Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre is a chain that has its origins in videogames. It was the passion project of Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell who, flush with success in the 1970s, saw the opportunity to get his concept for a family friendly restaurant that was also an amusement venue off the ground. It served pizza because, in Bushnell's words, there were "very few components, and not too many ways to screw it up", and the centrepiece of the restaurants would become animatronic shows starring a coyote.
Except, when Bushnell bought the first costume, it turned out to be for a rat. Wiser heads persuaded Bushnell not to call the chain Rick Rat's Pizza, and thus Chuck E. Cheese was born.
The animatronic element of Chuck E. Cheese is a weird old thing, I've only seen it once and that was quite enough: slightly mothbitten and gaudy. These days the chain has decided the rat's now a trendy mouse but, in some ways, it remains old school: In a recent viral TikTok (via Ars Technica), a Chuck E. Cheese employee called Stephen Coonrod shows how these animatronics are made to dance using floppy disks.
Coonrod shows off the 3.5-inch floppy disk, which holds up to 1.44MB of data and is branded with the Chuck E. Cheese logo and a "Chuck E. Cheese Evergreen Show 2023" stamp, before loading it into a large computer bank (a Cyberstar rack-mount system) connected to both the floppy drive and various DVD players. Not all Chuck E Cheese locations still use floppies (less than 50 restaurants of over 600 worldwide) but for those that do the programs are written in-house and contain the dance routines for the animatronic animals, and are accompanied by DVDs which play the light show, background visuals and music around them.
The particular setup in Coonrod's location is called Studio C. It features one animatronic accompanied by four screens, and is 25 years old.
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There are a few things to admire about this video, mainly the chap's period-appropriate mullet and documentation of a system that, soon enough, will be even more of a relic. The Chuck E. Cheese chain is phasing out the floppies and in the last decade has been phasing out the animatronics more generally (in favour of costumed performers and screened shows). Coonrod says he's filming because his location is soon to undergo a remodel and this is something of a last chance to show off how it works.
This has needless to say caused some pangs of nostalgia for the generations of Americans who grew up in an age when pizza, videogames, and a freaky dancing mouse was a genuine treat of an evening. There are even collectors dedicated to re-building their own animatronic sets at home, which would certainly be an eye-opening thing to show someone on a first date.
This is not as unusual as it might seem. Plenty of older systems, including some extremely important ones, are kept on archaic technology both because 'if it ain't broke' and also because these more isolated and self-contained systems have that layer of security built-in. I doubt Chuck E. Cheese is worried about North Korean hackers making the mouse dance, so in this case it's simply that the system clearly still works and has done for decades.
These systems are good "if you’re looking for something very stable, really nonhackable—it's not internet-based, not network-based," Tom Persky, the floppy disk supplier who has the Chuck E. Cheese contract, told Buzzfeed News (opens in new tab). "It's quite elegant for what it does."
"Usually newer setups cause issues with stuff, and it's easier to just keep the old stuff running," says one anonymous Chuck E Cheese employee. So when the Studio C setup is finally phased-out at Chuck E. Cheese, and screaming children are being chased down the road by shambling robot mice, you know what's happened.