Inside Frolic’s, Toronto’s secret arcade in a suburban basement
BY ZACK KOTZER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY SHANE FESTER | AUGUST 9, 2016 AT 11:54 AM
Frolic’s Arcade is an audio-visual overload. A fleet of 15 pinball machines rumbles and shimmers, tricked out with lights and other additions. The back wall is a mirror, creating the illusion that the game cabinets stretch infinitely. Overhead, a ribbon of multi-colour lights lines the rim of the ceiling like a slice of Rainbow Road, the Technicolor finale from Mario Kart. And, at the entrance, there’s an orange neon sign in a Tron-like typface. The space might just be the last true arcade in Toronto. It’s also a secret.
Frolic’s isn’t on a major street like the bygone Video Invasion or Funland arcades. It’s unmarked and hidden, nestled in a suburban basement near the north end of the subway line. Despite the light-and-sound explosion inside, you can barely tell Frolic’s exists from the outside. To get in, you need to contact the owners directly to book an appointment or sign up for a charity or league event. Only then will they share the address.
“As a 17-year-old, nothing was cooler to me than being the guy with the coin belt at the arcade,” says Chris Frolic, who runs the arcade with his wife, Robin; they’re both software developers. “That’s no longer a viable business plan. But this arcade lets me scratch that itch.”
Toronto used to be full of arcades. Now there are none. In the late ’90s, Nintendo and Sony video game consoles overtook their bulky public counterparts, and the market for pinball machines and arcade terminals—which had boomed for three decades—quickly collapsed. As arcades died out, Toronto stopped granting business licences to operate them. The bylaws governing arcades, however, live on, infamously limiting venues to two coin-operated machines.
Of course, nostalgia has kicked in, and today’s kids-at-heart want to get their mitts on their favourite games again. Bars like Get Well, Handlebar and, most recently, Cabin Fever have capitalized on that desire with free-to-play terminals.
When the Frolics purchased their house, they already had a master plan to build an arcade. They’re not sure how much they spent putting it together—they created it during a full-house renovation—but each machine cost them between $5,000 and $9,000. All of their games—The Avengers, Metallica, The Walking Dead—are recent releases (and most are limited editions) that they’ve bought since 2012. But they don’t plan on pushing for a commercial licence: it would be too expensive to get a variance to work around the two-machine bylaw. Besides, Chris doesn’t want to turn his teenage fantasy into “the world’s worst job.”
Robin, meanwhile, had only played pinball a few times before they began working on the arcade. She’s more interested in propping the cabinets open to see their guts (pinball machines clamshell like the hood of a car). “Show me how they work,” she said during an early encounter with the game. She’s upgraded many of Frolic’s machines, and, at the moment, she’s renovating Frolic’s washroom to make it look like a scene out of a comic book.
Frolic’s opens its doors to newcomers for charity events and for the Toronto Pinball Vixens, a league for female and non-binary players who want an alternative from the usual, male-dominated events around the city, usually held in other collectors’ basements. But most evenings at Frolic’s feel like a community barbecue. One night in late July, friends and members of ToPL (Toronto Pinball League) gathered for the arrival of Frolic’s newest child, Ghostbusters, a limited-edition cabinet based on the Ivan Reitman classic with added hologram effects and new shots. Robin wore a Pac-Man dress, Chris a fading shirt from a previous pinball convention.
We asked them to tell us about four of their favourite machines.
“I guess Tron is my gem,” says Chris. It was the first machine he bought, back in 2012. The original 1982 film inspired the aesthetic direction of Frolic’s, from the style of the neon sign to the custom-made tokens. It’s also the arcade’s most modified machine: the coolest addition is a tiny arcade cabinet—just a lifeless toy in the factory model—that’s been remade with a teeny-weenie working screen that plays a Tron arcade game.
If Tron is the gem, Medieval Madness is the anchor. A recent reproduction of a 1997 classic, it’s placed at the back and popular enough to draw players down the hall. “The original is a coveted collector’s piece,” Chris says. “I considered buying an old beat up one three or four years ago, just to have it. It would be such a serious score for any collector to have one, but now there’s the remake.” With a big centre castle and intuitive shots, Medieval Madness is considered one of the easiest games to figure out for beginners, but meaty enough for diehards to chew. Fun fact: the voice of the damsel is supplied by Tina Fey. She was recruited by 30 Rock co-star Scott Adsit, who wrote the game’s dialogue before either one broke it big.
This rare machine from 2015 is produced by newcomers Heighway Pinball. “The serial number is 0.0003,” says Chris. “Serial numbers one and two are with the company.” The Frolics like it because they love seeing new tech, and Full Throttle—themed around motorcycle racing—uses a slew of novel gadgets. The most noticeable are the wide LCD screens on both the back glass and playfield.
After buying this machine, Chris decided to email its designer, Steve Ritchie, an industry vet who made influential ’80s and ’90s classics like Black Knight, High Speed and Terminator 2. The hitch? Chris didn’t actually have Ritchie’s email, so he just guessed it. “I wrote that it was an honour to be the first person to receive the Game of Thrones LE,” he says. “I wanted to thank him for all he’s done.” He wasn’t sure whether Ritchie would ever see it, let alone reply. But he did. “When he emailed me back, I wanted to print it out and put it on the wall.”
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