Game on

Bar-Tari brings gamers together in Portsmouth

It’s a Tuesday night at The Press Room in Portsmouth, and Josh Rose is about to attempt something difficult.

“No,” he says, with a hint of resignation in his voice. “You have to understand. I never owned this game. I always played at a friend’s house and they would put the code in.”

The game he’s playing? That’s “Contra,” one of the most popular games released for the Nintendo console in the late 1980s. The code is the Konami Code, a hack that made “Contra” and other games developed by Konami a little easier on players. Now, without the benefit of the code, Rose will only have three lives, instead of 30, to get him through the first level — plus, he’s got a crowd of spectators watching him play.

Rose and the rest of the crowd, some 40 people, are there for Bar-Tari, a new biweekly event at The Press Room. Every other Tuesday, gamers from the region and beyond stop at the bar to have a drink, see friends, and take down every mini-boss in their way.

Bartender Jaki Shotridge Gerulskis noticed the positive reaction his customers had when he brought in a Nintendo Wii U console during one of his Friday lunch shifts.

“I’d have my regulars and other people that would stop in,” says Gerulskis. “Once I brought my Wii U console in, suddenly people wanted to grab lunch, have a beer, and then challenge each other to a game of ‘Mario Kart.’ I thought I might be the only one that was interested and was thrilled to see that others were excited.”

Video games in bars aren’t a new development. Versions of “Galaga,” “Donkey Kong,” and “Ms. Pac-man” were found in bars in the early ’80s, housed in “cocktail cabinets,” sit-down bar units with a thick glass top (The Coat of Arms Pub in Portsmouth has “Ms. Pac-man”). Crowds would form around the games, waiting for a turn or simply watching, and it turned the solitary gaming experience into a communal activity. As arcades opened, video games largely disappeared from bars, though chains like Dave and Busters, and, more recently, Barcade, have brought games back to bars.

“Once I brought my Wii U console in, suddenly people wanted to grab lunch, have a beer and then challenge each other to a game of ‘Mario Kart.’” — Jaki Shotridge Gerulskis

After the positive reception from the lunch crowd, Gerulskis decided to host a regular event at The Press Room. Along with the Wii U, he brings a mix of classic and new consoles and a handful of board games.

At the most recent Bar-Tari, held on Dec. 8, Rose’s wife, Shea, brags as she walks up to the bar. “I beat all three of them,” she says. “To reiterate: I beat all three of them. As Princess Peach.”

Shea is fresh off a victory in “Mario Kart,” in which Peach, the sometimes damsel-in-distress of the Mario franchise, is one of the playable drivers. “I’m not putting Peach down,” she insists. “She’s my favorite video game character and is a great racer in the Kart series. I just think the other players were surprised I beat them.”

Tony Houst (left) and  Brian Holbrook play “Magic: The Gathering” at the most recent Bar-Tari event on Dec. 8. 

Tony Houst (left) and  Brian Holbrook play “Magic: The Gathering” at the most recent Bar-Tari event on Dec. 8.

Gamers would be wrong to underestimate Peach, just as many male gamers are wrong to insist that gaming is a boys’ club. The crowd at Bar-Tari shows how incorrect that notion is. Of the 40 people that show up to play some of their favorite games from childhood on Dec. 8, more than half are women.

“The Press Room was so happy with the attendance of the first Bar-Tari event that they immediately changed it from the proposed monthly event to every other Tuesday night,” says Gerulskis.

Bar-Tari is building its own community. Though online gaming has connected gamers across great distances, it brought with it the isolation of playing, physically, alone. Bar-Tari changes that and brings back the electric, unifying feeling of having people cheer (and equally jeer) your gameplay.

Shea Rose and a woman named Sally, who is celebrating her birthday this night, spiritedly debate one of their shared favorite games, “Goldeneye 007” for the Nintendo 64 console. They laugh about playing the multi-player mode of the 1997 classic first-person shooter.

“I loooooved ‘Goldeneye!’ You need to bring that in next time,” someone walking by says to Gerulskis.

At another table, friends Justin Daniels, Brian Holbrook, and Tony Houst are in the middle of a “Magic: The Gathering” match.

“We’re definitely here for both the card games and the video games,” says Holbrook, who traveled from New Boston for the event.

Holbrook is a veteran gamer: he boasts that he’s owned nearly every system released — from the cult-favorite Sega Dreamcast to the widely derided Nintendo Virtual Boy. The conversation among the friends drifts, as video game conversations often do, toward “E.T.,” the Atari 2600 cartridge so awful that it temporarily crippled the industry.

“Didn’t they bury all the unsold cartridges in the desert?” Daniels, 31, of Raymond, asks.

“They did,” says Holbrook. “Because it was complete and total garbage.”

The table erupts in laughter while loud whoops and screams come from the direction of the Xbox 360, where Gerulskis wins a highly charged “Street Fighter IV” match.

Boasting, commiserating, laughing, utter destruction. Bar-Tari lets gamers have it all and rescue — or win the race as — the princess before heading home.

Bar-Tari takes place every other Tuesday at The Press Room, 77 Daniel St., Portsmouth. Check The Press Room’s Facebook page for the latest schedule.