Two Bit Circus is like a cutting-edge Chuck E. Cheese's

This circus is hoping to become the next nerd heaven.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
4 min read
Logan Moy/CNET

This is my kind of place. But then, I'm a nerd.

In one area, you throw balls at balloons that are projected onto a wall. The person who hits the most balloons wins.

In another, there's a room made up like the command bridge of starship, where people can take on the role of captain with friends helping to manage ship operations.

There's also a space where up to 100 people can spend nearly an hour tasting wine, and then compete to identify flavors.

And don't forget the robot bartender.

This is all part of a wild experiment headed up by Brent Bushnell called Two Bit Circus, which is opening Sept. 7 with free admission. Of course, food and games will cost a typical person about $50.

Watch this: Running away with the Two Bit Circus

Two Bit Circus mixes old-school arcade with new tech.

Logan Moy/CNET

If that Bushnell name sounds familiar, it's because Brent is the son of Nolan Bushnell, who cofounded Atari in 1972. The California-based company made breakthrough arcade games and helped jumpstart the in-home video game market. Nolan then launched a chain called Chuck E. Cheese's that offer food, a cartoon rat mascot and, of course, video games.

Just like his father did a generation ago, Brent and his team are hoping to entertain people in a new way, using a mix of video games, virtual reality, neon lights and theme-park fun. The new effort comes as arcades enjoy a resurgence, thanks in part to growth of VR experience centers, where people play video games while wearing portable headsets.

And just like with Chuck E. Cheese's, Brent is hoping Two Bit Circus will draw people out to play together.

"There is a lot of great game entertainment out there and it's made for home," Brent told me. Two Bit Circus, meanwhile, is designed to bring people together to play in groups. Almost everything at Two Bit Circus is for at least two players and sometimes five, 10 or even 100 people.


Inside one of Two Bit Circus's "story rooms," this one about a space ship.

Logan Moy/CNET

"You really are a different person in public than you are at home," he said.

Many of the games Bushnell, CTO Eric Gradman and his team built are inspired by theme parks, boardwalks and state fairs that have been American traditions for more than a hundred and fifty years. The balloon-popping game, for example, is a variation on the old-fashioned fair amusement in which players toss darts at balloons on a wall.

Unlike playing at the fair, Bushnell said there won't be prizes at Two Bit Circus, in part because carnival prizes are typically cheap and poorly made.

There will be treats at Two Bit Circus though. Bushnell said there are "easter eggs" littered throughout the 38,000 square foot building it's housed in. Though admission is free, he said games will cost $1 to $3 apiece to play, and "attractions," such as the spaceship "story room," can cost up to $25 apiece to play. "It really is like being in the video game," he said. 

The bar and restaurant also charge for drinks and eats.

Another room is made up like the inside of an old mine, complete with carts and a track in the middle of the room. Players work together to find hidden dynamite around the room and wire it.

Over time, Two Bit Circus is hoping to attract game developers who can help create a stable of games it can rotate through or even switch up depending on whether it's rented out for a corporate event on a Tuesday evening or a kid's birthday party on a Wednesday afternoon.

"We want to have this variety for a bunch of folks," Bushnell said.

Enlarge Image

Brent Bushnell in the earlier stages of building Two Bit Circus, back in June. 

Josh Miller/CNET

Two Bit Circus began in 2012, with Bushnell and Gradman making games and installations together. In 2017, the pair founded a nonprofit, designing labs for schools to inspire students to pursue science, technology, engineering and math with a variety of projects and tools, including 3D printers. The pair also advocate teaching children arts as well as sciences, a movement that's taken on the moniker STEAM (or, STEM with the added "a" for arts).

Bushnell is hoping to expand his team's theme parks to three sites and expects about a million visitors a year. At that point, he said, "as a platform, people can get excited about it, and brand marketers can get excited about it too."

But the first step is opening his first location in the arts district of Los Angeles in the next few weeks. The grand opening celebration is slated for Sept. 5, and opening day will follow on Sept. 7.

CNET's Ashley Esqueda was sold after getting a sneak peak.

"I've been to a lot of pop ups and installations here in Los Angeles, some of the wacky, some of them serious, there's nothing quite like Two Bit Circus," she said. "Not that I've seen at least."

First published Aug. 22 at 12:01 a.m. PT.
Update at 6:52 p.m. PT: Adds more detail about Two Bit Circus foundation, and clarifies opening day is Sept. 7, following opening celebration on Sept. 5.

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