If you’ve shuffled into the basement of Union Station recently to blow off steam on play-shooting and silver balls, you’ve been greeted by a faceless sign and windows covered in white paper. Not a good omen, especially as arcades across North America continue to flatline. NYC’s legendary Chinatown Fair closed down, and a few years back Toronto’s own Funland came face-to-face with its kill screen.
Toronto used to be an arcade Arcadia. Quarter-munching halls lined Yonge Street like a glittery rash, Playdium’s downtown hub was a light-gun mecca, and in every suburb was a bowling alley or Lazer Quest outfitted with Blitz and Area 51.
So it is with great pleasure that, in about as central a location as you could hope for, salvation comes for Toronto’s small-change enthusiasts. To the general public, it is a pleasant surprise, but to Toronto’s gaming devotees, it was simply destiny when A&C Games levelled up to A&C World.
In 1998, A&C was nothing more than your average corner convenience store, a mere wander south of Bloor at 702 Spadina Avenue, and owned by brothers Chang and Gar Wan Toy. Eight years ago the video game enthusiasts started selling used games. The small specialty overran the store faster than you can say, “Your sword is enough.” The final vestiges of the once-general store were energy drinks and cigarettes. When the last refrigerator died, A&C was reborn as a unique hub for an uncanny culture. Now, the space offers more than just games, systems, and accessories, both new and old—it has history and memories, paraphernalia from corny promotional video tapes to collectable toys that even Ebay only knows on a last-name basis.
“I remember I used to go to Funland on Yonge and having that little bit of nervousness when you play against someone you don’t know, a stranger,” said Gar Wan Toy, one of A&C’s owners and curators. “But getting over that and getting to know them, it’s a really good feeling.” Gar says that the idea for A&C World came up three years ago, when Chang dreamed about opening up his own arcade. When their neighbours, a karate school, decided to move, Gar and Chang took over their lease. “And, now, here we are. I would like to have an arcade set up along with the consoles, so gamers of all sorts can come in and play whatever they want.”
What used to be a dojo, in the basement of A&C Games’ building, is slowly but surely stuffing itself with the desired wares and comforts of gamer life. In the first room, consoles, cables, tables, Halo, Smash Bros., Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Marvel vs. Capcom, and a floor space open for whatever flailing movements Kinect requires. In the second room, which seems to be the old change room, are the specialty machines. Street Fighter II, The Simpsons arcade game, Bust-a-Move, and, most delightful of all, a vintage Space Invaders cabinet outfitted with MAME, so players can challenge the high-score of everything from Moonwalker to Metal Slug (or the obscure, The Cliffhanger.)
While the space is still being outfitted, there are already in-reference T-shirts displayed on a hanging grid-rack, dozens of Nintendo Power pull-out posters, and even a handful of original fan-art pieces, a collection that the brothers said they’d like to expand.
We talked to Alex, a gamer who was hunched over a cocktail cabinet going at NBA Jam, which he said he’s played since he was a kid. “It has the same atmosphere a lot of gamers miss from the late 90s, early 2000s. What there was before the advent of online gaming.”
Not everything about the late Funland is equally mourned. While it was rich in retro aesthetics, it was also a gloomy den. There is certainly a niche gamer who enjoys lurking around in dim lighting and the company of likely drug dealers and paper-bag drinkers, but many children, parents, and everyday players who really just want to go a few rounds of Puzzle Bobble want something else. What may be the biggest difference between A&C World and what this city has seen before is not just the idea of a community space, but that it’s a safe, clean, and monitored arcade, where kids can game carefree.
Reese and David are much younger than Alex, from a generation that wasn’t around for the heyday of arcades. “I’ve been playing since I was six. So gaming for, like, six, seven years,” said Reese. “I’ve never been in an arcade, but I’ve seen videos. In most of them are older, retro games and newer things like SoulCalibur and the new Street Fighter stuff. I don’t see a lot of the old stuff, like Donkey Kong. I think I would like to see a mix of the two.”
“I came here to play all the old games,” said David, who’s roughly the same age as Reese. “Even though I’ve just been playing newer stuff, Halo and Smash Bros., I’d prefer to see all the old ones. It’s what I was really looking forward to.” Reese interrupted: “I don’t even know what I’m doing,” he said, thwacking on the red cabinet buttons, “I think I am hitting people with a vacuum cleaner. This game is the greatest.”
A&C World isn’t going to run on cruise control. Before World opened, A&C had held regular tournaments in whatever U of T space that would have them on a Sunday afternoon. Now that they have their own large, uncluttered area, the tournaments are increasing ten-fold. Nearly every day of the week, players can come in and casually compete with each other in Street Fighter, Tekken, Smash Bros. (of Brawl and Melee variations), Mario Kart, Marvel vs. Capcom, Pokemon, and whatever button masher can see two or more go head-to-head. Even new games are getting showcases and play-dates, like the long-awaited Rez follow up, Child of Eden. And Nintendo 3DS StreetPass is highly encouraged.
“The importance of going to an arcade is having people play head to head, face to face, in person—not online,” said Gar. “A good arcade is made up of good arcade games. I foresee us expanding and holding way more tournaments.”
A&C World is as ambitious as it is open ended. On paper, it is nothing more than a large, flexible space run by some passionate nerds. But in practice, it’s a place when you can stroll down memory lane at the touch of a joystick. It’s where someone can tell you your level of experience is “no problem” before wiping the floor with you in Marvel vs. Capcom 3. It’s where you can see a decades-old Legend of Zelda board game on the shelf. It’s where Gar and Chang are juggling all the possibilities of gaming life. It’s giving older gamers the space they miss and younger gamers a space they’d otherwise never know. And now it has some leg room. To pull off a flying bicycle kick.
Photos by Zack Kotzer.