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Secret’s out on a Nintendo cafe

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Toru Hashimoto at his 84 Cafe in Tokyo in August. The cafe is a nostalgic repository for objects he kept during his decade as an engineer at Nintendo.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Toru Hashimoto at his 84 Cafe in Tokyo in August. The cafe is a nostalgic repository for objects he kept during his decade as an engineer at Nintendo.

TOKYO >> Toru Hashimoto ran a cafe he hoped almost nobody could find.

His tiny hideaway is a nostalgic repository for objects he kept during his decade as an engineer at Nintendo in the 1980s and ’90s: the original score for the Mario theme song, jerseys from the company baseball team, a rare factory cartridge label for the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros.

To Hashimoto, the Tokyo cafe was an extension of his living room, where he had once kept the memorabilia.

He allowed in only his former industry colleagues and their friends, and he tried hard to keep its address a secret. But he also scattered obscure clues about its location on Facebook, such as the number of steps needed to get there from a certain landmark, and obsessives followed them, hoping to find a way in.

“In games, you have to find the capital or find where your enemies are hiding,” he said. “So it’s not like you can just walk straight to your destination.”

Now, though, the mystery is over. Like many other small-business owners who have taken drastic steps to survive the pandemic, Hashimoto decided to open his cafe to the public. He is hoping to alleviate the financial strain amid a state of emergency in Tokyo.

“I am shouldering debt, and we are barely getting by, treading water,” he said.

Hashimoto opened the cafe in 2015. He named it 84, after the final round of the Super Mario Bros. game — World 8, Level 4 — and the year he started working for Nintendo. (Pronounced “hashi,” it is also an abbreviation of his last name and the Japanese word for “chopsticks” and “bridge.”)

The cafe is not a place to actually play video games. In recent years, video game bars in Japan have been raided over copyright disputes with manufacturers. The country’s once omnipresent arcades have also faded in popularity, a demise hastened by Japan’s worsening economy and the pandemic.

But from their first step inside, customers are immersed in a loving tribute to the video game world. The door opens to a jingle from The Legend of Zelda that signals to players that they have reached their destination. A TV plays old video game commercials on a loop. On the walls are autographed sketches of Pokemon, Zelda and Dragon Quest characters by the games’ creators and developers.

“Before the opening of the cafe, all of this was in my living room,” Hashimoto said. “So the concept of this cafe is also ‘Welcome to my humble home.’”

He told friends to drop by for beers and stayed open until 3 a.m. He would miss the last train and have to rent a hotel room down the street. He now has an apartment nearby, where he keeps “all the junk” that he did not include in the cafe.

Hisakazu Hirabayashi, a video game consultant and regular at 84, said he enjoyed meeting others in Hashimoto’s inner circle when cafe access was restricted.

“People in the gaming industry can be socially awkward, and they like to speak in their own gaming lingo,” he said. “And 84 was just the place to do that with new people. Hashimoto is great at introducing people to each other; he networks for you just by being there.”

Others embraced the inclusivity. Eishi Ozeki, 46, a manga artist who said he makes the hourlong journey from his home to the cafe up to three times a month, welcomed the decision to open it to the public.

“The new system is great for clients from abroad, or people like me, who so badly wanted to come to the cafe 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 Ozeki. He created a manga about a girl who regularly visited the cafe in order to break into the video game industry.

As he opens to a wider circle, Hashimoto hopes that video games will be just a starting point for deeper discussions.

“People don’t come in and ask each other, ‘How do you get to that final stage of Mario Bros.?’ ” he said. “We talk about life, we talk about career progression for the younger folks. That’s the conversation that happens here.”

He recalled a chance encounter between a woman interested in developing video games and Yuji Horii, creator of Dragon Quest.

“He signed her passport and said, ‘This is your good luck charm,’ ” Hashimoto said, referring to the cafe’s stamp book. “This is what I want to do with this cafe. And I told her, ‘One day when you create your own video game, bring it here for us to see.’ “

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