Funland

Delirious with jet lag and a few pints each, we stumble into the Trocadero in Piccadilly Circus. It’s 9:30 PM London time and some ungodly hour of the morning Boston time. Tomorrow I’ll be glad I didn’t crash after our overnight flight, but at the moment I’m doubting the wisdom of staying awake for the last thirty-plus hours.

The main concourse assaults us with four floors of flashing lights and jangling bells. A bluish haze settles over everything as our eyes adjust. This is Funland, the arcade that serves as the incongruous last stop on an impromptu walking tour that earlier today (yesterday?) took us to Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and Leicester Square.

The place is massive, an airplane hangar’s worth of arcade machines, pool tables, and bumper cars. It’s eerily empty in here, but then again, it is only a Monday (Sunday?) night. BOWLING, proclaims a giant neon sign on one wall; a poster on another advertises something called 5D WORLD. “So if the fourth dimension is time,” my wife wonders, “what’s the fifth?” I haven’t had nearly enough sleep to consider that question. A shrug is the best I can muster. Day One and this vacation already has a touch of the surreal.

We make our way to the second floor, where two teenagers are battling it out on a Pump It Up 2 machine. The giant cabinet appears to be a Korean version of Dance Dance Revolution, with obscenely fast K-Pop blaring from its speakers. Their shoes dumped in a pile with their backpacks and empty cans of energy drink, the boys hold onto a metal bar for support while their feet tap an insane rhythm on the arrow pads. Their concentration is absolute, not wavering even as a small crowd gathers around the machine to watch the sweaty spectacle unfold. The song ends with a flourish of synthesized guitars and the boys slap a weak high-five, doubled over with exertion.

Up a few stairs two older guys are seated on either side of a vintage head-to-head Street Fighter II cabinet. We pause to admire the players’ skill; they’re clearly old pros, and the match is full of feints and counters. I offer a half-hearted commentary for my wife’s benefit, explaining the franchise’s legacy to the best of my limited knowledge. She soaks in the match silently, watching the guy playing Ken. “That one is Patrick Swayze,” she finally declares.

Immediately adjacent to the Street Fighter cabinet is a slot machine—not a video game, not a replica that rewards you with tickets, a real slot machine that spits out real money. I’m momentarily baffled. I didn’t have to present ID to get in here; there are no printed warnings about gambling addiction, no moral grandstanding about casino-game manufacturers pandering to minors. It’s just there. Like the Iran Air storefront directly opposite the Ritz we passed earlier, this curiosity would never fly in the States. And like many things I’ve so far encountered in London, it’s a reminder of how strange things I take for granted at home can actually be.

Funland has more than its share of curiosities, as it turns out. A whack-a-mole game where the “moles” are Batman villains. A skeet-shooting simulator. A ancient-looking boxing game in which you punch padded discs for points. An on-rails shooter based on the Silent Hill series. In one room there are a series of cockpit-like vehicles that house roller coaster or spaceflight motion sims, something like Star Tours at Disneyland. These are closed down now; there’s almost nobody here, and the burly guys in short-sleeved shirts and ties staffing the arcade all look like they’re praying for the end of their shift. Other than us and one staffer, the only occupant of the motion-sim room is a young woman with dreadlocks practicing her DDR steps while she mouths every word of each song.

Upstairs we linger a moment at the bumper car arena. Three Brits are engaged in playful combat with a group of Japanese salarymen, their ties loosened, collars unbuttoned, mouths stuck in the perma-grin of half-drunkenness. This is either a business meeting or the aftermath of one. It appears the deal went well.

On another floor, next to the pool hall, is the bowling alley, where a cosmically bored arcade attendant mans the bar. Only one lane is occupied now. Techno music pounds in the darkness as the ersatz barman clears empty Heineken bottles from the counter. In the next room a little girl cheers on her father in Arabic as he winds up once, twice, three times, then flings a model spaceship down a metal track, around the loop six, seven, eight times, high score!, twenty tickets. She squeals with delight. Her father picks her up and whirls her around as her mother and older brothers idle by her stroller.

My wife yawns involuntarily. Time to end the tour with a light gun game, her preferred genre. We only have enough change for one go, so we resolve to pick the game with the silliest title we can find. Elevator Action Death Parade will do nicely. Metallic elevator doors built into the cabinet close at the end of each level, blocking the bullets of the terrorists invading the office building our special agents are inexplicably defending. We play surprisingly well on so little sleep, making it to the fourth level before the parade ends in our untimely deaths. The hotel beckons.

Down two sets of escalators, in a basement-like space adjacent to the entrance to the Piccadilly Circus Tube station, a cluster of breakdancers rehearse their routine to the Busta Rhymes track “Don’t Touch Me (Throw Da Water On ‘Em)”—a song that, bizarrely enough, I’d listened to on the plane earlier today or yesterday or whenever the hell it was. One lanky kid spins on his back and scissors up into a standing pirouette. He throws us a nod as we slip past. I salute in response.

Next week I will remark how perfectly this tour of the arcade encapsulated my first trip across the Atlantic. How it captured the vaguely foreign, yet comfortingly familiar feeling your typical American might get visiting England for the first time. How its mixture of surreal and mundane, commerce and community, history and flash, was a perfect metaphor for my experience of London. But for now, all I want is to get some sleep.

Comments

A ancient-looking boxing game in which you punch padded discs for points.

Fighting Mania? Probably one of my favourite arcade games of all time

Back in the day, there used to be a Virtual Worlds centre in the basement of the Trocadero hosting the old BattleTech machines (discussed here: http://mechjock.com/). It's a shame that no longer exists...that's my lottery win dream right there.

Glad you enjoyed the holiday

I don't understand... so, 9:30 PM GMT... minus 4 hours = morning? Man, you really sound like a slacker calling mid-afternoon "ungodly hour in the morning"...

EDIT: And thanks to you, I now have a great reason to visit London

Destrin wrote:
A ancient-looking boxing game in which you punch padded discs for points.

Fighting Mania? Probably one of my favourite arcade games of all time

Back in the day, there used to be a Virtual Worlds centre in the basement of the Trocadero hosting the old BattleTech machines (discussed here: http://mechjock.com/). It's a shame that no longer exists...that's my lottery win dream right there.

Glad you enjoyed the holiday :)

As soon as I read that line, I thought to myself "I wonder if that's the Fighting Mania game we used to have at the arcade down the street from my parents house?"

This piece is wonderful. It's got really strong echo's of William Gibson's cyberpunk stylings but I couldn't help but visualise yourself and your wife as Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson wandering around london instead of Tokyo. (Lost in Translation 2: This time it's London!)

Destrin wrote:
A ancient-looking boxing game in which you punch padded discs for points.

Fighting Mania? Probably one of my favourite arcade games of all time

That old chestnut. One of my buddies fractured his wrist playing that while pissed-up on Brighton pier.

Ah, good times

I love the Trocadero. The first time I went into London on my own as an 11 year old, we went there and it was definitely an awesome experience.

Sounds... um... fun.

Jonman wrote:

That old chestnut. One of my buddies fractured his wrist playing that

Heh, I thought it had been banned for that very reason. Apparently not!

Wow! 'Funland' is still there? I had no idea... and I go past there at least once a week.

I'm not surprised it was "eerily empty" though. Sadly, 'Funland' - indeed, the entire 'Trocadero' - embodies everything that's wrong with many of London's tourist attractions; an unwillingness/inability to respond to changing technology, trends and tastes.

My friends and I used to spend ridiculous amounts of time in there either playing Race Drivin' in the three-screen cabinet version of the game or playing a head-to-head motorbike racing game (the name of which name escapes me right now). This was back in 1992/93, and I remember the place being packed after school and work hours.

However, that began to change when the PS1, etc came out and what felt like near-arcade quality gaming was available in the home. There was simply no reason to go to an arcade when you could get a similar experience at home for much less money and with access to a fride full of food. To be honest, I'm surprised it survived even the PS2/Xbox generation.

On the slot machines thing, the law here allow different age groups access to different sorts of 'fruit machines' (as we call them). Basically, low stakes/low prize machines are playable by kids in licensed Family Entertainment Centres. Higher stakes/higher prize machines are available to over-18s in Adult Entertainment Centres or betting shops. And finally, the highest stakes/highest prize machines are accessible only in casinos. Hope that helps.

I might have to bimble down at lunchtime and take another look. Haven't been to Trocadero for something like 10 years.

Oh man.. Trocadero. That brings back memories of my frequent trips to London in my mid 20's. Every other month with my limited disposable income I would find the cheapest flight ticket and fly over to London for a weekend. Trocadero would always be a staple to visit while meandering around between Forbidden Planet, movie theaters and curry shops. London is still my favorite place to be.

Fascinating post. Thank you. I understand the slot machine confusion but why is it so odd to see an Iran Air storefront?

strangederby wrote:

Fascinating post. Thank you. I understand the slot machine confusion but why is it so odd to see an Iran Air storefront?

Because he's from America.

Thanks for the comments, all! Londoners, we kinda fell in love with your city. Trying to think of this trip as the first of many.

Destrin, we hit a good amount of your suggested stops, but didn't have nearly enough time to take everything in. Thanks again for the tips! The rest of you London lot—if you don't do Accomplice, you're a, um...I think the proper term is...wanker?

Re: Fighting Mania—man, I wish I had taken a photo, but it sounds like that could be the one. It absolutely looked like an easy way to break several bones.

detroit20 wrote:

On the slot machines thing, the law here allow different age groups access to different sorts of 'fruit machines' (as we call them).

Ah, right! Should've known that from the Ting Tings song.

detroit20 wrote:

everything that's wrong with many of London's tourist attractions; an unwillingness/inability to respond to changing technology, trends and tastes.

It's interesting you say that. I actually had the opposite reaction at many of the places I visited. I usually try to avoid touristy venues, but was happy to tour them my first time across the pond—and it was interesting to me that places like the thousand-year-old Westminster Abbey offer audio tours on iPod Touches. Boston brings in a fair amount of tourism, but the attractions here feel more, I dunno, garish? In general the touristy stuff in London was, in my view, a lot less obnoxiously touristy than here in the States. Of course, we Yanks kinda have the market on obnoxiousness cornered.

strangederby wrote:

why is it so odd to see an Iran Air storefront?

Well, they are part of the Axis of Evil.

(On a more serious note, the U.S. State Department doesn't look kindly on travel to or from Iran.)

kincher skolfax wrote:

Of course, we Yanks kinda have the market on obnoxiousness cornered. ;)

We're number one!

Welcome to my city of birth and indeed residence. I've travelled a great deal around the world but I always end up coming back to London. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of the flag waving right wing lunatics, I just like the city as you can do pretty much anything here as the world comes to it, so to speak.

If you want some tips on gaming/geekery side of London I suggest paying a visit to the following places:

1) Orcs Nest - specialist board game and P&P RPG shop just off of Charing Cross road near the Strand. It's a small, 2 story shop that has hundreds of copies of Munchkin and the like.

2) Oxford Street - GAME and HMV Stores - The twin gaming retail giants of the UK. Their flagship stores are on Oxford Street so you may want to have a gander. Don't buy anything though as it probably won't work when you get it home!

3) Hyde Park - nothing remotely geeky about it, but it's a vast expanse of greenery that sits right in the middle of London and is very pleasant indeed. It also acts as a good pallette cleanser after going to the places described in points 1 and 2!

Aeoringas wrote:

2) Oxford Street - GAME and HMV Stores - The twin gaming retail giants of the UK. Their flagship stores are on Oxford Street so you may want to have a gander. Don't buy anything though as it probably won't work when you get it home!

Unless it's DS, PSP or PS3. I've bought a lot more games on those platforms thanks to travelling in the US and being unable to bring 360 games back to Europe.

I can't see it referenced in any of the replies, but Funland has now closed - the owners have gone into administration. Makes the article a little more poignant.

Alex_V wrote:

I can't see it referenced in any of the replies, but Funland has now closed - the owners have gone into administration. Makes the article a little more poignant.

Really? As of when? I'm sad to hear that.

kincher skolfax wrote:

Really? As of when? I'm sad to hear that.

Sometime earlier this month.

http://www.coin-opcommunity.co.uk/ne...