A fellowship of awesome

The First United Church of Nintendo bridges the bay.

click to enlarge GAME ON: Barker (left) and Ijacic play one of their Nintendo 64s at the Bricks. - Daniel Figueroa IV
Daniel Figueroa IV
GAME ON: Barker (left) and Ijacic play one of their Nintendo 64s at the Bricks.

Twice a week, Matt Barker and Bato Ijacic load a rented van with more than 300 cartridge games, 14 systems ranging from Atari 2600 to Nintendo 64 and all the TVs they can fit. On Sundays they bring them to Octave, their home base in St. Petersburg. For the past month, they have also been trekking to Ybor City, where they've added a Monday night event at the Bricks. The pair set up the systems and allow all who wish to play at no cost.

The First United Church of Nintendo — which is what Barker and Ijacic call their popular gamers' party — is resolutely non-denominational.

But they do get their share of religious fanatics.

"We got a guy called Duck Hunt, real name Sean," says Barker, one of the church's founders. "The dude would only play Duck Hunt."

"For hours," adds Ijacic, who, like Barker, is 31 and a resident of St. Petersburg.

Barker is a lifelong Nintendo worshipper. He sorrowfully admits to having sold his original collection years ago for a ticket to a Tampa UFC event.

"I was third row," he says. "It was a $500 fucking ticket."

It's a mistake he is unlikely to make again. His love for Nintendo has grown far beyond the private collection he mourns and spread across the bay.

Barker and a friend, Ricky Seelbach, started the church about two years ago after setting up a console at Fubar, a dive in downtown St. Petersburg.

"People started digging it," says Barker. "So we decided to start a night."

Ijacic was an early disciple. When Seelbach stepped away a few months ago, Barker quickly knew whom to tap as a replacement.

What followed was rapid expansion. They moved across the street, to Octave, to accommodate a growing congregation. Partnerships and sponsorships soon came as well.

Kyle Knalls, an old friend of Barker's, came into Octave with Johnny Ciani, a partner at the Bricks, and wound up talking with Barker about his old game collection. An invite to Church of Nintendo was extended, and before long Ciani was a convert.

M & M Video Games, a Pinellas-based electronics retailer, became a devotee, as did Foolish Pride, a tattoo shop in St. Petersburg that will be providing a trailer to transport their mobile altars.

One friend of the church, Kira Hendon, recently donated a 13-gallon tote bag filled with cartridges.

This sense of community is what attracted the pair to Nintendo in the first place.

With Internet connectivity now a regular feature of modern gaming consoles, multi-player games are usually played from separate homes. But the games the church provides offer a simpler, more personal gaming experience.

"With old-school, people could play together," says Barker of the pre-Internet era console games. "You played with your friends. Not by yourself with your friends."

To their delight, Nintendo has maintained that vibe with the StreetPass gaming feature on its new handheld devices, the 3Ds. With street passes, gamers are encouraged to communicate and play with others in close proximity. Church of Nintendo now offers StreetPass parties, an aspect they've expanded beyond the Bay area through a partnership with Central Florida StreetPass, a collection of gamers operating out of the Geek Easy in Winter Park, a storefront that is equal parts comic shop and social club.

Expanding to the Bricks, which is a restaurant as well as a bar, has allowed them to reach younger gamers as well.

"Why do these games not work?" quipped one young newcomer.

"These games work," replied Ijacic. "You gotta blow the dust off of it."

After a quizzical look, the advice was successfully heeded and a new follower was born, a new member of what Ijacic sees as a fellowship of awesome.

The First United Church of Nintendo: Octave, 661 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, Sundays 7 p.m.-1 a.m.; The Bricks, 1327 E. Seventh Ave., Tampa, Mondays 7 p.m.-1 a.m. www.churchofnintendo.com 

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