Derek Thomson is a pinball wizard who operates a retro arcade dedicated to analogue gaming nostalgia
By Liam Newbigging | August 9, 2023
Upon arriving at Arkadium Retro Arcade, we find ourselves greeted by the righteous noises of guitar-driven rock music blaring out of a Guitar Hero arcade machine, and the distinct pings, pongs, and jingles of retro arcade games and pinball machines chiming underneath the rock’n’roll ambience. Upon paying the admission fee, all 52 Pinball machines and 40 arcade cabinets (as well as bubble hockey) are fair game, and we immediately leap into the analogue unknown.
This local arcade is the result of nine years of collecting, and after a rocky start, the arcade is thriving as intended.
It was “tough sledding” for Derek Thomson and his three business partners when they opened Arkadium Retro Arcade just six months before COVID-19 hit in 2020. But the Sherwood Park business, dedicated to Thomson’s nostalgic love of pinball, weathered the storm and is now a local mecca for the hobby and also retro arcade games.
“We’re not a Barcade,” says Thomson. “We sell games.”
Whereas numerous businesses in the Edmonton area, like Beercade and Greta, offer a handful of similar titles, at Arkadium the games come first and the drinks come second. And even the drinks themselves, like the beers served by Analog Brewing, are also committed to retro vibrations with fun video game themes.
As we peruse the games we spot an Iron Man pinball machine and quickly plug in to get our hands warmed up. Somehow the machine quickly digests all of our pinballs so we figure we’ll try our talents elsewhere. We immediately point out a Rush pinball machine, as well as a Foo Fighters one, and a Guns N Roses machine. While our pinball skills are lacking, we manage to set high scores on some arcade favourites like Galaga and Mrs. Pacman but definitely not the famously difficult Tron.
Thomson tells us that Arkadium is also home to the Diehard Pinball League, a community for pinball hobbyists seeking to get more competitive, and perhaps get their names on some global scoreboards. About 40 of the Pinball machines at Arkadium are competition-graded, and the place even has a room and equipment to stream the league’s high-intensity pinball action.
On the second floor of the building, is an unassuming vintage pinball machine from the ’80s. It’s one of many that span different decades that Arkadium’s machines cover, from the’ 70s all the way to modern machines . But this particular Paragon machine holds a special significance for Thomson. Not only, is it the first machine he bought himself when he started his collection nine years ago, but it’s also the same make as the very first pinball machine he plugged into at a Prince George, B.C. arcade when he was just six years old.
“As soon as I threw that quarter in, I wanted to go to the arcade again and again and again,” Thomson says. “Some of my best memories that I had were in the arcade.”
As we game the evening away on the likes of Q*bert, Dragon’s Lair, and Mrs. Pacman, we notice the distinct sounds of Rush’s “La Villa Strangiato” chiming out of a nearby machine. Lo and behold, there is Thomson, deep into the bells, buzzers and flashing lights of another game of pinball. He keeps playing on, even as we make our departure.