A big club in the former Karma space is mixing its drinks with Donkey Kong, Mario and a vast library of video games.
What happens in Vegas doesn't always stay in Vegas.
Last weekend, the oddly named Insert Coin(s) became the latest supersized nightclub to open in downtown Minneapolis. The bright and shiny 11,000-square-foot colossus is the second location for this Las Vegas concept, which marries a geeky love of video games with the poshness of a VIP-focused lounge.
So why Minneapolis? The co-founder of the two clubs is -- also somewhat odd -- a Twin Cities spine surgeon. After the success of the Sin City location, he wanted to bring the concept home, officially calling it Insert Coin(s): Level 2. Get it? Because it's the second one. Like the second level in a video game ... never mind.
The industry chatter that preceded its opening was enthusiastic, but also colored by skepticism.
"People told me I was crazy," Dr. Stefano Sinicropi said.
But they told Mario he was crazy, too. You know, for taking on Bowser and all.
Sinicropi might not be dodging 8-bit fireballs, but the challenges in downtown are apparent. The club is filled with vintage '80s cabinet games, like "Ms. Pac-Man" and "Frogger," which are sure to attract fanboys hungry for a nostalgia trip. Yet late-night, the arcade transforms into a real-deal Vegas-style nightclub, flowing with expensive booze, VIP treatment and touring DJs.
Talk about a split personality. Sinicropi says the transition from after-work hangout to full-on party bar will run smoothly, like Sonic the Hedgehog blazing through a thicket of golden rings.
Sinicropi, 39, is betting on his concept club to revitalize this maligned street in the entertainment district. His team spent almost $1 million renovating the former Karma, a problem club that closed in 2011. He's leasing the space from building landlord Ned Abdul, who had operated Karma with business partner John Barlow. The block's issues persisted with neighboring Envy, which shut down in September.
"Everyone got a little scared and went to Uptown," Sinicropi said. "We're trying to turn downtown around."
The Oct. 26 grand opening drew a line of anxious gamers and clubbers that reached down the block.
'Games on tap'
In the Twin Cities, 2012 has been the year of the retro arcade comeback, with Rusty Quarters in south Minneapolis and Zap Arcade in Jordan. Both have about two dozen vintage cabinets. Insert Coin(s) has 45, plus alcohol.
This puts it more in line with drink-while-you-joust concepts like Barcade in Brooklyn and Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade in Portland. The club also serves a Caribbean menu headed up by former Caribe Bistro owner Tony Panelli.
Sinicropi and his business partner, Chris LaPorte (who runs the Vegas location), like to call Insert Coin(s) an "interactive" nightclub. It's not a GameWorks or Dave & Busters. The style and ambience is more nightclub, but with a lot of gaming.
I toured the club with Sinicropi and his managers a couple of weeks before the opening. The surgeon was still in his scrubs, having just come from a day of spinal operations. His wife, Marielle (a Twin Cities attorney), is this location's chief operator.
The two-level layout, which includes a large mezzanine overlooking the dance floor, is primed for maximum sensory overload. There are 83 flat-screen TVs. Each floor has a long bar where you can order a drink -- or a video game controller to play Xbox or PS3 on the overhead monitors.
"We call it our games on tap," said manager Derrick Nivens.
The playing options range from 30-year-old cabinet games like "Asteroids" to the latest in 3-D and motion-capture gaming (Kinect, Wii). The room is outlined by lush booths where gamers can order bottle service and play the newer consoles (or older Ataris and Nintendos) on two private TVs. Customers can choose from more than 100 titles.
"That's our wine list of video games," Nivens added.
And then there's the ultra-VIP lounge, situated behind a glass wall that peers out onto the dance floor, where DJs will perform nightly. There's an 80-inch screen in this room set up for motion and 3-D gaming. It even has its own entrance.
"This is where Kluwe will walk in," one manager said, referring to Viking punter and gaming god Chris Kluwe.
On busy nights, the club will employ a handful of "game runners," people who know everything about the games, "in case you don't know how to do an uppercut in 'Tekken'," Nivens said.
Mortal Kombat in the club
Even before construction began, Sinicropi said Internet naysayers were pouncing on his choice of venue: the old Karma.
Sinicropi thinks the track record at his Vegas club, which opened last year, speaks for itself. That club also opened in a somewhat blighted area -- downtown Las Vegas doesn't hold the same glitz and glam of the Strip. Still, the club generated revenue of $3.7 million in its first year, Sinicropi said.
"We feel like we're being very serious about our security," Sinicropi said.
He seemed convinced that the whirling, bouncing, blinking action of his gaming paradise will quash any trouble.
"There won't be any fights in here because they'll be enthralled by the games," he said.
I don't know -- I'd fight an army of Sentinels to get a chance to play the rare "X-Men" cabinet game, which Insert Coin(s) just happens to have in its possession.
But maybe that's not the kind of fighting he was talking about.