A moon-faced Joe Frulano sits behind the counter at the Funland Arcade on Yonge Street and remembers a time when Pacman spelled profit and pinball wizards were the mythic cowboys of the day. Back then, video arcades were teeming with energy, excitement, and cash, in downtown Toronto.
Today, the odd customer saunters in to take an uninspired crack at one of the old-time games before drifting back into the mad rush of Yonge Street a few minutes later. Frulano stares out at the virtually empty arcade. Rows of vacant machines, many flashing a prophetic “Game Over”, sit like glowing tombstones, marking the demise of a once-thriving industry.
“We used to have six arcades between here and Bloor,” he recalls with a tone of sentimentality usually reserved for long lost loves. “The heyday was probably in the 60s and 70s. I was a kid and I used to come here.”
Frulano has worked at Funland for 33 years and managed the business for more than 20, but most of the ‘fun’ has been removed from the equation, thanks in large part to the wild popularity of home gaming consoles and personal computers.
“We’re just straggling along,” he admits.
“Pinball used to be big. Nobody plays pinball anymore. We’ve got like 20 or 30 (machines). It’s all pinball back there,” he says, his beefy fingers gesturing to the back of the arcade. “There’s nobody there.”
Like Frulano, Dallas Sheppard has watched with dismay as the demand for bulky arcade games plummeted while consumers bought up sleek home systems at a furious rate. She and her husband purchased Toronto Coin Machine Exchange in 1996. It was a business that had thrived since 1932. Now they struggle to make ends meet.
Their arcade, nestled inconspicuously in the arrivals area at Union Station, is one of the few surviving ones in the city.
“Things have just been going down and down. Between the home systems, non-smoking in bars, and the casinos, that’s been the three biggest factors,” Sheppard tells CityNews.ca.
“It used to be that we would get a particular game and then eight or nine months later the home game would come out. The company that used to manufacture them realized that they make way more money selling the cartridges for the home systems then they do on selling the arcade version.”
“Before, we would be able to make money with people playing a brand new game and now they can rent the same game for eight bucks and play it on the home system and have it before we do.”
With more and more consumers playing from the comforts of home, arcades soon became desolate wastelands, often frequented by a colourful, but not-so-welcoming cast of undesirable characters.
“Arcades had that seedy image and the city stopped issuing new licences,” Sheppard adds. “The city wouldn’t allow any more arcades. What you’ll find in Toronto is you can’t get a licence for an arcade, even if you wanted to.”
In a desperate attempt to adapt to the changing landscape, Funland has installed several computers at the front of the arcade. For a small fee, internet-savvy teens can now check their email, surf the web, and play video games, while the old machines sit neglected, gathering dust. Ironically, they’ve been forced to embrace the very technology that threatens to close the door on the arcade business for good.
“If you think about it, you can play games with anybody in the world, anybody that’s got a personal computer,” Frulano stresses. “You can play the same game with somebody across the world.
“How can you compete with that?”
“We’re like Sam the Record Man across the street,” he concludes, citing the landmark record store that fell victim to the online downloading craze.
“We’re a dying breed.”
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