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Pizza, games, and animatronics.

Pizza, games, and animatronics.

Mike Doane

Chuck E. Cheese was actually a distribution channel for Atari’s flagship arcade games.

How Nolan Bushnell, the creator of legendary video games like Pong, turned family dining into an arcade experience.

In the ‘90s cheap pizza, arcade games, and animatronic variety shows were all the rage. I’m talking about Chuck E. Cheese.

It’s where I spent a big chunk of my youth at birthday parties and family pizza nights.

But did you know that the original Chuck E. Cheese was the brainchild of Atari legend, Nolan Bushnell? That’s right, the guy who launched Pong and gave Steve Jobs his start in Silicon Valley is the same guy who brought pizza and video games together for Friday night pizza parties.

Why did a video game tycoon launch a family restaurant?

Bushnell had a desire to do two things: distribute Atari’s catalogue of arcade games and bring robotics into the world. This is what drove him to create Chuck E. Cheese. He wasn’t in the restaurant business.

While the idea wasn’t ultimately a success, it was a great avenue to launch and distribute new video games while it lasted.

An old concept made new

When Bushnell thought up Chuck E. Cheese, he was basically channeling what Walt Disney had done with his theme parks. He wanted to bring that experience of fun and excitement at every turn to the family restaurant.

By 2005 there were over 500 company-owned Chuck E. Cheese locations and countless franchises. The company is still treading water and trying to get through one of its history’s many busts today, but its legacy is undeniable.

An enduring legacy…

What made Bushnell successful in the long-run was his willingness to try new things and innovate. Chuck E. Cheese as a concept was a way to distribute Atari’s arcade games in a world that was being dominated by consoles, and transform family dining while he was at it.