As I was downloading a game onto my PlayStation 4, it dawned on me that the process in which we purchase video games is nothing like the bygone days of my youth. Back in the ancient times of the 80’s and 90’s, we had to go to places called stores, which were constructed of bricks and mortar, and staffed by human beings from all walks of life.
These hallowed halls contained gaming wonders and often times, you could overhear the finest of nerd conversations and debates.
It not only saddens me that those days are most likely over (with a couple exceptions), but it makes me weep for the younger generation who will never know what that experience was like. For all those who don’t know what video game buying was like oh so long ago, I am going to list all the places and experiences from my childhood where one could go to treat themselves to a cacophony of gaming.
Toys R’ Us
I feel like I should start with Toys R Us as they only recently went out of business, and younger gamers might know what this was like. I can’t say if the store changed the way it sold games in recent times, but back in the day, it was an interesting experience.
Finding your way to the video game section was always fun because you got to pass all the awesome toys on the way. Once you got to the correct aisle, there were, in fact, no games to actually take. Instead, where games should be, buyers would find tiny slips of paper. You’d take the slip you wanted, bring it to the register to be scanned and paid for, and sent to a waiting area by a storeroom. You’d hand your receipt to the employee who would disappear momentarily before returning with your game.
It was a unique experience, most likely put into place to curb theft, but It always felt like an adventure. Nothing was more heartbreaking then locating the game you wanted, only to find there were no more slips of paper, just a sad sold-out sign. Toys R’ Us would also have systems on display before they were released; I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Nintendo 64 at my local store and nearly lost it over how amazing the system was!
KB Toys was a staple in practically every mall in the United States up until they declared bankruptcy in 2008 and disappeared. They were small toy stores but always had a special charm to them that I can’t quite put my finger on. I pretty much went to KB Toys for the sole purpose of either buying Star Wars figures or video games. They had a wall of Star Wars toys that would make any nerd weep and always had a figure or two that was harder to find. Their gaming section was pretty much non-existent, however.
Everything they had was located behind the counter, so you’d have to ask if there was something you didn’t see. I always found it slightly impersonal, but reliable in a clutch if a game was sold out elsewhere. If memory serves me, they were also a tad more expensive than other places, which is probably why I mostly stuck to the Star Wars figures. It’s been years since I’ve seen a KB Toys let alone walked into one, but a trip to the mall was never complete without walking down its disorganized aisles of fun.
I don’t know if this was a New York thing, or if they existed across the country, but Funcoland was a unique experience, to say the least. Not really a place where you’d go to buy new games, as they were definitely more expensive than other retailers, but they were one of the only places in town to buy older games and systems. If you were looking for an original gold cartridge of The Legend of Zelda, that was the place you’d find it. They had quite the collection and usually had a few systems hooked up to play. In fact, they had a ton of systems visitors could try out and waste hours hopping from one to another.
This was a store where the true gaming fans went to play old games, strike up good conversations, and perhaps walk out with a classic they hadn’t thought about in years. It should also be noted they all looked slightly run down, which further added to their magic. Like KB Toys and Toys R’ Us, Funcoland no longer exists, but retro-gaming stores of today owe a lot to this pioneering gaming utopia.
Another mall staple and a place that’s near and dear to my heart! EB, as it was known back in the day, was my home away from home. It was well-lit, clean, and always stocked with the latest and greatest. This was the place I bought 90 per cent of my gaming needs. I can’t think of a time where I didn’t walk in to buy something but ended up there for hours just talking to the employees about all things geeky and gaming. There were systems set up to play and everyone had a great time. It was our Central Park, our hangout spot.
I loved EB so much, I ended up working there for a couple of summers when I was in high school. Walking into a GameStop today is almost exactly like the experience gamers would have had back in the EB days. The layouts are similar, the staff have the same vibe, and it’s probably the number one place to buy used games. There is, of course, a reason for this, which brings me to…
Babbages has a long and storied history, which is shocking when you think about it. I did not like Babbages when I was younger. They were also a mall mainstay but palled in comparison to Electronics Boutique. Whereas EB was big and bright, clean and inviting, Babbages was small and dark, dirty and off-putting. The staff was usually not as friendly (or knowledgeable), but they tried their hardest to compete. Over the years, Babbages has been bought and sold, changed its name, and tried to reinvent itself.
Eventually aquired by Barnes & Noble (they also bought Funco as well), back in the late 90’s, the entity formally known as Babbages went public and was renamed, you might have guessed, GameStop! That tiny hole in the wall store has become one of the biggest names in gaming retail, which is mind-boggling to me.
In a WWE vs. WCW move, GameStop even purchased formal Rival EB Games (Electronics Boutique) for a whopping $1.44 billion back in 2005. GameStop is a great place and I enjoy my visits, but the evolution it took to get to where it is today is staggering.
Next time you enter a GameStop, take a minute to think about the history that goes along with it. Buying a game or a system isn’t just about the purchase, it’s about the experience. The sights and sounds of a retail store are unique and magical in their own right. With their acquisition of ThinkGeek, GameStop stores are even more wonderous than ever before.
Heart And Soul
I’m pretty lazy these days, so if I can purchase a digital download or a physical copy of a game online, I probably will, but sometimes I really miss doing it the old-fashioned way. A good gaming chat is hard to come by these days, and the conversations you strike up with people while waiting in line or behind the counter can’t be recreated with an online purchase. Buying video games may be more convenient these days, but the heart and soul of it all is an endangered activity.