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"The Epicenter of the Video Game Universe": Exploring the Trocadero, a Gateway to a New World
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“The Epicenter of the Video Game Universe”: Exploring the Trocadero, a Gateway to a New World

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Visiting the Trocadero complex in central London during the late 1990s was an exhilarating and overwhelming experience. The immense structure housed SegaWorld, an indoor theme park and arcade inspired by the successful “Joypolis” concept in Japan. Upon entering, visitors were greeted by a statue of Sonic the Hedgehog and rode the futuristic “rocket escalators” made of sleek steel and vibrant blue lighting. The escalators lifted guests to the top of the building, offering a sneak peek of the various attractions on each level, such as the Mad Bazooka bumper car ride and the Ghost Hunt VR experience. From there, visitors could explore different themed zones like the Carnival and Sports Arena as they made their way down.

All around, there were sounds of arcade machines and AS-1 simulator rides, with their loud hydraulics, and the lively talking of guests waiting in line for Sega’s VR-1 virtual reality experience. There were also occasional noises from the Pepsi Max Drop ride and its riders’ screams. Music from popular songs of the time could be heard through speakers. The area was also decorated with items such as a Harrier jump jet and a Formula 1 car, displayed among the arcade cabinets housing classics like Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter. According to promotional videos, Sega proudly claimed that this entire setup was “the pinnacle of futuristic entertainment.”

Visitors take a virtual reality trip with the SegaWorld 3D experience, circa 1997.

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The Trocadero has a long history of being a popular and lively destination. Starting as a small cluster of cottages, it was later developed and became a hub for various activities such as tennis, circus performances, dining, and even a prominent location for the sex trade. By 1878, it was renamed the Royal Trocadero Music Hall, inspired by the famous Trocadéro Palace in Paris. The building later served as a theatre and ultimately became the Trocadero Restaurant under J Lyons & Co in 1896. It continued to host dances, shows, events, and elegant dining until it closed in 1965.

The building underwent renovation in 1984, and with an investment of £45m, it was transformed into Britain’s biggest indoor entertainment center, featuring the Guinness Book of Records exhibit, retail stores, and a multiplex cinema. In 1990, a section named Funland was added, providing a large variety of cutting-edge coin-operated games on the first floor. This area would eventually become the hub of arcade culture in the UK, housing popular games like Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo, Mortal Kombat, and Virtua Fighter 2 ahead of other similar establishments.

“I have many fond memories of Funland,” recalls Gabino Stergides, the current Chief Entertainment Officer of Funland and CEO of Electrocoin, a long-standing amusement company. “With our family’s deep roots in the amusement industry, we had great connections and were able to constantly import the newest arcade games from Japan. Every game would make its debut at Funland before anywhere else. It was like a measuring stick for which games were trending and likely to be successful.”

During the early 1990s, the building hosted a variety of advanced forms of entertainment. Among these were the popular laser gun game Quasar and the vibrant Lazer Bowl, a bowling alley that was featured in an early episode of Peep Show. Additionally, Trocadero was the primary location for the Alien War experience, which was a “total reality” attraction inspired by the Aliens movie and opened by Sigourney Weaver in 1993. Participants were led through a contaminated facility by actors portraying space marines, offering an immersive experience that previewed the game-based immersive theatre produced by companies like Punchdrunk.

One of the 3D virtual reality video games

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However, in September 1996, Sega took over six floors of the Trocadero and installed seven theme park-style attractions. These included rides that simulated outer space, the Earth’s core, and the depths of the ocean. Additionally, there were over 400 arcade games, including popular titles such as Daytona USA and Manx TT Super Bike which could be played by up to eight players at once. SegaWorld employees were also present to provide live commentary on games. Some of the other notable games available were Virtua Cop, Fighting Vipers, House of the Dead, Power Sled (a bobsleigh simulator), and the rare Sega Net Merc VR machine. During the Autumn of 1996, the Trocadero hosted the Virtua Fighter 3 Japan vs England tournament, with Sega bringing over top players from Japan.

The Trocadero not only offered entertaining games, but also held a special place in the hearts of many due to its prime location and diverse crowd. Paul Williams, former managing director of SegaWorld, fondly remembers the unique qualities of the Trocadero, stating that it was the center of many events and held a special aura. One of the most notable features was the large escalator that transported visitors from the outside world into a different universe. Many people have vivid memories of this experience, showcasing the impact it had on its visitors.

The Trocadero was a popular meeting place for diverse subcultural groups to gather and show off; a popular destination for young teenagers who were not yet old enough to experience the city’s nightlife, and a meeting spot for twenty-somethings preparing to venture into the clubs and bars of Soho. Beneath the building, street dance crews would entertain crowds in the maze-like tunnels, while music aficionados sought refuge and checked out their purchases from the renowned Tower Records located nearby, fondly remembered as one of the top record stores in the city.

According to a devoted arcade enthusiast and social media manager for Freeplay City and Funland London, Toby Nanakhorn, the Troc of the 90s served as an early version of the internet. In today’s world, it’s easy to find like-minded individuals, but in the past, it was more difficult for individuals with unusual interests. The Troc provided a unique space for people who didn’t enjoy traditional leisure activities, such as drinking and clubbing. Unlike other London arcades that focused solely on games, the Troc offered a diverse and inclusive environment where people from different subcultures could come together. It was a place to be oneself and connect with others from all over the world. This was the main appeal of the Troc during its heyday.

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“Ryan King, a member of the fighting game community and a regular patron of the arcades in London, who currently works for Sega, acknowledges the significance of the Trocadero as a gathering place. He mentions that while there were other arcades that held importance for fighting games, such as the smaller Casino near Goodge Street, the Trocadero’s location drew in a diverse group of people and players from around the world, making it crucial for the community’s growth. Regardless of skill level, one could benefit from the Trocadero – whether it be leaving as the best Ken (a character from Street Fighter) of the day, or even taking a round off of a renowned player like Ryan Hart. The arcade provided an opportunity to learn from a wide range of fighting game enthusiasts.”

The linked Daytona USA cabinets in the Troc in 1997.

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To some extent, the various arcades at the Trocadero served as an extension of the site’s history as a place where fun and culture coexisted for the enjoyment of passing crowds. However, by the late 1990s, the arcade industry began to decline. In 1999, Sega left due to their inability to establish a sustainable and popular business model. The rides were often overcrowded and prone to breakdowns, and the entry fee was costly. Eventually, Funland, which was affectionately referred to as “Troc” among the arcade community, returned ownership to Sega in 2011. After that, only a few arcade cabinets remained in the increasingly vacant halls. In late February 2014, the space was closed. The building has since been transformed into the Zedwell Piccadilly hotel, consisting of 728 rooms.

Some may argue that the Trocadero’s legacy is apparent in the Brunswick shopping centre near London’s Russell Square, where Funland is now located. Stergides is in charge of Funland and notes that it may be different from the Trocadero, but it caters to a diverse audience, similar to the Troc. He also explains that they converted a River Island store into the Funland space, making it a well-lit and pleasant environment for families. However, they still welcome serious arcade players and even hold pinball tournaments. In this sense, the Trocadero lives on in a new and more contemporary way.

Funland’s new guise presents a compelling model. Ultimately, though, the arcade experience unique to the Troc has likely had its day. While SegaWorld and the original Funland once offered a beguiling prelude to the internet, that same force made them less relevant. Certainly the expanding technological muscle of home consoles made trips to arcades less appealing. And as online access became commonplace, we could all find our people without needing to visit central London. Niche geek cultures went mainstream, and posturing moved from reality to social media.

Nanakhorn concludes, “The number of compliments we would receive daily at the Trocadero was unbelievable. When we arrived, played on the machine, and then had a crowd of people applauding us – physically cheering us on in public. This experience is rare in most places and it is more gratifying than receiving 50,000 likes on Instagram.”

Source: theguardian.com