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.