When I got the idea to put this blog together, one of the first things I planned to write about was my childhood experience of buying video games, and how it feels different from buying games today.
I stalled on that for a while. But then I came across this post on Tiny Girl, Tiny Games, and it brought the topic back up for me. I didn’t have the same experience of buying games at Toys ‘R’ Us – we had the store in the UK, but it was never my go-to place for games buying – but in many ways I think we felt similarly about our early game purchases (or acts of wheedling parents into game purchases, as was usually more the case). They were events, little shining slivers of memory that persist into the now. And no, the current downloadable era really doesn’t feel the same – even if the fact that I can see a post on Final Fantasy Record Keeper and have it on my Android, a minute later, for free, is a little bit amazing.
I think what stands out for me about game buying as a child was how much it felt like treasure hunting. We had our maps: video game magazines, themselves bought for a goodly sum out of a youngster’s coin purse, that imperfectly covered the territory at the rate of a few games per issue. So much of the rest was uncharted land, new gems waiting to be discovered every time you stepped into a store. Finding the game you wanted in a magazine and tracking it down “in the wild” was a thrill; but almost better was rifling through the shelves and stumbling across something you’d never heard of before, but whose box art and back-cover blurb was full of promise. That was a gamble: the trip home spent leafing through the manual if there was one, excited and nervous in the hope that this game would be one of The Ones, the special games within a sea of averages that would stick with you forever.
I say “if there was a manual” because, as childhood blended into early adolescence, I increasingly bought my games used, and from other places than the local Electronics Boutique. If you bought a games mag every month, you pretty much knew what would be on the shelves of EB; if you’d exhausted that selection, or nothing out lately looked promising, you had to branch out. I didn’t have a credit card, so all those oh-so-tempting ads in the back pages of Super Play weren’t an option: wonders unimaginable for a UK gamer were found there, all those Japanese and US import RPGs that never reached our shores. I’d just read through the ads, salivating at the names: Final Fantasy III. (VI, nowadays.) Super Mario RPG. Chrono Trigger. I knew this was the good stuff, the stuff that almost seemed held back from us deliberately so we’d appreciate its worth, but it would still be some time before I could get my hands on it.
In the meantime, I scoured the markets.
The market, I’ve learned, is not really a US tradition – which surprises me, since most other countries have some equivalent. Essentially, it’s a collection of stalls, often with little tarps over them, selling everything from clothes and perfumes to used DVDs, books, and, yes, video games. It’s a low-cost, low-commitment way to run a business, so the traders you’ll find there aren’t always the most scrupulous: this is the home of piracy and knockoffs as well as honest used goods, and video game are no exception. I remember the first time I ran into a “4-in-1 multicart” for the Game Boy, with its poorly Photoshopped box art and copyright-dodging “Game Color” logo: I was scandalised and vaguely upset, knowing something wasn’t right, and some part of me still feels that frisson of not right whenever I see a bootleg video game.
But if you could tell the fake from the real, something I was always good at (that Uncanny Valley feeling I always got, looking at a slightly distorted logo or off-model version of a famous character, got me far), there were treasures to be found indeed. Browsing used game stalls, you got whatever people were getting rid of right now, not this month’s hottest release: that could mean old games long-vanished from EB shelves, or obscure titles that had never made it there to begin with. If you were extremely lucky, you might even find something in Japanese – something the big game stores would never buy from you, since they could only afford to sell what would work on local consoles. But used game stalls didn’t care. No receipt, no refund if things don’t work: just you and your street savvy, and the knowledge that back home you’ve got a Universal Adapter – a cumbersome and frankly ugly-looking piece of plastic that sits between the SNES and your game, bypassing the various regional lockouts and making the whole setup really, really wobbly. Seriously, those things were precarious. But they let you play games from anywhere in the world, almost, and that was worth sticking a dodgy third-party brick of plastic between your precious SNES and your £60 copy of, ahem, “Final Fantasy III” for, even if you never felt quite comfortable with it.
(Your feeling of discomfort would be borne out when the blasted thing made all your saved games disappear. It was only a matter of time. These treasures were never quite meant to be yours: holy artifacts that would eventually curse those who dared to uproot them from their native lands. But you got away with it, for a while.)
Plus, there was the sense of history you got from buying used. It sounds silly, but I remember the smell of my Secret of Mana manual: nothing I could put a finger on, just the scent of someone else’s home, someone’s past ownership and love. I’ll probably never smell that exact scent again, but I can conjure it in my mind, and it will always smell like Secret of Mana to me. Being able to have a game smell like something – that’s something you wouldn’t get any other way, outside of Earthbound‘s scratch-‘n’-sniff cards.
I always hoped to find other remnants of history in those games: other people’s saves (and the things they named their characters), marginalia in the “Notes” page of the manual. I never did find the latter, or any really interesting save names, though I do remember the hero in my scented copy of Secret of Mana was named PIT. I always thought that was a bit odd: nowadays, I wonder if it was a Kid Icarus reference. But even though I never found anything that spectacular, I always aspired to be that person for other people, the person who left behind some little tidbit of history with their games – so I wrote in the back of my games’ manuals before I sold them. High scores, cheats, but also my observations on the game, random thoughts, things I wanted to communicate to the next person who came along. A little shout out into the universe: hey, we are connected by space and time. You’re not alone.
Nowadays, between downloads, online vendors and emulation, we have pretty much every game ever released at our fingertips, and the collective wisdom of the internet immediately on hand to tell us whether or not that long-coveted title is actually worth playing. With emulation the way it is today, I could dig out any SNES game I wanted at any time, after a few minutes of Googling to see if it’s worth the effort.
But somehow, I find myself not actually doing it. I don’t value the games the same way I did when they were hard-scavenged prizes, and cracking open a new one no longer feels as momentous. And though I know there are tons of free downloadable games out there for PC and Android, the sheer number of them is overwhelming. For the most part, when it comes to downloads, I stick to the games I already know and love: the ones I first found as treasures, as lucky discoveries that shaped the course of my life and the landscape of my imagination.
I’m still going to play Record Keeper. But then it’s hard to say whether that’s evidence against the general trend, or for it.