The meeting of 16th and Mission streets in San Francisco is a busy place. During the day, bible-thumping evangelists with portable microphone amps half-preach, half-yell to passersby in Spanish, trying to wake them up from their daily routines. At night, near the same intersection, a man named Maurice and his partner Star try a different approach for bringing people together.
"Free to play, no charge. We accept tips but have fun and play," Maurice yells one Wednesday night as people hustle past with briefcases, backpacks and grocery bags, eyes often zeroed down on smartphone screens.
One screen is sitting on the top of Maurice's 1991 brown Honda Accord, which has seen better days but is flashing with neon green and purple rope lights lining the ceiling and floor seams. It usually takes them at least a half hour to get this parking spot—right in the center of the bustling Mission District.
The TV on the roof is flashing with the images of Donkey Kong Country or Super Mario Bros, depending on what Maurice—who's wearing lit-up neon glasses—felt like putting on. In front of the screen are a series of controllers—enough for four people to play together—and a line of game systems from the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. Sega Genesis, PlayStation, several Nintendo systems and an Xbox. There's even an Atari 2600. Below that, there's a box of old standby games: Super Smash Bros. Melee, Street Fighter II, NBA Street, Mario Kart, and other classics.
In the back, underneath the hatchback, the Nintendo Entertainment System is hooked up to an old tube TV. A passerby who stopped when he saw the car has taken up a controller and begun to play. He blasts pixelated birds out of the sky in Duck Hunt. Maurice unwraps a new gun controller to replace one of the two plastic relics. A player dropped it on the pavement by accident last week. He shakes it and it makes a cheap clinking sound. One of the inner parts has already come loose, and flocks of ducks have gone unhunted over the past few days. He had to drive an hour and a half both ways to get it.
Maurice, a self-proclaimed "genius with wires," and his wife Star pass a Rockstar energy drink between them as he paces around the car, making sure all the cords are plugged in and the converter they've hooked to the engine doesn't overheat. It beeps disconcertingly often to signal overload. Star sits in the passenger seat, rolling a cigarette and handing Maurice parts from the back seat.
They have four girls (they're Star's) and jobs, or as she says, "a life outside of this." Maurice is a handyman. Star is a registered nurse.
Star and Maurice have always loved games, and playing them outside. When they got a Wii a few years ago, they'd load it in the back of their car and drive to the park, where they'd hook the TV up to their car engine and play.
Then, ten months ago, Maurice's brother died and left him an NES.
"I knew I couldn't sell it," he said.
Instead, Maurice and Star decided to go back to the neighborhood where she grew up, patch together a mobile video game arcade and let anyone play for free. When people tipped, they put it towards the gas that kept the car and the games running and went hunting for more old favorites to play. They even bought a small bottle of hand sanitizer for people to use after they've played with the shared controllers.
"We started off just bowling on the Wii ourselves and somehow it just got to this. So we figure, keep bringing it to the streets and let everybody play," Maurice said.
"Sometimes I don't even know how it got to this point," Star said. "We just kept adding more things."
The couple even set up a Facebook page under the name Mobile GameStop and a SnapChat (@MobileGameStop), where they sometimes post about where they're headed next.
Star said she's been amazed at the effect that the old games have on people.
"The whole philosophy is that this is for us, the adults," Star said, "that's why we keep it old school. We're working hard, we're stressed and we need to relax and have fun and remember a time when life was simple. It gives people this moment where it brings them back."
It's not like the games attract a certain kind of person, Star said. They seem to appeal to every race, gender and age—men and women alike. Sometimes she's even surprised by the people who walk up to play. There are a few regulars who are homeless. But professionals stop by on their way home from work, too. So do teens, older folks, and everyone in between. There's a bar across from where they park the car. Star says that the bouncers have told them that there are less fights outside when they park there. And, she said, the games really do make people perk up.
"The simple things are what makes people happy," Star said.
"People always ask, don't you get tired of listening to that (Mario Bros.) sound?," she added. "And I say, 'I've been listening to it so long that I don't even hear it anymore.'"