Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ticket to Paradise

"From bikes to trains to video games..."
If you were wondering, yep, that's Urkel.
Recently, I found a fantastic post by Nadia Oxford on her Tiny Girl, Tiny Games blog, which takes a fond look back at the golden age of Toys 'R Us. These days, members of Generation X don't have much reason to step foot into the store except to pick up Huggies and Barbie dolls for their tykes. However, in the 20th century, when we were youngsters ourselves, the place was a wonderland, filled with every toy on our overly optimistic Christmas lists and even a few we somehow missed.

Toys 'R Us was also the place to go for video games, back in the days when adults didn't take them too seriously. Most retailers were reluctant to carry game software in the mid 1980s thanks to the industry crash of 1983, but I can't think of a time when they didn't have a major presence in Toys 'R Us. I recall visiting my aunt in Milwaukee back in 1986 and finding a wall of black tags with curiously pixelated artwork mixed in with old-school titles like Scooby-Doo's Maze Chase for the Intellivision. Those black tags were games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, a scrappy newcomer which would go on to dominate the game industry years later. I didn't know at the time that I was staring at history in the making, but significant moments like these tend to slip past you when you're a tightly-wound twelve year old.

A rare glimpse of the Toys 'R Us
game wall, circa 1991. Who was buying
all those copies of Budokan, anyway?
Nadia talked at length about the way you bought games at Toys 'R Us, and I'd like to touch upon this too. Most items you could just purchase at the register, but for games (which are a lot easier to slip under your jacket than, say, Malibu Stacy's Beach House), you'd need to take a few extra steps. Games were displayed on the wall as a series of plastic tags with images from the box on both sides. If you wanted to read the description on the back of the game's box, you'd flip the tag up. If you decided you wanted that game, you'd grab a ticket from a pouch under the tag. If the pouch was empty, that game was out of stock, and you'd have to pick something else.

When you were done, you'd bring your ticket to the register and purchase the game of your choice. You'd then take the receipt to an imposing concrete partition near the store exit. This was the electronics stockroom, a veritable Fort Knox of gaming goodness. After you slipped your receipt under the glass window set in the wall, then and only then were you given your game. 

A grown-up would probably find this arrangement needlessly complicated and time-consuming. However, to a child, it brought a sense of gravity to the game purchasing experience, something Nadia describes as a "solemn event." That game was going to be just as fun no matter where you bought it, but retrieving it from the grey brick fortress in the front of the Toys 'R Us made the purchase more significant. The fact that this was only necessary for games heightened that significance. You weren't buying some silly toy. You were buying a video game.

Well, they tried.
The power of that experience escaped me until Nadia's article made the memories come flooding back. I bought so many games with Toys 'R Us tickets, and they're always the ones I remember best. The charmingly hopeful Atari 2600 port of Kung Fu Master, a game that had no business being anywhere near that system. 1942 for the NES, which I'd played to the bitter end despite its shortcomings. Sagaia, a colorful Taito shooter that was one of the highlights in the early Genesis library. My last ticket was Panzer Dragoon Saga, claimed at a Toys 'R Us in Tucson and clearance priced at twenty dollars. (Wired editor Chris Kohler, still in his teens at the time, was pissed that I was able to get a copy for thirty dollars less than he did. Fifteen years later, with the game selling for hundreds of dollars on auction sites, I'd say he still did pretty well for himself.)

The new R-Zone. Boo, hiss!
Shortly afterward, I moved back to Michigan, and visited the Lansing Toys 'R Us with a friend. That location had been something of an old friend itself, but it had drastically changed from when I visited it as a child and a teenager. The walls of tags, the blue and yellow tickets, and the towering concrete stockroom were all gone, replaced with a new section called the R-Zone. (Not that R-Zone.) Games could now be taken directly to the cash register, with a lone security gate standing between them and the store exit. I didn't think much of the change at the time, but fifteen years later, a realization has hit me like a ton of those massive grey bricks. I left my Toys 'R Us kid in the 1990s, and I don't think I'll ever get him back.

(Special thanks to Nadia Oxford for inspiring me to write this, and to YouTube, Flickr's FourStarCashierNathan, and AtariAge for the images.)


  1. I never did get to visit Toys 'R' Us much since it was mostly a "visit a town two towns over" thing where I lived and I'd usually take that opportunity to check out game specialty stores in the mall, but it was the place where I demoed and ultimately pre-ordered a Nintendo 64 because of how Super Mario 64 sold me on this new world of 3D gaming where the "2D-like gameplay with 3D graphics" styles of the NiGHTS into dreams... and Crash Bandicoot displays did not.

    Pre-ESRB archaic censorship policies and the Virtual Boy flop aside, I was still a Nintendo kid and I thought that just like the NES and SNES the N64 would see a ton of great games and the merits of cartridges would win out over the loading times of CDs. So in 1996, I got a Nintendo 64 for Christmas.

    In X-Mas '97 I got a PlayStation for Christmas because that's where my old friends Final Fantasy and Mega Man were instead of on the N64 and Symphony of the Night ended up being the hit Konami thought Castlevania 64 was going to be. In '98 I knew I made the right decision when I played the Metal Gear Solid demo and learned of a once great monster-raising sim by the name of Monster Rancher, among various platformers, RPGs, and other things that would hit the system.

    I still had some good times with the N64, but it never quite lived up to what Super Mario 64 showed it could do. Nintendo still did better than SEGA, though; it ain't Mario who appeared in tons of middling to crap platformers on former rival's consoles to pay the bills while most other games only get acknowledged in ports and ensemble titles.

  2. Sigh. Your post, as well as Nadia's, has prompted me to ponder things I haven't thought about in YEARS. Like you, I have the fondest memories of trolling the aisles of the Toys R Us that was located on Madison, Wisconsin's east side back when I was kid. I especially loved sticking my face up against the glass cases that held consoles and handhelds so I could get a closer look at all of the systems I desperately wanted to own but rarely was given the go-ahead (by my parents, of course) to buy, including the Sega CD attachment, the Turbo Express and even the 3DO.

    Also, it was a thrill just to walk up and down the aisles and take in all of the wonderful box art. I can't remember exactly how many aisles were devoted to games back then, but it was a lot. Maybe three or more? Whatever, I loved every inch--even when an aisle was dedicated to a system I had no real interest in. (I'm looking at you, Master System.)

    BTW, to this day, the old TRU jingle ("I don't want to grow up, I'm a Toys R Us kid...") gives me tingles.

    There'll never be a better way--or place--to buy games, I tell you!

    On an unrelated note, I've finally concocted a list of current gaming blogs you may like. I check in with most of them as often as I'm able, although I have to admit that these days that is less often than I'd like. (As a result, I was completely unaware until now that Famicomblog has been updating fairly regularly this year!)

    Anyway, here's my list, for better or worse:

    1. Things were weird before the internet, weren't they? Almost primitive. These days, if you want to find out about an upcoming game, it's as easy as typing a search term into Google. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, that information had to be gleaned from magazines, or stores like Toys R Us, or word of mouth. Word traveled more slowly back then, and those information bottlenecks were a double-edged sword. Waiting for news on the latest games was often agonizing, but it also brought suspense and excitement to the hobby.

      But anyway. Toys R Us was great in that it could get you hyped for systems you wouldn't normally consider, like (as you mentioned) the Master System. I shunned the TurboGrafx as a teenager, but it was nevertheless pretty cool to watch footage of its games on the Toys R Us kiosk, just to see how the other half lives.