Neon paintings glow with the memories of
Blockbuster and Back to the Future as guests walk town an aisle of video games.
Player’s hands continue tapping on a
satisfying push of plastic buttons on the original 1992 Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet.
Another pair shout as they find out the
results of a one-on-one multiplayer deathmatch in GoldenEye. The signature red-wash animation from 1997 draws across
an HDTV connected to a Nintendo 64.
Located along College St., FreePlay gives
Torontonians two floors of nostalgia through the games they played growing up
through second generation era of games spanning the late 70’s to early 2000’s.
The venue also included a giant Jenga station
and a watchable collection of VHS movies to recapture the nostalgia of being
For FreePlay owner Jake Yakobi, he also wanted
to remove a large pet peeve that haunted retro gamers for decades.
“Nobody really has time for change in their
pocket anymore,” said Yakobi, adding that coins were a thing of the past and
removing the Insert Coin prompt let
gamers finish what they started when they were younger.
It’s also a part of FreePlay’s title in making
the past as accessible as possible through retro design elements and consoles.
“Clearly the games were from the 80’s and the
90’s,” he said. “I grew up in that era. The old school hip-hop lends itself
nicely to that environment. It really started with the games and then that
concept evolved from there to ‘stay retro’.”
The event’s grand opening also included a
hosted festivity with local Toronto personality Tony “Master T” Young, who
served as a welcoming MC for guests coming in.
Classic radio hits rumbled the arcade’s two
floors as Canadian hip-hop artist Kareem “Choclair” Blake kept players in the
“My first machine was like an (Atari) 2600 or
2800,” said Dave Ruigrok, who remembered retro games focused less on story and
more towards player actions.
“There’s a lot more imagination, whereas I found
nowadays, it’s storylines.” he said, adding FreePlay’s vintage experiences were
different from cinematic gameplay found in today’s games.
“It’s a different beast. It’s a different
medium. When I used to play Flight
Simulator (1982), which was kind of a close sort of 3D vector graphics sort
of thing,” he said.
“You can pretend
you’re in a spaceship.”
Paula Vena looked down on the controls of
arcade cabinets, noticing they didn’t have a popular detail from the 80’s.
“There’s a lot less smoking cigarettes in
here,” said Vena, who remembered being surrounded by them when she regularly
took her change to local arcades at age 16.
“There were cigarette holders on the games.
You used to be able to put your cigarette on the machine while you played and
that’s why all these video games used to have burn marks on them,” she laughed.
But FreePlay’s details are also hidden in
easter eggs that can be found in drawings across the arcade. This is where
players can see artifacts from their past, including the 1989 Game Boy, vintage “brick” cell phones
According to Yakobi, he ventured to Kensington
Market and partnered with art company Toronto Collective to design FreePlay’s
Other businesses within Toronto’s gaming
community also welcomed FreePlay into the neighbourhood, including A&C
Games who contributed a few easter eggs to complete the aesthetic.
“We have a few display boxes on the second floor with old toys and a museum of ’80s and ’90s consoles donated,” Yakobi said.
“(It’s) eye-opening, pulling on some memory
strings for people, but really the main word is fun. It’s all about that and I hope we did a good job in
translating that to the people.”