One of the real pleasures about growing up as a gamer was taking trips to my local town to browse the shelves and display cabinets of the video-gaming shops, as even though I couldn’t afford a lot of the loot that lined the shop floor, a boy could still dream…
And, once I got my first job and could dish out some dollar for the various video game morsels, the dream became a reality and I began to collect both contemporary and retro games. Each different city or town I visited would stock similar modern titles, consoles, and accessories, but their retro and pre-owned collections were varied and wonderful – there was something for everyone. Not only was it possible to get each new title no matter your location, but it was often possible to grab a cheeky cheap game you played when you were a kid, or, better yet, something you’d wanted but hadn’t bought the first time around! The streets glittered with gaming goodness, and it was blissful.
Fast-forward to 2015, and the British high street has hit an all time low for the deluge of die-hard gamers that still wander this world. Where once there was Electronics Boutique, Virgin Games, Gamestop, and Gamestation
(to name but a few), there is now GAME – and though the company has been around for almost 25 years now, it’s currently a shadow of its former self in terms of both quality and range of stock. Over its quarter century, it swallowed many of the other gaming retailers that lined the high streets and spat them out again, until reaching the financial trouble that arose in 2012. But this article isn’t specifically about GAME, nor about any of the other now defunct chains of specialist video game retailers that once stood strong and tall; instead, I want to discuss my frustration and sadness with the lack of ‘brick and mortar’ gaming retailers, and the ensuing void that it has created for me, as well as many others I know that feel the same way.
Gaming isn’t just about playing the games, but is a culture. This culture includes collecting, cataloguing, competing, and creating, and a huge part of that journey fell into the lap of the high street shops. Being able to walk into one of many diverse specialist retailers meant unearthing items or titles that you had never set your eyes upon before: I’ll never forget my local Gamestation store selling Nintendo’s migraine-generating Virtual Boy console, and the awe I felt at actually seeing one in real-life. And though a lot of the rare retro gems didn’t make it past the more savvy sales assistants, who pocketed the treasure before displaying it to the public (trust me: I used to be one of them!), it was the possibility as much as the reality that made exploring the shop floors so tantalising. Maybe there wouldn’t be a copy of Tombi! kicking around in the local store, but maybe next week, or the week after… Nowadays, with retro rarely being stocked at all, collectors or those wishing to revisit their childhood are forced online. And though you’re likely to find what you’re looking for somewhere, it’s the surprises you weren’t looking for – like the Virtual Boy – that often had the most profound impact. That impact simply does not exist without our ability to browse.
What is worse, perhaps, are the stock levels of current gen games. Over the Christmas period, I visited a few different cities, each with one or two GAME stores of varying size. Looking to pick up certain titles for family or friends, I was faced with constant stock shortages of Xbox One and Wii U titles: some of which, I was told, had only ever been stocked in small supply, and not replenished thereafter. Again, I’m not slinging mud at GAME specifically, as the publisher has as much to do with this issue as the store, but to be unable to find even the most modern of titles is a joke too far; the high street store offers very little now for the hardcore gamer amongst us, and something has truly been lost in the transition to online shopping.
The only hope we have now lies within the independent gaming shops, and the up-and-coming chains like Grainger Games. Occasionally, someone oblivious drops off a bad-ass PS1 title into a charity shop that you can pick up for the price of a third-hand copy of a Holly Valance album, but undoubtedly the casual perusal of retro and rare gaming gold on the high street may have seen its day. And that should make any true gamer shed a small, pixelated tear. Currently, 38% of people visit their high street daily, and whilst only 21% of the UK’s total retail market comes from internet-based sales, eCommerce isn’t something that’s going to go away – and that goes for everything other than gaming too. This grumpy old gamer might be sore about not being able to land himself a copy of Twin Snakes on the Gamecube without facing a bidding war online, but this issue stretches far further than the video-gaming industry. I have the same complaint regarding shopping for music, and it seems both industries are heading the way of the digital download, with a high street oligopoly. Some don’t see this as a problem – there’s not enough space in our houses as it is! – but there’s something to be said about holding the physical item in your hands; playing Legend of Dragoon on an emulator or re-release download just isn’t the same as popping the disc in and hearing it whir…
What clothes shopping does for fashionistas, riffling through rubbishy PS2 games does for hardcore gamers. The fashion conscious shopaholics have all seen the same sandy-shaded, short-sleeved, sloganised sleepwear in each store they’ve visited, but sometimes they find a real treat on the sale-rail or slotted behind some beige number; game shopping used to be that way, too. And though missing those days is futile, it’s been nice to get it off my chest, so thanks for shouldering my struggle. Perhaps the world will never return to a game-laden, shopping-precinct-filled meadow, but maybe – just maybe – they’ll invent virtual goggles that allow you to ‘walk’ around websites, whimsically wasting away the hours rummaging retro memorabilia once again.
Yes. A boy can still dream.