To survive the pandemic, a secret Nintendo Cafe is no longer a secret
TOKYO – Toru Hashimoto ran a cafe he hoped hardly anyone could find.
His little hideaway is a nostalgic repository of items he kept during his decade as an engineer at Nintendo in the ’80s and’ 90s: the original score for Mario’s theme song, the baseball team jerseys company, a rare factory cartridge label for the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros.
For Mr. Hashimoto, the Tokyo cafe was an extension of his living room, where he had once kept the memories. He only admitted his former industry colleagues and their friends, and he made an effort to keep his address a secret. But he also scattered obscure clues about his location on Facebook, such as how many steps it takes to get there from a certain landmark, and the obsessives followed them, hoping to find a way to enter.
“In the games you have to find the capital or find where your enemies are hiding. So it’s not like you can walk straight to your destination, ”he said.
Now, however, the mystery is over. Like many other small business owners who have taken drastic measures to survive during the pandemic, Mr Hashimoto felt compelled to open his cafe to anyone with a reservation starting this summer. He hopes to ease the financial pressure as the coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo has kept some customers at home.
“I am in debt and we are barely managing, treading water,” he said.
Mr. Hashimoto opened the cafe in 2015. He named it 84, after the last round of the Super Mario Bros. game. – World 8, Level 4 – and the year he started working for Nintendo. (Pronounced “hashi,” it’s also an abbreviation of her last name and the Japanese word for “chopsticks” and “bridge.”)
He joined Nintendo a year after the company, previously known for designing card games, released the Nintendo Entertainment System, its first video game console. There he learned engineering from scratch and spent most of his time debugging games before they hit the market. In 1996, he joined a small consulting firm that advises developers on how to make more fun games.
Its cafe, like other Japanese establishments devoted to niche interests, from trains to murder mysteries to stationery, is small, only seating five tables, and only open on weekends. Customers can book a 90-minute slot, which costs 8,400 yen or $ 75. Reservists receive the address if they agree not to disclose it.
The cafe is not, as Mr. Hashimoto is careful to note, a place to play video games. In recent years, video game bars in Japan have been raided over copyright disputes with manufacturers. The country’s once-ubiquitous arcades have also lost popularity, a demise accelerated by the worsening Japanese economy and the pandemic.
But from their first step inside, the café patrons are immersed in a loving tribute to the world of video games. The door opens to a jingle from The Legend of Zelda that signals players that they have reached their destination. A Nintendo console is wired to the ceiling, surrounded by candy-colored cartridge slots. A television is playing old video game advertisements on a loop. An army of plush video game characters and creatures preside over a sofa.
On the walls are autographed sketches of Pokémon, Zelda and Dragon Quest characters by the creators and developers of the games.
Business and Economy
“Before the cafe opened, it was all in my living room,” he said. “So the concept of this cafe is also ‘welcome to my humble house’. “
He told friends to drop in for some beers and stayed open until 3 a.m. He would miss the last train, forcing him to rent a hotel room down the street. He now has an apartment nearby, where he keeps “all the garbage” that he didn’t include in the cafe.
He only spoke to acquaintances and their friends in part because of what he called “shyness.” “I wasn’t sure I could serve a whole bunch of foreigners, so I wanted to start with people I already knew,” he said.
The cafe stopped serving hot food after Mr Hashimoto, who was reluctant to work with people he didn’t know, struggled to find a replacement for his cook. It now only serves drinks and a basket of retro snacks. And when Mr. Hashimoto needed another waiter, he befriended a cashier at the convenience store downstairs – she looked miserable, he said – and eventually hired her.
Hisakazu Hirabayashi, a video game consultant and 84-year-old regular, said he enjoyed meeting other members of Mr. Hashimoto’s inner circle when the cafe only accepted members and their friends.
“People in the gaming industry can be socially awkward and they like to talk in their own gaming lingo. And 84 was just the place to do that with new people,” he said. “Hashimoto is good at introducing people to each other; he networks for you just by being there.
Others adopted the new inclusion. Eishi Ozeki, a 46-year-old manga artist who said he made the hour-long commute from his home to the cafe up to three times a month, hailed the decision to open it to the public.
“The new system is ideal for foreign customers, or people like me, who wanted to come to the cafe so badly but couldn’t due to a lack of connections,” he said.
Finding a way to get into 84 had become a point of obsession for Mr. Ozeki, who kept harassing an acquaintance who he believed might know his location. He then created a manga about a girl who regularly visited the cafe in order to break into the video game industry.
As he opens his business to a wider circle, Hashimoto hopes video games will be just a starting point for more in-depth discussions.
“People don’t come and ask, ‘How do you get to this final stage of Mario Bros. ? ‘ “, did he declare. “We talk about life, we talk about career progression for the youngest. This is the conversation going on here.
He recounted a chance meeting between a woman interested in video game development and Yuji Horii, the creator of Dragon Quest.
“He signed his passport and said, ‘This is your lucky charm,’” Hashimoto said, referring to the cafe’s stamp book for customer visits. “That’s what I want to do with this coffee. And I told him, one day you’re making your own video game, bring it here so we can see it.
Hikari Hida reported from Tokyo and Tiffany May from Hong Kong.