My Loser Phase: Reflections on Video Game Retail from 1992-1997


 

February 1994: Winter Clearance

Our location was one of four "outlet" stores for the company. Meaning in addition to keeping an inventory of regular items we also carried clearance items shipped to us from other stores. February was usually the time when this happened; the malls were ghost towns in the frigid weather while everyone paid off their Christmas purchases. Other stores would be sent a list of items they were to round-up and send our way.

Boxes and boxes of junk would pour into our already cramped store, twenty on a bad day. It was like stumbling across a giant garage sale of d-list software. There were a lot of Amiga and even some Apple II games; those were always difficult to sell. Luckily, we were given some discretion in regards to pricing. For example, there were two Super Nintendo games we had to price at a cool $1 to get rid off.

I racked my brain to recall the titles of those two games and I couldn't. I even bought both of them but traded them in at some point (during one of our "$10 for any Super Nintendo or Genesis game" trade-in promotions). One was a bad shooter, the other a bad baseball game.

On the flip-side, the manager of our location would occasionally mark items up if he thought they were too cheap. There wasn't anything in it for him, it's not like he got a percentage of the store's sales. No, I think there was just something in his nature that wouldn't allow him to sell something at a ridiculously low price. We received a lot of stuff priced for 10¢ that he'd markup to $1-$5 which was still a really great deal. I don't know why they even bothered shipping it to our store in the first place though, throwing it out would probably have been cheaper for the company.

Seal Team

Most of these clearance items would be stuffed into a couple bins in the front of the store. Games we had 20+ copies of, like Seal Team and Rise of the Robots for PC, we made into giant pyramids. Being a high-traffic location, these items sold fast. Everything that came in during February and March was gone by summer.

I consider this to be one of the fun things about the job. Opening these boxes felt a little like Christmas, each one was a surprise. It seems like all the GameStops stock the exact same selection nowadays. Back in the mid-nineties they made an effort to customize the inventory at each location based on the local market. For example, our store carried a wider selection of portable games than others (because of the aforementioned Navy Base). We were also one of the last locations in the company to carry Macintosh software. Other stores did well with productivity software and were stocked almost like an Egghead. As the recipient of the outlet inventory we witnessed this first-hand. No two shipments were alike except for a few titles that were uniformly overstocked at all locations. The elements of surprise and variety made a potentially unpleasant experience fun. During February and March just about any kind of activity was appreciated.

In early 1994 Elbo tried a new policy, raising pricing across the board and dropping all price-matching policies. The exact phrase they used in the announcement to employees was "we will achieve a Software Etc level". I don't know why that phrase is burned into my brain 12+ years later, probably because it's one of the dumbest things I've ever heard. It referred to our top competitor whose prices were 10-15% higher than ours on average. In a moment of folly the executives at Elbo looked at Software Etc., a company that we were handily beating, and thought "let's be more like them". This experiment didn't last long, 2-3 months at the most. We lost customers and employee morale until Elbo did a 180 on this policy.

Software Etc, Babbage's, Funcoland, and Electronics Boutique/EBGames/Waldensoftware are now all part of the Gamestop family. I can't think of another (non-online) dedicated video game retail chain that exists. I suspect this lack of competition will result in higher prices and other negative consequences.

Doom

In the frigid days of early 1994 we also started receiving the shareware version of Doom. Much like the MS-DOS 6.2.x upgrades, we received a counter display that held tiny boxes of 3.5" disks containing the first episodes of Doom. For a mere $5 gamers could try the first gory episode of what would be a legendary game. Yeah, it was available for free online but keep in mind this was 1994 when internet connections were rare and slow. These little packages were the perfect distribution system for Doom. Customers were unsure if their computer hardware could run the 3D game, for $5 it was worth the gamble. If they enjoyed the game (and almost everyone did) they could order the full version from the included form. It would be several months before a full retail version surfaced. Soon after that we would carry dozens of cheaply packaged CDs containing hundreds, or even thousands, of .wad files scraped off FTP sites. The rip-offs came pouring in too. A seemingly countless array of wanna-be 3D shooters clogged up the shelves, and shortly thereafter, the clearance bins.

To this day, Doom II is my favorite PC game. Its simple game play and intricate level design give it infinite re-playability. Many games are only fun to play for 10-20 minutes at a time while others require you to block out an entire evening. Doom I & II have a rare quality where you can play them for either 10 minutes or 2 hours and have a great experience.


 

Summer 1994: Preowned Games

Elbo introduced a trade-in policy where old games could be exchanged for in-store credit. The program in its infancy was quite a bit different than its current incarnation. The initial program was limited to Sega Genesis (excluding Sega CD) and Super Nintendo. Boxes and instructions were required to trade-in a game, no exceptions. We had systems in the backroom to test trade-ins, we were initially required to test every game before putting them in the new preowned bin.

All of the aforementioned policies would change over time. The program would be opened-up to every system we carried (and apparently PC games and DVDs now). The box and instructions requirement was eased, good luck buying a preowned game with either today. In the first revision we took a buck or two off the trade-in value, eventually it was dropped outright. The testing systems would be scrapped in lieu of allowing customers to return a defective title. It seemed too good to be true that we could be paid to "test" games.

The interesting part of the program was that we were only given two SKUs for all games, one for "preowned Genesis" and one for "preowned Super Nintendo". We had giant printed lists of what to take and sell games for. However, there was no way to enforce that employees actually followed the pricing guidelines. They'd frequently give deals to friends, regular customers, or themselves. I witnessed it occur countless times (but won't admit to doing it of course). Yeah, it was against "the rules" but no one really cared so long as the abuse didn't get out of control.

Another consequence of the generic SKU was it allowed us to take Sega CD trade-ins even though they weren't covered by the program initially. I know, we were a really naughty store for doing this but they also sold surprisingly well. I'm a fan of the Sega CD but will also admit that most games in its library lack good replay value so people were happy unloading them cheap. I snagged my prized copy of Snatcher for $15 through this unofficial side of the trade-in program.

It wouldn't be long before Elbo would wisen-up and assign distinct SKUs to preowned games. It was fun while it lasted.

After months of avoiding the NES, Elbo started a promotion to accept games for the classic system. The deal was $1 for any NES game. We were given signs to advertise the new trade-in deal. On all the signage was a clearly printed disclaimer stating "Offer excludes Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt, duplicate games not accepted". We were also communicated these rules. Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt was available at Funcoland for 25 cents, maybe less. A few other games were also under a buck there but none with the availability of Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt. This policy was obviously there for our protection.

Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt

One employee in the Chicago area was confounded by these limitations. He or she accepted 200 copies of Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt on a single trade-in. How do I know this? Because all 200 copies were shipped to our "outlet" store.

Realizing there was no way to sell this many copies of Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt, we started giving them away. See, we couldn't just throw them out because they had to be removed from inventory through the register. We asked customers if they wanted a free Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt with their purchase. If they agreed we knocked a buck off one of their items and tacked on a Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt cart for the same amount. They paid the same price and we got rid of another infernal cartridge.

This strategy didn't get too many carts out the door though, we had to be more aggressive. We dubbed one Saturday "Mandatory Free Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt Day". Every purchase came with a copy regardless of what it was. Buy a copy of GamePro, get Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt. No exceptions. By 5:00 mall security paid us a visit to complain about the quantity of carts littering the parking lot. We were politely asked to end our promotion. By then we were down to 10-20 copies so we switched back to the volunteer program and slowly got rid of them.

The day after I wrote this section I was listening to the Nintendo RetroCast episode 14 and one of the hosts said that he once got a free Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt in the same manner. I laughed out loud when I heard it. I'm not surprised that other stores had to deal with huge surpluses of this cartridge.

When the "$1 for any NES game" promotion started there was rumor that most, if not all, of the games would be sent to South America for resale. Although not true, it was at least slightly plausible in that most countries in South America use NTSC televisions. In reality, we turned around and re-sold them for $4.99. Subtracting the cost of taking the trade-in and throwing a sticker on it still comes out to a 400%+ profit. Of course this meant it took 50 sales to cover the Super Mario Brothers/Duck Hunt fiasco. Other than that particular game, the prices were fixed. If someone brought in Dragon Warrior IV we gave them a buck and sold it for $4.99. Before you ask, "yes" this happened (more than once) and I was too stupid to buy it. If I had the powers of divination to foresee eBay coming there are a lot of items I would have stockpiled over the years.


 

September 1994: Mortal Monday II

Mortal Kombat II

Despite higher pre-sales, the Mortal Kombat II launch was smoother than the original. Pre-orders were more routine and organized now (although we still relied on the hefty binder for reservations). The decision for consumers was a bit tougher now because Nintendo relented and allowed blood & fatalities to appear. The reviews all ranked the Super Nintendo version superior to the Genesis one this time around. The play control for both versions was nearly perfect but the Super Nintendo version sported better graphics. The pre-orders we took were a mirror image of the original Mortal Kombat with the Super Nintendo port holding a tremendous lead this time.

Customers also expected "Mortal Monday" to mean "Mortal Friday" as every retailer broke the release date last time. History repeated itself when everyone ignored the text on the boxes instructing "DO NOT OPEN UNTIL SEPTEMBER 9". That weekend the store was a madhouse with a deluge of customers picking up one (or two) of the four available editions.

I wrote an article a while back ranking the home versions of Mortal Kombat II. It also contains a humorous story about working at Elbo that doesn't appear in this piece.

I also started what would end up being my last full semester at junior college. My academic slacking reached an apex to the point where I never went to class unless there was an exam. One flaw with that plan, among many, was that exam dates would change and you had to actually be in the class to hear the announcement. I missed a few tests and ended up failing or dropping every class I was in. The college put me on academic probation, which meant I could only sign-up for one class in the next semester. If I bombed or dropped that then adios. You can probably figure out what happened.

I probably note this someone else in here but I take great pride in being a junior college flunk-out with a Masters degree. Yeah, junior college is kind of a joke. It's a good option for adult/continuing education but for the average 18 year-old it's just a way to prolong high school for another 2 years. Culturally, a junior college from 8:00-3:00 really is no different than high school. Flunking-out was entirely my fault though. I didn't take school seriously and had no idea what I wanted to do in life. Well, I had plenty ideas of what I wanted to do; I just had an unrealistic expectation that they would magically happen without any work.


 

November 1994: 32X Launch

Virtua Fighter for 32X

By mid to late 1994 the Super Nintendo was really taking a chunk of the gaming market away from Sega. The superior ports of arcade favorites Mortal Kombat II and Super Street Fighter II were a key factor. The recent releases of Earthbound and Illusion of Gaia attracted fans tired of waiting for new Genesis RPGs. Super Metroid was flying off the shelf and helped spur new hardware sales. To ice the deal, Nintendo started giving away Super Mario All-stars with all new system purchases. The hardware bundle that already included Zelda: A Link to the Past sold out within 48 hours of this new promotion.

The limitations of the Genesis hardware were being illustrated with every new Super Nintendo release. Sega responded by creating the 32X, an attachment that turned the Genesis into a 32-bit system. Our store was covered with promotional material for this add-on. Everyone knew that Sega also had a new 32-bit system planned for release in 1995. There was a huge misconception floating around that attaching a Sega CD and 32X to the Genesis made it compatible with this new system. We had to explain to many a confused customer that was bad information, some refused to believe us. I have no idea who started this myth, I suspect it was one of the gaming magazines though.

Despite this confusion the system sold remarkably well, fueled by launch titles like Virtua Racing and Star Wars Arcade. On several occasions we ran out of the hardware, which only increased interest in it. If it's sold out it must be pretty good, right? The release for Virtua Fighter later that year was hyped even more than the hardware itself. All pre-orders were given a box of goodies including a t-shirt, promotional VHS tape, and window sticker.

Ultimately the 32X was a passing phase. Developers starting shifting their efforts to the upcoming PlayStation and Saturn consoles. New releases came to a screeching halt less than a year after the attachment hit the shelves. We started marking the 32X down at a frantic pace until it fell all the way to $20. By 1996 it was completely gone from the shelves.

For some reason I can't quantify I've always liked the 32X. I doesn't make any sense, I'm an RPG fan and the 32X doesn't have anything even slightly resembling one. I think it's that the 32X had some good quality arcade ports like Mortal Kombat II, NBA Jam Tournament Edition, Star Wars Arcade, Virua Fighter, Space Harrier, Wrestlemania Arcade, and Virtua Racing. Blackthorne was a nice surprise too.

Phantasy Star IV

Late 1994 also saw the anti-climatic release of Phantasy Star IV. It was to be the last game in the series (and it was for a good 6 years). Unfortunately Sega had already starting writing-off the Genesis at this point. Little was done to promote the game and Sega didn't seem to care if it sold at all. They branded it with a whopping $90 price tag at its initial release, a good $30 over the priciest games we carried. We only received 2-4 copies at first with the supply not increasing over time. Even during the Christmas season we never had more than a couple on hand. It always sold out despite the massive price tag. The Genesis had a poor selection of RPGs at the time, the last great RPG release was Shining Force II and that was a year-old. Customers expressed a lot of trepidation about dropping nearly $100 for a game but many did anyway. Those that bought it were generally satisfied as it met their expectations. It closed out the Phantasy Star series in a dramatic fashion.

I'm a pretty big fan of the original Phantasy Star series but part IV is my least favorite. I couldn't afford it in 1994 and didn't get around to picking it up for a long time. I finally played it over summer break in 1998. I heard nothing but glowing reviews of the game and expected it to be mind-blowing. Although it was a great game, it didn't live up to this hype. I found it repetitive with too many random battles and hours spent leveling-up. OK, all the Phantasy Star games had this problem but by 1998 I didn't have the time for it anymore. I also wish it had a selectable party like Phantasy Star II, it kinda did at the very end but it wasn't the same. Don't get me wrong, it's a spectacular RPG. However, unlike the previous three games, after beating Phantasy Star IV I never played it again.

Phantasy Star IV was one of earliest, maybe even the first, Genesis games to come in cardboard packaging instead of the hard plastic case. Odd choice for a $90 title. I suppose recycled cardboard is more earth-friendly, and cheaper, than plastic but it was still disappointing to see Sega make the switch. It had been a trademark of theirs since the Master System to distribute games in higher-quality boxes than Nintendo. It was a pain for us because the display boxes didn't hold up well. When we sold the display copy the buyers were usually irked at the condition. Game packaging today is so bland with everyone using a DVD case. Sure, games will fit nicely in a DVD storage system but I preferred the days of distinctive packaging.



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