Tales of Nostalgia: A Trip to the Ontario Science Centre

By: Daniel Reynolds

In my elementary school there was this tiled L-shaped dividing wall inside the basement bathroom doors. For us hyperactive four and five year old boys at the time, it existed not as a barrier but a challenge. We would take turns sprinting the length of this cavern, making attempts to leap up and grab a hold of the ledge that seemed so impossibly high. There was a graceless physics to our efforts, a meager understanding of momentum and gravity, but we had kinetic energy to spare. And potentially hitting the top of the wall, even after failing again and again, felt so significant.

Fast forward a couple of years and now that energy has translated itself into video game-centric activity. Those same principles of nostalgia still apply. The tactile wall of memory becomes something of a digital leap. My mind remembers running in the bathroom trying to jump higher and higher, and it remembers those afternoons spent trying to guide Mario across the Mushroom Kingdom, similarly bouncing along towards a hard fought goal.

The Ontario Science Centre.

The Ontario Science Centre.

When I read that the Ontario Science Centre was holding a six month special exhibit of video games and their history, I was drawn in by those old sly remembrances of endless competitions and challenges, of repetitive attempts to climb, jump, shoot, explore and achieve. I wanted to remember what it felt like to play some of those old games again but also, I wanted to re-experience the old Science Centre again. This may sound funny, but it felt vaguely like jumping for the top of that wall again. In my mind’s eye, the Centre was a distant complex, built in another land, housing untold scientific puzzles, wondrous devices and confounding demonstrations. I wanted to attempt a two-fold trip back in time.

In truth, the Science Centre has always felt like the odd man out on the roster of institutions in Toronto. The theatre and entertainment scene is unimpeachable, the ROM has always been the most prominent (and controversial) installation, the AGO operates as the most graceful of necessities, the Zoo is earthy and approachable. But what of the Science Centre? Like the nearly shuttered Ontario Place, the outward appearance of the Centre, all brutal hard angles and poured concrete, is one of a lost artifact from a different time.

It still boasts a great location, though. After paying the entrance fee, my compatriot and I (yes, I convinced someone to join me on this solo trip down memory lane) took the stroll down a glass-sided hallway, overlooking a ravine. The windows have those black bird silhouettes pasted across them, useful – as I remember learning for the first time – for keeping birds from an ignoble death. Keeping with the macabre, you start your descent down into the facility itself.

I definitely did not remember all the escalators. The Science Centre is actually split into various pods that are positioned down the sloping side of the ravine. You descend multiple escalators to get to the special exhibits and science arcade located at the bottom. Sort of a low-level journey to the centre of the earth. The ROM and AGO may want you to feel like you are soaring through skies of light and air; the Science Centre insists you go down, to the root of it all.

Past a construction zone to the right, and the Weston Family Innovation Centre, with its mix of science feats and DIY gizmo area (including a stop-motion animation station!), there was the real reason for our visit: the Game On 2.0 exhibit.

Basking in the glow of nostalgia (and CRT monitors).

Basking in the glow of nostalgia (and CRT monitors).

In a series of winding hallways, the Game On 2.0 exhibit houses a remarkable collection of video and computer game consoles. I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t spend a long time wandering through these setups, from the earliest days of the rudimentary one-person Pong device (controlled by a single knob) to the latest in motion control technology. The exhibit actually starts with a series of unplayable arcade cabinets, allowing for a brief history lesson on some of the old world circuitry. I admit, this part feels like a blur because upon turning the corner I was greeted by some solid banks of old games.

There was our misguided attempt at a tank battle on a malfunctioning Atari 2600, and a Mario Kart 64 race. I tried to explain the sarcastic humour of Portal, and then reminisced on the experience of playing The Secret of Monkey Island for the first time. There was a corner for PaRappa the Rapper, and a Lara Croft statue. I played Sonic the Hedgehog for the first time in ages, and then remembered that I hate Sonic the Hedgehog. My companion went on a search in vain for a Pokemon Snap console, though an overwhelming number of Pokemon games were demoed. A dude was bogarting the NBA Jam machine, as you’d expect. Then, the Virtusphere appeared, with its promises of “the ultimate, within-the-game locomotion interface” that is, according to the Discovery Channel, “a virtual reality tool that comes closer than most to the Holodeck of Star Trek fame”.  Despite the breathless promises of virtual reality and motion machines since as long as I can remember, it was out of service. There was not one hint of a Virtual Boy, either. Turning the corner into an isolated square room, we found a solitary kid bouncing around in front of an Xb0x Kinect, the look of joy and concentration on his face was something to behold. Lacking the writerly ability to describe it, I submit the following:

Shown here: Xbox Kinect, Innocence.

Shown here: Xbox Kinect, Innocence.

Eventually, after being dragged away (I had just found the Super Smash Bros. terminal, things could have gotten ugly), we wandered back upward through the remnants of the carnival-like science arcade. Though it looks a little drab now, there were buttons to push and physics principles to be delightfully explained. These sections of the Centre feel inevitably smaller, somehow. I could remember more of what was no longer there than what was present. Gone was the wild old school room of puzzles and science feats, with its tables of small devices and computers with trackballs. Missing was the sports science section and the ‘try to land like a cat’ exhibit. The man-made jungle zone remains, and some of the animals, and you can still stand on a scale and watch a cylinder fill with a volume of water corresponding to your mass.

We made our way finally to a Rube Goldberg-esque setup in one of the lobby spaces (near the Kidspark zone where “Adults must be accompanied by a child”). The contraption is a loosely connected series of tracks and tubes, ups and downs. Wooden balls are entered in at one end and roll through a small series of slides, hitting xylophones, clanging through mini-Plinko boards, spinning along funnels. There are a half dozen entry points to the contraption; six points where kids can pick up a sphere and let it loose.

After reflecting on all those old video games, this setup felt quaint. Of course, I was still thinking in 8-bit memories, remember the running and jumping of a different time that was not without its own sepia tint. Standing back from it, I could see that despite its scale and presumed intricacy, the machine was not overly complex. There were just a few simple interactions. Metal clanged, balls rolled, a large pendulum swung overhead. Physics and science did their thing. There was no sky reaching challenge to it but the kids stood entranced anyway. I, however, could now see over the top of the wall.

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