Game the System sat down with Ben Campbell, owner of 1989 Arcade Bar & Kitchen, to chat about Sydney’s only bar-arcade. Tucked away at the "awkward end" of the inner city suburb Newtown - one of Sydney’s most progressive and diverse cultural hubs - is this little slice of gaming nirvana.
Game the System: So tell us a little about 1989 and how it came to be.
Ben: So I’m from London, I’m from the UK. I literally moved to Australia two years ago, my wife is Australian and we got married four years ago. When we moved to Sydney the agreement that my wife and I had was that if Sydney hasn’t got an arcade bar that we would open one up. We sold our tiny little one bedroom flat in London and used that money to open up this place. There's been a flurry of arcade bars opening around the world. This is something that’s happening all over the globe and it’s really exciting to be part of it.
The business is named after the machine which is my favourite game in the arcades. I’ve always wanted to own a Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles arcade machine. That’s been my ambition.
Four years ago I looked on Gumtree and I found one for 700 pounds and I was like 'wow that's a bargain. 700 quid? Awesome. Where is it? Yeah I’ll hire a van. I’m getting my first arcade machine!' Obviously it’s our flagship here because it’s the first cab I bought and it was made in 1989.
All the other machines I’ve collected since arriving in Australia. We’ve got thirteen cabs but we also have a feature wall that is made up of five hundred VHS cassette cases individually screwed into the wall.
We really want to focus on creating a space that is for everyone, and being a good bar first and then being a good arcade bar. You can’t just open up a venue and go 'I’ll put video games and beer in it and people will love it'. If you’re not a good bar with good drinks and good service and friendly smiles and all that kind of stuff no ones going to come.
GTS: What’s your background? Are you a gamer or are you new to all this arcade business?
Ben: My background is film and television. I did a lot of children's TV programs back at home. Peppa Pig, Charlie and Lola, Fantastic Mr. Fox. Then I got my own production company and did some directing and producing and made shows for Food Network, the Extreme Sports Channel, and stuff for SBS. Made a few commercials, short films, that kind of stuff.
So I’ve always been creative and still am, and it's something I want to get back into. That’s obviously why we’ve got a wall of VHS covers. Film is my first love, games my second love. And here in 1989 I’ve got all my loves in one building.
I only have experience with what we are doing right here. This is my first. I’ve never opened a bar before, I’ve just been a gamer. I’ve always loved arcade games, I’ve always loved gaming, I’ve always loved the social aspect of gaming as well especially with arcades. It’s one of my favourite things to see.
I’ve been collecting retro games and consoles and games for a while. The scene is massive in the UK. It's so big that we have big conventions and all of the old school programmers are like rock stars. My brother and I actually had a little business where we would sell games and consoles, we called ourselves The Super Mega Bros.
I’m still collecting retro games as well. That’s one thing my wife gets annoyed with, its like ‘you’ve opened up an arcade bar why are you still buying games!’ I’m a sucker for boxed NES games. I’ve got about fifty in my collection now.
GTS: Why did you choose Newtown as the location for 1989, and how do you think it’s been received?
Ben: We chose Newtown because coming from the UK and living in London for the bulk of my life I found that Newtown had the same sort of sensibility as my favourite parts of London. I used to drink a lot in Camden, Lewisham, and Peckham. These are really kind of funky interesting areas, very diverse, very kind of artsy, but grungy artsy. So Newtown just felt like home to me.
We are at the more awkward end of Newtown. Coming from Newtown Station you either go left or right, and there’s bars just around the station. So to actually get people coming all the way down here is awesome. We’re starting to get some of those people which is really good, people actually making the pilgrimage down to us.
We definitely have our regulars which is great, our regulars who come in once a week and twice a week. We still have people who are discovering us which I find even more exciting. Who come in and go “I had no idea this was here this is amazing!” I love that.
I love it when there’s people shouting their heads off at Street Fighter II because their mate just beat them. I love it when you see four people crowded around Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles and they play from beginning to end and beat Shredder and all that kind of stuff. It’s just so much fun. And that’s what I really enjoy in an arcade bar.
GTS: Tell us what’s planned in the future for yourself and 1989.
Ben: We’ve always been tournament focused, but we’re starting to bring in the more bar-like stuff so we are going to have our own trivia night every month.
I want do a thing called shit cinema. Where you just turn up and have no idea what you’re going to watch, and just put everything in a bag and pull something out. It doesn’t matter how terrible it is we will still screen it.
I am making a feature length documentary about a game. It’s a game series, and my all time favourite home console games. It’s taken me two years to get a signature on the dotted line and that happened last year.
I’ve already got some of the sound composers locked in to do interviews. We’ve already done interviews with the artist who did the original cover artwork and I’m getting the owner of the company in front of the camera as well.
I’ve always wanted to do a documentary on these games because for me growing up they were one of the most influential things. The music, graphics, the gameplay. Everything.
And I’m hoping to do another documentary this year as well, fingers crossed. Which is about this scene, the rise of the bar-arcade.
Game the System would like to thank Ben Campbell and the 1989 staff for their time and contributions to this article.
1989 Arcade Bar & Kitchen can be found at 22-24 King St, Newtown NSW 2042
Production, Writing, Art Direction: Marc Bell
Photography, Design, Art Direction: Matthew Venables - http://mvenables.com