THE LAST OF THE OLD-SCHOOL GAMERS

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By Brian Han

Entering the Lovegety Station arcade on a Friday night is like wading through a sea of digital noise.

Squealing tires indicate the Initial D racing games. Digitized laser beams would lead you to the Gundam robot games. And high-pitched anime voices entice gamers to bang on the colourfully-cutesy Taiko drum machine or inside a pink bubbly photo booth.

At the front are three rows of white Japanese arcade cabinets. Players sit down and pop in their quarters to start a match with an opponent sitting across from them. Their eyes are shifting back and forth while their hands move accordingly. Joysticks twist and turn in quarter circle motions, followed by a blitz of button mashes to execute fireballs and dragon punches. Nearly everyone is silent. People gather around to watch, many of them waiting to play next. “You put your quarter down on the machine you wanna play on next. That means you got dibs on the next game,” said one watcher itching to play Street Fighter IV.

Behind the pink neon sign, inside the dark and musty interior, the house is packed.

The Lovegety, housed in a strip mall next to Highway 7 in Thornhill, is the GTA’s last remaining independent arcade, a connection to a bygone era, before computers and Xboxes, when the only way to play was face-to-face with your opponent. And since Funland, the dark Yonge St. gaming room, closed over the summer, gaming enthusiasts from Ryerson have to make the trek to this suburb to get their fix.

It’s not entirely clear why the Lovegety has managed to stay afloat, outlasting the six or seven arcades that used to dot Yonge St. downtown. But the president of the rival Playdium speculates it might have something to do with the way the business has cornered its market.

“Lovegety has done a very good job at skewing its offering to the Asian clientele and it’s really similar to what an Asian style gaming centre would be,” said Len Keywood, who’s been in the business of distributing coin-operated machines since 1975. “The owner of the Lovegety has picked its market and zeroed in on it and does a good job.”

The Gety’s reputation is only known through word-of-mouth. There are a couple tournament websites that post videos of Street Fighter IV matches that happened at the arcade. Other than that, there’s no advertising and no promotion for the Gety.

Even so, some gamers are here every night. Commuting from cities like Hamilton, Mississauga and other far off corners of southern Ontario on a weekly basis is the only way to get a chance to play the latest unreleased games. For competitive gamers, getting to play new games like Street Fighter IV early gives them a head start. More time for them to master their moves and strategies.

“In Toronto, the competition is really fierce; that’s what attracts a lot of people to come here,” said Eric Hai, a business management student at Ryerson who placed fourth in the last Street Fighter tournament. “The best players come here. I don’t live too far away and when there’s a lot of competition, I’ll stay for a while.”

“Every game he touches, he masters. He’s like a gaming genius,” said Alex Shin, one of his gaming buddies.

Andy Lai, an information technology management graduate from Ryerson and a Lovegety regular says the owners listen to their suggestions.

“The owner is from Hong Kong and he always asks us about which games to import next. He really loves the arcade experience back in Asia. Sometimes he’ll even put his quarters down to play with us too,” he says.

Lai and the owner have a partnership. The owner imports the games, and players like Lai encourage other gamers to come to the arcade, by organizing tournaments every month.

One of the arcade’s biggest attractions is the currency of the games. Street Fighter IV isn’t coming to North America until February 2009. Many of the Gety’s other games will never be released in Canada at all. Even though computers and home consoles like the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 sport superior graphics and online capabilities, the Gety allows gamers to play unreleased products.

Even though the Gety depends on the tastes of gamers in the targeted “Asian demographic”, one Brampton gamer is introducing his newly discovered arcade to his own fellow gamers. Peter Rebelo, 30, a Street Fighter enthusiast heard about the arcade in the middle of October. “Don’t be afraid, by all means. If you’re any other type of race or whatever, just come on down. There are no bad feelings or intentions when you’re playing. It’s always about the love for a good challenge,” he says.

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