If you grew up in Karachi in the 90s, a trip to Sindbad was as much a staple source of entertainment as STN’s evening cartoons, Walkman, floppy disks, VCRs and Polka ice cream. Sindbad turns 25 this year and it is hard not to get nostalgic. The Express Tribune hops on a ride with the people behind Sindbad, the city’s first gaming arcade that is celebrating its silver jubilee this year. At the three Sindbad locations across the city – Dolmen Mall, Hyderi, Dolmen Mall, Tariq Road and Dolmen Mall, Clifton – there will be parades and cake-cutting ceremonies, along with carnival games, starting today.
Bringing entertainment to Karachi
The idea to set up a gaming arcade for children was purely a business decision on part of the owner, Nadeem Riaz, who started the Dolmen Group.
After Dolmen Centre opened on Tariq Road in 1991, Riaz realised there was a need for a space for children to play while their parents shopped. “It was on the rooftop [of Dolmen Centre] that we planned Sindbad,” he told The Express Tribune. “It was not really a franchise but I took its name from one of my dear friends in Dubai.”
Riaz’s main passion is construction so it was his business partner and friend who initially looked after Sindbad. “I saw advertisers claiming to have children’s play areas [at new malls] but none of them actually had one,” he said, adding that Sindbad was introduced to deliver on such promises.
The idea was so well-received that they decided to open up more. “In 1995, we bought the piece of land [in Clifton] that was famous for the casino,” he said.
“You see it’s a very good anchor for any shopping mall. If you want families to come to any shopping mall you need entertainment for these families,” added Riaz’s daughter, Sidra Nadeem, who is currently managing the chain of Sindbad in the country. “It became a business strong enough to hold itself later,” she said.
Recalling their early successes, Riaz said the arcade had so many people that it was difficult to enter. “From day one, it was designed for family entertainment for which a good environment was needed,” he said.
Pimp your ride
Sindbad started off with rides and games imported from the UK and the US but those companies no longer exist, said Riaz. “Today, the machines are all made in China.”
Their most popular ride, Venturer, was brought in from London. “It has a very long life and is still being used [at the Lahore Sindbad] to this day,” Riaz pointed out. “The company that made it is in the flight simulator business and they put a small division for entertainment,” he explained.
The business has changed its face over the years. Gone are the silver coins that jingled in your hands as you ran from one ride to another, and have been replaced with magnetic cards that can be swiped. “People were hesitant [to use the cards] at first but then the collective response was good,” said Sidra.
Switching to the cards system has made back-end management easier. “Since now it is all software-based, all the data is processed at one place,” she said. “I can look at a single card and know the number and types of games that have been played.”
People also enjoy the fact that they can accumulate scores on the cards. “If you have any credit left, it will stay on the card. It never expires and you can use it whenever you want at any outlet,” she explained. “We call it your passport to fun that can be carried everywhere.”
The Sindbad at the casino building was functional until 1998 after which it shut down. The building stood empty for another decade until it was demolished for the new Dolmen Mall, Clifton.
Get your game face on
There is a whole science behind the success of arcade games versus rides. Even the most expensive of rollercoasters lose their charms after a certain time, said Riaz. But in arcade games, you have to beat the machine. “The attraction for it is sustained,” he said.
Sidra compared it to the success of similar games on phone applications. “The new trend is to take games, such as Candy Crush and Fruit Ninja, and develop games based on them so you can compete with your friends.”
In the future too, the owners plan to incorporate more technology and go with the trends. “We want to keep arcade games but also host more attractions and games that are actual physical activities, such as climbing walls, etc,” said Sidra. “Lately, kids want both. So it has to be a one-stop solution to all entertainment.”
Syed Javed Ali, the longest-serving technician at Sindbad, has spent the last 20 years making sure the rides are well-maintained and running smoothly.
Ali is currently working at Sindbad on Tariq Road but he has worked at different branches over time. He even remembers the time when the first Venturer was installed back in 1995 by technicians who flew in from England. “The Venturer was hugely popular,” he tells The Express Tribue. “Half-a-kilometre long queues were a norm and people used to wait for an hour or more for their turn.”
In the early days, Sindbad attracted a lot of foreign tourists as well. “We even had some of [the instructions on] our machines translated by people from China and Japan who were regular customers at the time,” he points out.
Despite his long association with this trade, Ali admits that there are some rides that never get old. The bunny car, railway engine and the shooting gallery are as popular today as they were back then,” he says.
Ali mainly deals with arcade games so he has never experienced any unpleasant technical mishaps. “Those kinds of problems usually arise in outdoor rides,” he says. “But thanks to the manufacturers, safety points are always provided. Even in cases of power failures, the rides always land on the ground and the gates are open for exit.”
Ali gets nostalgic when he remembers the old Casino in Clifton, which was abandoned for a decade until Sindbad took over. “The building was a historical one and used to be referred to as Bhutto Hotel,” he recalls. “There were bushes all around it and many people thought it was haunted,” he says. “There were a lot of snakes and we killed a few ourselves,” Ali adds with a smile. “But the building was intact from the inside and it was mostly the exterior that needed work on,” he says.
“When we changed it to Sindbad, the building itself attracted a lot of people, who wanted to see what the insides of a casino looked like,” he adds. “It was fully carpeted. I have never seen a play land that is completely carpeted.”
Ali grows fond as he remembers the restaurant and the bakery where birthday cakes and fresh food was prepared. “Even the buns of the burgers were prepared inside that bakery and never bought from the outside,” he points out. “In those days, Fridays used to be the weekly off and the level of rush we saw then is nothing compared to now.”
Fun for all ages
For Shabana, an employee who has been working at one of the Sindbad outlets for the last three years, screaming children who simply refuse to go back with their parents are a regular occurrence. “You should see the length to which parents have to lure their kids with ice creams and promises to return the next day,” she said.
She stood outside their SoftPlays area, which comprises slides and jungle gyms with foam cushions, to take care of the children and chaperone them as the parents shopped around the mall. “One mother actually wrote a suggestion in my register, requesting soft play for adults too,” she said, laughing. “The woman said she feels like jumping and having fun when she watches her kids do it in front of her.”
Sindbad may be offering entertainment for children but the presence of adults is a common occurrence. Even on a working day, grown-ups can be seen trying their luck at Shark Shooters, Crazy Hoop and Balloon Busters. A family of four with no child in sight was huddled around the Balloon Buster machine, urging their father to try his luck. “We come here when we are here for grocery shopping at Hyperstar,” admitted the mother of three, embarrassed at being caught. “We like these games better because as adults we can play better,” said her daughter, Ramsha, pointing at her dad who was engrossed trying to burst a balloon or two.
“I remember the dodge ‘em cars and the log ride at the Gulshan branch,” said Michelle Khan. “I had a very intimidating image of those rides in my mind but I was no longer impressed when I recently took my cousins,” she said. “You can hear the rides squeaking now. It’s not the same.”
Published in The Express Tribune, March 18th, 2016.