In the age of Gamer Gate—when the word “gamer” often goes hand in hand with “online harassment” and “knuckle-dragging man-child”—admitting you play video games is a surefire way to estrange yourself from the liberal zeitgeist. But here goes: I am a gamer, and have been ever since junior high, when I spent most of my free time arguing on message boards about whether or not Mario and Wario are related. (The answer, obviously, is “no.”)
That is, when I wasn’t hanging out at Game Crazy. Launched in 1999, Game Crazy was a regional games retailer that existed as a store-within-a-store at select Hollywood Video branches—a now-defunct video rental chain that was itself a subsidiary of the larger, Wilsonville-based Movie Gallery. The Hollywood West store, located by the Fred Meyer on 28th and NE Weidler, was my own personal Cheers.
There were a few things that made Game Crazy feel more communal and “indie” than it actually was: Customers could test-play any game in the store, sealed or used. In addition to “current generation” games, most stores stocked a variety of older consoles and games from the 8- and 16-bit eras. And a service launched towards the end of the company’s life—one of Game Crazy’s final, futile attempts to counter a looming black cloud of financial challenges—would let patrons special order retro and hard-to-find titles.
None of these perks managed to keep Game Crazy afloat. In 2010, its parent company Movie Gallery declared bankruptcy, attributing loss in sales to the growing popularity of online distributors like Netflix and Redbox.
But to ex-employee Carl Scripter, the company’s failure seemed at least partially due to a lack of appreciation for its core clientele, most of whom lived blocks away from the store he managed.
“I was always fighting the fight, because [corporate] wanted to attract new customers all the time, and were always trying to do things to branch out,” Scripter explains. “I kept saying, ‘No, the only way this company will work is if we cater to the regulars, because we’re a tiny company.’”
Scripter was Hollywood West’s store manager from 2001 until 2007. In 2005, when it became clear to those on the inside that the company was suffering, Scripter tried to do what he could. “I went to corporate and basically forced them to build their website better and tried to make sure they weren’t losing sight of the tempo of the time,” he said, “which was an online presence and a simple experience in the store—[the customers should be allowed] to come in and do what they have to do, and then leave.”
“The Ballad of Game Crazy” should have been a cautionary tale to other chain game retailers. It wasn’t. GameStop—Game Crazy’s primary competitor, and virtually the only American video game chain left—now sells retro games through its website and at a handful of locations throughout the country, but its remaining Portland stores deal exclusively in modern product—a massive oversight, considering the city’s rabid vintage games market. And actually buying a game at GameStop is often more trouble than it’s worth: Employees aggressively coerce you into purchasing preorders, warranties, and accessories so they can fulfill quotas.
For years, the “upsell culture” of buying new games at a chain retailer was a necessary evil—even at Game Crazy. But in an era when virtually any new game can be purchased digitally, a trip to GameStop is becoming increasingly hard to justify.
“Going to GameStop is a nightmare,” says Ahmar Rana. Rana is a former producer at indie video game studio Immersed Games, and in 2014, gave a TED Talk on the independent video game industry at Florida State University.
“Ironically, even though they’re the largest specialty games retailer, when I buy a game, I always view them as a last resort,” Rana says. “The upsell mandate means you’re on the defensive as soon as you walk in the door—and [these days], half the store is just Harley Quinn plushies or Doctor Who backpacks, anyway.”
While there will always be benefits to physical media, Rana thinks “the middle class of video games is eroding.” While the physical disc and its purveyors may be safe for the foreseeable future, Rana’s theories about where the industry is headed are corroborated by hard numbers. The Entertainment Software Association reported that in 2014, digital sales accounted for 52 percent of all video game sales, with physical media accounting for only 48 percent. The ESA’s 2015 report indicated an even bigger disparity, with 56 percent of game sales being digital and a mere 44 percent being physical.
The GameStop in Pioneer Place—one of the few remaining stores in the Portland metro area—shuttered in the summer, reportedly due to mall renovations. At Lloyd Center, Portland’s other shopping mall, two GameStops used to be separated from each other by a mere escalator ride. Now only one remains.
“The bigger threat appears to be for retailers that fail to adjust to the changing market,” reads a New York Times piece published last December on the evolving game market. “The list of retailers that have been vaporized by the internet is long, including Blockbuster in movies, Tower Records in music, and Virgin Megastores in both.”
If GameStop represents Tower Records, and digital game marketplaces are equivalent to iTunes or Spotify, then smaller, mom-and-pop game shops are the boutique record stores of the game retail world—and Portland has some of the best indie game retailers in the country.
“It seems like there’s a community for everything in Portland, but there’s an especially strong community for [older video games] here,” says Joe Ring.
Ring is the co-founder of CD Game Exchange, an independent chain of game, music, and movie stores that opened its first Portland location on SE Hawthorne in 1996. But despite its name and varied inventory, Ring says his store is primarily known for selling older games.
“Why we’re still in business while GameStop’s around is because they only deal a system or two back, and don’t do much vintage stuff,” Ring says, “which is where the majority of our business comes from.”
While retro video games may seem like a small and static market, Ring points out that with each passing console cycle, his inventory expands.
“Each time a new system comes out, [the previous system becomes retro], and that means a bigger catalog,” he says. When I ask if downloads pose a threat to his model—after all, you can download retro games, too—he seems doubtful, once again drawing a parallel between the music and games industries.
“It’s the same reason [places are selling] lots of records again,” he says. “Of course we’re in a bubble, being in Portland, but my customers want the tactile experience and of course they like having the originals. We sell aftermarket game systems like the Super Nintendo and the [Nintendo Entertainment System], and they want to hold the old cartridges, and they want it to actually look like the old NES.”
Dominic Kalberer, the owner of landmark Portland game store Video Game Wizards, is particularly sentimental about the bygone era, when “hanging out at the video game store” was a pastime—before the multi-tap (10-player Bomberman!) was supplanted by an online multiplayer.
“I grew up renting Super Nintendo and Nintendo games, and it was the coolest thing,” Kalberer says. “This whole new generation is going to miss out on the experience of going to the video store and renting stuff and just having a place where you can go and [talk to people about games].”
According to Kalberer, much of Video Game Wizards’ business comes from repeat customers or collectors who buy games and also regularly contribute to the store’s inventory by selling their own games.
This model can be self-sustaining, but it also has the potential to backfire.
Game Trader is one of the coolest—and weirdest—independent game retailers in Portland. A glass display to the left of the entrance is a micro-exhibit of game consoles, ranging from the iconic (all of Nintendo’s home consoles, up to the GameCube, are present) to the obscure. Located in Cedar Hills Crossing—a cultural time capsule in and of itself—Game Trader feels unchanged from how I remember it as a kid: A sun-faded Super Mario 64 poster adorns the back wall, and store owner C.K. Kim is as stern and sapient as ever. But there are fewer games than I remember—and it’s awfully quiet.
I ask Kim how business is, and his directness makes me wince. “No customers come in this mall,” Kim says. “We don’t have any people come in the door anymore.”
Kim says he’s put the brakes on ordering new games, focusing almost exclusively on the used market instead—but even retro product has ceased to revolve due to an overall lack of business. “[People have just] bought all of those cartridge games,” he says. “We used to have a bunch of them, now we’re almost out. People have started collecting them, and older people have come looking for them because they’re their childhood games.”
Old Nintendo games, Kim says, sell well—but the collectors who buy them hardly ever sell their games back to the store.
“Really, we’re just in the business of nostalgia,” says Christina Andringa, an employee at the family-run Game Haven—one of the newest and best-curated game stores in the Portland area. She says Game Haven has experienced a similar issue as Kim’s Game Trader—especially since relocating from Tigard to Sherwood.
“Because Sherwood is such a different market, there isn’t nearly as much trading as there is selling,” Andringa says. “Our inventory isn’t exactly dwindling, but we don’t get the same sort of people who buy a game, and then a month later trade it back in.”
Andringa speculates that eventually, however, no brick-and-mortar video game stores will exist—including those who specialize in vintage product. The crux of her argument is that the “retro” tag moves up with every console generation—and in the not-too-distant future, “retro” will apply to a category of games that were only ever available digitally.
During my interview with Game Crazy’s Carl Scripter, his nine-year old son brags to me about being one of the top Overwatch players in the country. And then I think of my own theoretical offspring—to them, Chrono Trigger will be what Yars’ Revenge was to me: ancient garbage.
Nostalgia is a powerful force with all media, from old-school movie screenings, to Stranger Things, to vinyl being resuscitated as a viable music format. (Let’s face it: The “analog just sounds better” argument is mainly a justification for retro chic.) And like vinyl, there’s an ineffable allure to vintage video games: Similar to the popping and crackling of old records, something about old game systems is usually broken. Saved data vanishes, controllers spontaneously stop cooperating, and old cartridges only function after being blown into for 40 minutes. But somehow, this only serves to enhance the overall experience. Modern digital distributors mistake sterile convenience for perfection—but as humans, we love things because of, not despite, their flaws.
As humans, we also need to socialize. The digital landscape hasn’t changed the social dynamics of music or film much, at least so far—you can still go to a concert or a movie theater with your friends—but gaming has become progressively more solitary, with games being bought and played online, with gamers now never needing to venture into the outside world to track down a game, let alone make space on the couch for someone else. We’re probably worse off for it: In recent years, “geek culture” has become nearly synonymous with the vicious, internet-bred alt-right, hellbent on defending their precious subculture from the “evils” of social progressivism. They’ve constructed the man cave to end them all.
But walking into an indie video game store and socializing with likeminded regulars and clerks evokes the epoch Kalberer fondly remembers—when gaming was, by necessity, social, and when our nerdy, introverted proclivities were tested to their limits. (Little did we know then that this would be our first brush with exposure therapy.) Some of my most cherished relationships with other gamers were cultivated on the internet—but nothing will ever beat annihilating three real-life friends in Super Smash Bros. Melee.