
By the time most of the actors were on board, we had a line out the door. We flew out Ho Sung Pak. We got Brian Glynn. It was a genuine reunion at that point. We did two Kombat Kons, which were held outside of the arcade. They were much bigger events with 500+ people showing up. It was just an incredible thing. It was great. The most rewarding thing of it was to reunite all those people. There's so few Mortal Kombat actors in these games that are so iconic to everybody. Most of them grew up together. They hadn’t seen each other in 20 years. Being able to bring them back together and watch it happen was a pretty awesome thing.
Craddock: Galloping Ghost has so many moving parts: the arcade, production, and so on. What are your plans for the future? How do you want these components to build on one another?
Doc Mack: We were finally finishing up Dark Presence after so many problems and delays. We had worked with Brian Colin, who was the guy that made Rampage and Xenophobe. He had a project that was supposed to come out in 1984 that got cancelled. We had teamed up with him and finished his game, which was supposed to be a laserdisc game [The Spectre Files: Deathstalker]. We finished that and released it. We did a small arcade release of a dozen or so cabinets. It's also available on Steam. Now with that done and out, the focus is finishing up Dark Presence.
We were originally supposed to release on April 4 of 2020, when the lockdowns happened. That hit the brakes on everything. A lot of the places that we had been helping open, it was the goal to put them as part of our Dark Presence tour. Unfortunately, so many arcades closed. We've been helping the arcade scene rebuild from the aftermath of all of that.
Craddock: How did Galloping Ghost weather COVID? What was that like for the business?
Doc Mack: It was rough. We went 10 years having no debt. We kept all of our employees on. We paid everybody. Fortunately, we had our reproductions and Galloping Ghost Garage set up to where they were still earning money. The arcade rebounded very well, very quickly. It was difficult because it was during our 10-year anniversary, which was such a milestone for us. We didn't expect it to have so much growth. To have all that gutted was a new challenge. But we weathered it and we're moving forward.
Always look forward to a new Kool Stuff post - this one didn't disappoint! Keep up the great worker, comrade 👍