Where We Bought Our Video Games
I was visiting Rockefeller Center today when I noticed its GameStop was no longer there. And suddenly there was one less place in the city to buy a video game. I am not saying this marks some sort of sad milestone, as if the final GameStop closed. There are still plenty of GameStops all over the city, and even if I am not in the city, one conveniently blocks from my home at a strip mall. And truth be told, I avoid buying games at GameStop. Almost every game on their shelves are used. I prefer brand new factory sealed games. But apparently GameStop just stocks themselves with a handful of new games, then once they are all sold, buys them all back to sell again. Because too many gamers don't keep their games, but rather trade them in for store credit once they are finished with them.
But the trend is evident. Downloadable video games has cost GameStop millions of customers, throwing a monkey wrench into the sell/trade cycle they have relied on for the past couple of decades. Even if you prefer your games on a physical disc or cartridge, it is far more convenient to buy it on Amazon or eBay.
The irony is that GameStop helped popularize the internet which is threatening to bring them down. It began as two separate franchises. Electronic Boutique and Software Etc, both chains of stores that promoted and sold the first home computers. If not for both stores, Windows would have been harder to find and buy, as would all the other basic operating programs we take for granted today. Back then all they sold was computers and program discs. If you wanted to buy a Nintendo game you would need to search someplace else. And I mean SEARCH!
In the Aftermath of the Crash
What stores sold Atari 2600 cartridges? A better question would be "What store didn't?" Once the console became a smash, you could find the cartridges wherever any toys or electronics were sold. And even in a few stores that sold neither. The same stores sold Intellivision and Colecovision cartridges once those became available.
Then came the crash. Sales of game cartridges plummeted. Stores all over the U.S.A. were stuck with games that sat on the shelves and gathered dust. A lot of the games made their way to overstock outlets where they were put on sale for as little as $1 per cartidge. What was left ended up in landfills.
While it may have seemed as if the video game market was dead, it was thriving in the PC market. Owners of home computers had the option of buying floppy discs with video games recorded on them. And since computers typically had better processing abilities than what was found in the game consoles, could produce better graphics and audio. Although it should be noted that a lot of the games released for home computers were text based rather than actual video games.
Once only of interest to nerds with a lot of spending money, home computers had become cheap enough for middle class families to buy. Movies like 1983's War Games made programming a computer look thrilling. But for those who came to realize writing hours and hours of code wasn't exactly fun, stores like Electronic Boutique, Softwarehouse ( later rebranded as CompUSA ) and Software Etc sold them their preprogrammed software on floppy discs. And they also sold PC games. Mom and Dad may have quickly grown tired of the computer, but the kids in the family saw computers as an advance in gaming. Computer companies realized this was a good selling point. The Commodore 64 sold itself as the latest gaming system.
But while there was now a robust video game market on PCs, you wouldn't be able to tell it from the computer stores. Most of their shelf space went to programs like word processors and some new things called Windows. Games usually got little more than a single shelf. While computing was seen as the future, gaming was seen as a fad that had already ended on cartridge systems, and was sure to eventually die out on PCs. The software stores had dodged the fiasco of the video game crash because they didn't sell cartridges. But they just as easily could end up stuck with a lot of games on floppy disc that no one wanted to buy. So they played it safe and stocked as few games as possible. PC gamers not only had to get use to software stores being far and few, but visiting more than one of them before they found one with the game they wanted in stock.
Everyone thought Nintendo was mad for releasing the NES only a couple of years after the crash. Sure the Famicom was a hit in Japan, but it was sure to fail over here. Americans had already made up their minds. The fad was over. Right? Nintendo themselves were not quite convinced their game console would sell, and promoted the robot that came with it over the games.
The NES amazed everyone by reviving game consoles in North America. Even though the toy robot that came with it turned out to be a dud, the NES and it's games were selling better than the Atari had. The only problem was that stores were still shell shocked from the crash a few years earlier. Some refused to touch Nintendo or any of it's competitors. Others stocked very few cartridges. By '89 you could buy NES games in every department store. But the selection was usually limited to what fit in a single display cabnet. Much like with PC games, buying any cartidge game meant going to several stores before you found one that sold the game you wanted.
Toys 'R' Us
The first Toys "R" Us opened it's doors in 1957. One of the first big-box store chains, they advertise themselves as The World's Biggest Toy Store with the biggest selection. Like most retailers who sold video games in the early 89s, Toys"R" Us got stuck with unsold cartridges they ended up dumping, and were just as cautious about selling Nintendo games as all the other stores. But with competition like Lionel Playworld and KB Toys looking to muscle in on Toys "R" Us territory, they couldn't afford to loose their claim of "biggest selection". So they decided to stock every video game on the market.
Gamers soon learned, if there was any game you wanted, Toys"R"Us had it. But first you had to get past an obstacle known as the Nintendo Wall, later known as the Wall of Games. Toys"R"Us introduced the wall as a way to combat shoplifting. Instead of the games there were cards hanging on the wall, each with the cover of a game box printed on it. Underneath each card hung a clear plastic sack filled with tickets. If you wanted to buy the game then you took one of the tickets from the sack, walked to a cashier, allowed the cashier to scan the ticket, paid for the game, got the ticket back stamped "paid", then searched the store for a window behind which was the room the games were actually kept in. On the other side of the window was the man you handed both your stamped ticket and receipt, and once he studied both, located a copy of the game you paid for and handed it to you, along with your receipt which he had drawn a circle on so you couldn't use it again to trick them out of a second game.
But that wasn't even the worst of it. Each Toys"R"Us location printed out the same number of tickets as games they had in stock. So once the last ticket was removed from the sack, that meant the last game had been sold. In the back of the sack was a red sticker that said something like "Temporarily Out Of Stock. Try Again Next Week." On any given day about two third of the games on the Nintendo Wall had those red stickers displayed. Toys"R"Us may have had the biggest selection of games, but trying to buy the game you wanted meant returning to the store again and again until you were lucky enough to be there the day your game was in stock.
Toys"R"Us may have thought they had a foolproof system of selling video games, but it was flawed. The big problem, they neglected to take into account their target customers; Children. More specific, the little brats who roam the aisles, removing toys from their boxes, loosing pieces to boardgames, defacing unsold coloring books with unsold art supplies, run around the store like maniacs and generally throw loud tantrums every time a parent refuses to buy them everything they wanted. The floors of every Toys"R"Us was littered with the aftermath of their destruction. Not that every child who visited Toys"R"Us misbehaved. Just enough to put you off ever wanting children of your own.
The first thing these brats did when they arrived. Was to head straight to the video game wall and remove the tickets for every game they wanted. This was usually followed by their parents telling them they could only buy one game, or that they were not buying any game on that visit. Followed by the inevitable tantrum. The problem was that the unused tickets were rarely return. Instead they were either just tossed on the floor, abandoned at the checkout, thrown in the garage, or ended up going home in the fist of a crying child. Which meant that even if the red sticker said the store was out of stock, there was a good chance five or more were still in stock. At least once a week the staff printed up brand new tickets to replace the missing ones. But between the time the tickets went missing and were reprinted, that game wasn't selling, so didn't go out of stock so that more would be ordered. Another problem, shoppers who took tickets home with them to buy the game later. When they did use the ticket a week later, it lead to at least one ticket to many on the wall. Which in turn lead to gamers paying for a game, then after all the trouble, finding out from the guy behind the window that the game really was out of stock and told to immediately return to the cashier for the refund.
These problems were not why Toys"R"Us inevitably abandoned the wall. But the scalpers. Whenever a toy became popular, it was inevitable scalpers would buy as many as they could, then sell the toy in the parking lot for ten times it's retail price. Toys"R"Us estimated scalping was costing them millions. If a customer was paying $200 for a Cabbage Patch doll in their parking lot, the $180 markup came out of money the shopper would have used for other toys. The wall presented a whole new problem. If a hit game like Super Mario III went on sale, scalpers grabbed stacks of tickets they didn't have to pay for, then sold them for around $100 each in the parking lot, this on top of paying the store for the game.
Money the customer could have used for additional games.
And there was nothing that could be done to stop them. Legally, the scalpers weren't stealing anything, and technically weren't even breaking any known anti-scalping laws. Toys"R"Us tried everything to prevent this from happening, even imposing a one ticket per customer rule and making them line up just to get a single ticket. But still, scalpers ended up in the parking lot on release day with stacks of tickets to sell. Eventually the wall was replaced with games in locked cases on the sales floor. But by that time gammers had moved on to some place better to buy their games....
......and this wasn't it. But for a while this was an acceptable alternative to the Nintendo Wall. It was a slow evolution for EB from the days when they just sold computers and computer software, to being exclusively a video game store. They still weren't there in 1990. Sure, they had begun selling Nintendo games. But much like with the PC games, sold only enough to fill a shelf. But then their competition Software Etc also began selling Nintendo cartridges. So Electronics Boutique began selling more. Which compelled Software Etc to expand their gaming center. And so on.
Electronic Boutique may not have had the selection of games available at a Toys"R"Us. But they were in more locations, many which were conveniently near transit hubs, as opposed to Toys"R"Us which preferred locations on the outskirts of town. And they seemed to keep their games in stock better than Toys"R"Us. But they also had their own flawed system of selling games. The boxes on the shelves were empty. You brought the empty box of the game you wanted to the cashier, and after paying for the game, a draw behind the counter full of games was opened, and the game you purchase given to you.
The flaw? Unlike Toys"R"Us who printed box covers on cards, Electronic Boutique couldn't be bothered printing empty boxes. Instead, they took one of the games they had in stock, removed the factory shrink wrap, removed the entire contents from the box and shrink wrapped the cartidge, plastic cartridge holder, instruction booklet, Nintendo Power subscription form, and everything else together. They then put the shrink-wrapped contents into the draw next to the unopened games. Finally, they reshrink- wrapped the empty box and put it on the shelf.
The fun started when you bought what you expected to be a new game, only to have the cashier remove the shrink wrap from the shelf box and attempt to put the shrink-wrapped contents back into the box. When you complained, and everyone this happened to did complain, the cashier would try to convince you that the opened game was as good as new. Except that you had no idea if all the original contents were included, or if one of the store employees hadn't played the "unused" game, and the box was almost always crushed or had some other shelf damage. Now came the process of getting a refund, which for some reason was way more complicated than paying for the game. From there it went back on the shelf until someone finally bought it.
I personally demanded a refund every time Electronic Boutique tried to give me an open game. It didn't really matter that I was going to rip the original plastic wrap off the game anyway, and most likely damage and crush the box on the shelf. I wanted my game to be brand new. I was not the only one. I witnessed many other customers demanding a refund when they found out they were getting an open game.
By the mid 90s the transformation was complete. Electronic Boutique sold exclusively game consoles, game cartridges, early disc games, PC games, strategy guides, gaming magazines, game posters, game figurines and other collectables, controllers and other console accessories, and everything else gaming. Software Etc wasn't far behind with their evolution. It became impossible to tell both stores apart. But by this time gamers found some place better. Real gaming stores finally existed.
I am not sure if Game Express is the name of chain stores, or franchise stores, or if a lot of independent gaming stores like to use the same name. But all the Game Express stores I have visited looked exactly the same.
Just before the first Game Express popped up, the first true gaming stores began opening up in Chinatowns across America. They basically copied the game stores that already existed in Asia. A wall of games that had actual games on the wall, behind a counter that was also a display case for more games. You were able to see exactly what games were in stock, and the store went out of it's way to stock everything, even copies of Japanese games that hadn't been released in North America. At least three television screens were playing the demo mode of three different games for three different consoles. Posters for the latest games hung on every available wall space. More important, the people who ran the store seemed to know about all the games on every system. And the prices were as good as Toys"R"Us. Even better as most of the Asian gaming stores didn't charge sales tax.
They were exactly what video game enthusiasts wanted. But they didn't last long. Part of the reason they existed at all was their locations were cramped storefronts in crumbling buildings that no one else wanted to lease.
Which meant the rent was cheap. Buildingss that without notice would evict the retailers leasing their stores because a developer was interested in redeveloping the lot, or a major retailer wanted to lease the same location. Your favorite Asian gaming store suddenly shuttered without notice, and you had no idea if they were moving to another location. Eventually you would find another gaming store, but eventually that one would also end up shuttered.
And then the first Game Express opened up, taking the game store concept out of Chinatown and into the downtown shopping areas. The only.difference, their stores were less cramped, and brightly painted. And unlike the Asian shops, many remained in business for years, sometimes decades. Various Game Express locations became my go to store for buying new games. That is until the ones I frequented closed, mostly due to rent increases their store couldn't afford. There are still a few game stores calling themselves Game Express in my area, but all located in out of the way neighborhoods.
And Then The Game Stores Were Everywhere
It wasn't just Game Express stores opening everywhere. Video games were huge business. Game shops kept opening everywhere. Even Capcom and Nintendo got together for a chain of stores. For every new game store that opened, about a hundred game nooks opened as well. These were the mini game shops that opened within other stores, or as flea market stalls. There were usually clusters of game shops and nooks around every train station. A typical retail strip could have up to five game stores per block. Electronic Boutique ( now called EB Games ) and Software Etc were full blown gaming shops. Wherever one opened, a other would open a few doors away. And they also began opening everywhere. Toy stores that once had miniscule video game sections, now had impressive game sections. Record stores began selling games. Circuit City and Best Buy devoted aisle after aisle for video games. Even Blockbuster began selling games.
With all that competition, games prices were at an all time low. While brand new releases still typically priced at around $80, it wasn't unusual for the price to rapidly drop to $9.99 within a year. Overstock was everywhere, which meant bargains were everywhere. I once found an Oddlot selling factory sealed N64 games for $5, most of them formerly being hit titles like Duke Nukem. I walked out of that store with 18 games that day, costing me less than $90. And this was a year before the Game Cube was announced.
The ultimate gaming stores that sold retro games opened. Not only could you find the latest games, but they sold all the old Atari, Intellivision and Colecovision cartridges, along with a lot of old 80s handheld games. All used, of course. But sometimes with the original box intact. And if they did have a classic game in it's original factory seal, the price would be astronomical. EB Games and Electronic Boutique got into selling used games, although at the time most of their used games were more recent release.
I can't say for sure when and why this all came to an end, although I am sure it was due to the financial crisis in 2008. Shortly before that happened, Funcoland, a chain that exclusively sold used games, was merged with EB Games and Software Etc. I am still confused as to who bought who, or if all three chains ended up under the same parent company. But by 2004 all three were now called GameStop. When the financial crash hit, I no longer had the money to spend on video games, so stopped going to game shops. I completely missed the Wii. By the time I felt my financial situation was stable enough to buy a 3DS, most of the gaming shops were gone. GameStop filled the vacuum. Their business model of buying and selling games was perfect for a country suffering from a mini Great Depression. Not only was buying used games cheaper for gamers, but the ability to sell games allowed them to afford more used games.
You can still find game stores here and there. The ones that didn't completely convert into mobile phone stores. But most gamers now buy from the internet. It is nowhere as exciting as going into a game shop, and having to wait for your game to arrive in the mail and probably be stolen by porch pirates sucks. But the selection is unlimited, and you can still find unused games. GameStop? Very limited selection and almost everything on the shelf is used. Game Express and stores like them vanished from Midtown Manhattan, but are abundant from Harlem on North through The Bronx. Toys"R"Us went bankrupt after a slew of bad business decisions. Best Buy and Target still sell video games, but both have limited selections, and mostly just the best sellers. Other chain stores eliminated their video game departments. Something that has begun to replace the traditional game shop are the retro game shops. Most of their stock is used games, which can't be helped because they sell games and systems that are decades old. Games with the original boxes, packaging and instruction manuals are more expensive, and those still in their original factory seal are so expensive that you dare not remove the shrink wrap once you buy them, defeating the purpose of buying the game. These stores are more for collectors than for gamers.