By Mike O’Brien
Tucked away in the High Street Arcade at Queen’s St is a new venue: The Arcade Vaults. With Cardiff proving a hotspot for gaming culture, I was curious about what the Vaults could bring to such a crowded space – so I had a chat with its owner, Chris Munasinha, to learn a bit more about this new challenger.
Walking into the Arcade Vaults is like walking into the annals of history. To my inner eight year old though, it’s more like walking into the gaming exhibition at the National Science Museum and being allowed to touch everything. All the household classics like Tetris, Super Mario Kart, and Guitar Hero are here, with consoles and arcade machines spanning from the 70s to the present day. For the lesser known stuff, Chris was dropping facts like he was born to do it. His giddiness and encyclopedic knowledge of everything in the shop is endearing; much of it, he tells me, is on loan from his personal collection.
Let’s start with a bit about yourself. Where are you from, Chris?
I’m from London originally, but I moved here about seven years ago with my wife, who’s from Cardiff.
How are you finding Cardiff?
Great, yeah! In a roundabout way, this is all an indirect result of me trying to create a social life for myself. I’m a freelancer, so in coming to a new city, I didn’t really have a social circle. The chain reaction was when I went to a tech dev conference in Aberystwyth called iOSDev, and from there I found out about GamesWales, met a bunch of people, and from there I decided to start off this whole Arcade Vaults thing.
Seems like it’s working out pretty well so far!
Yeah, it’s getting there! We’ve been open for about three months now, and the curve is going in the right direction. We’ve been doing gaming events in other venues for a number of years now, but this particular venue is new.
Presumably, you can’t commit to something like the Arcade Vaults without having a personal relationship with video games. What sparked it all?
I got my first computer when I was 8. I was living back in Sri Lanka in those times, and there wasn’t much access to video game shops outside of big cities. With the computer you got a manual with the program in the back that you had to type in Basic – which also got me into programming – but the very first game I ever played was this racing game you had to program a car go up a track. It was very simple – it was less of a car and more like eight pixels – but that’s when I started liking games. My first proper gaming machine was an Amiga – so many memories! – which a lot of British developers, like Peter Molyneux, started with. Ended up going to university, got into computer science… I still played games, but not in the same way. It was trips to the chip shop, stopping off at the arcade, playing a bit of R-Type, Street Fighter.
Are you more of a Ryu or a Ken kinda guy?
Don’t say Sagat.
It would generally be Chun-Li or Guile. I could never really get the hang of the dragon punch to be honest with you! But yeah, gaming has shaped a lot of the decisions I’ve made. I always regretted not going into game development after graduating from computer science. I toyed with the idea of making games and changing careers after that conference, but it ended up being much more fun to see people play games than make them.
Give us your three favourite retro games.
R-Type, Street Fighter… II…. Turbo Edition. Too slow otherwise. And Lemmings. Ooh, Flashback… Flashback was always quite good as well. We’ll stick with Lemmings.
And your three favourite modern games?
The Last of Us is probably one of my all-time favourite games. I like Resogun quite a lot as well. You know what, I really enjoyed God of War and Spider-Man. And Zelda! How could I forget Zelda!? Scratch Spider-Man – let’s go with Breath of the Wild. I was always a big fan of building games as well, like Sim City, but there hasn’t been anything like it for years.
Not a fan of Cities: Skylines?
I like Cities: Skylines, but I always felt it could do with a bit more focus on the campaign.
The traffic is terrible.
The traffic is terrible.
Who is your favourite Mario Kart character, and why is it Waluigi?
What’s your biggest gaming achievement?
When I was younger, there was a competition where you had to make a game, and the one I made got published in Amiga Action back in 1994. I still have the magazine!
Let’s talk about the Vaults. You guys have hosted everything from development jams to tournaments to speed dating – what is the Arcade Vaults exactly?
In the simplest terms, it’s a community for the makers and players of video games, which sounds very generic, but actually it’s the most apt way of describing what we’re doing. We’re a hub for everything to do with video games and the things that people love about video games. The speed dating thing [for example] was a way to bring together people who play video games but might not necessarily be too social, and want to just meet other people like themselves. We run the tournaments because we want to build a place for people to play games, we have our game jams so people can make the games, so really it is a community for the creators and the players.
How big is the team running things here?
It’s me, and then there’s a bunch of people who help out. We’ve got Will downstairs, my part-time assistant, and then we’ve got a bunch of other people who’ve helped out over the years, without which this place would never have existed. Whilst I’m responsible for everything, the place wouldn’t exist without a team of volunteers.
How can people get involved if they want to volunteer?
Get in touch! Let us know what you can do. The Arcade Vaults is a community interest company, which means we’re essentially non-profit. We’re not out to make millions; if we wanted that, we’d probably be out making the next… I dunno.
Arcade Vaults: Battle Royale?
[laughs] Yeah. But if anyone wants to help out, we’ll accept any form of volunteering. Even donations from things like furniture, TVs, and video games themselves would go a long way.
The Arcade Vaults seems much more profound to you than just a shop or a venue – in fact, you seem reluctant to use those terms at all. It seems more like your baby than any kind of business.
It is, that’s fair to say. […] It is my baby, it’s been a lot of work getting here, it’s been a lot of admin, a lot of financial work, a lot of time, a lot of strained relationships. We may be non-profit but we’ve still gotta pay the bills. It’s all working well so far, getting there slowly but surely. All the volunteers, customers, and developers are showing support by helping out and coming to the events, so yeah, it’s been really pleasing to see that people get what we’re trying to do.
Is there a place where people can bring their own devices or play their own games?
We haven’t really explored that in great detail. One of the things about this coworking space is that on the weekends, it’s a bit more free, so we could do that up here […] it’s a possibility. If we want to be a community, then that’s one of the things we have to offer people down the line.
The Arcade Vaults has a clear retro vibe, but are there any plans at all to provide a space for modern gaming?
It’s probably always going to have a heavy focus on the older stuff. People are currently playing modern games at home, why compete with what people have in a comfortable sense? Yes, we can offer things like the ability to try modern games that they don’t have, but it’s easier to bring retro to the masses because people don’t really see it anymore. We’ll always have a focus on the older stuff, but we’ll make the time for the new stuff as well.
Tell us about some of the main events happening at the Arcade Vaults!
Smash is obviously dominating everything at the moment, with Ultimate’s release and the Melee community approaching us. But we also had an ‘Introduction to D&D’ night a few weeks ago that went really well, the Nintendo South Wales community are running some events here, we’re hosting a talk with the Cardiff Science Festival, board games,, speed dating, pub quizzes […] We’re open to feedback as well; people have suggested events at our venue that we’ve taken on board. It’s a community-driven venue after all.
You call the Vaults a non-profit community interest company. It’s clearly a labour of love and an individual project for you, but some of the events and services that you provide are the same as those of other local businesses in Cardiff. Do you consider yourself a competitor?
It’s gonna be hard not to compete with some places – Kongs, Talk and Surf, Indycube, Rabble… we are a bit of a competitor, but we try and work with them. I know Qas, who runs Talk and Surf, and we try and make sure that our events don’t clash on the same nights because why divide the community? We all want the same thing, we want people to come and play games. Whilst on a base level we have competitors, I always try and co-ordinate with people to make sure that we’re not competing competing, if you see what I mean. I really strive hard to make good relationships with these various organisations, and I want to make sure everyone is on the same page with the ultimate goal – grow the video game community in Cardiff.
I found Chris to be reassuringly genuine. Pleasant, unrehearsed, and clearly in-tune with the culture, it was a relief to see the Vaults was run by someone whom I could easily have mistaken for another customer. The appeal of supporting niche local businesses like this hinges on the sincerity of their owners, and unlike some I’ve met in the past, I have no reason to doubt Chris. Go check it out when you get the time – odds are there’s something up your alley if you have any kind of relationship with video games, and your money couldn’t be going to more honest folks.