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


 

January 1996: The Slowest Day Ever

Troy Aikman Football

January was usually a busy month at Electronics Boutique/Waldensoftware. It wasn't until late in the month that the malls died. One exception to that trend was January 14 1996, at least it was in Milwaukee. We were used to having extremely slow business on Sundays during football season. The entire state of Wisconsin shuts down when the Packers play, anyone who's lived there can affirm that. On January 14th the Packers played the Cowboys for the NFC championship. The game wasn't until 3:30 but it didn't matter. The mall was empty by 2:00, no hyperbole here, truly empty except for employees. Thankfully Bayshore Mall was only open until 5:00 on Sundays. Those three hours were the among the most dull of my entire life. Glad I wasn't there for the Super Bowl in 1997 (for a number of reasons).

The Packers lost the NFC championship game to the Cowboys that year. A deep depression set over the entire city. The rest of the week we saw few customers. Those we did see were deeply depressed and not up for spending money on games. Look, I love football but it has zero emotional impact on me once the game is over. Again, if you don't believe this story, ask anyone who lived in Wisconsin at the time.

Needless to say, Troy Aikman Football was not a big seller at this location.


 

Spring 1996: 16-Bit Requiem

Spring is always associated with renewal and, well, spring cleaning. Retail stores are no exception. Starting in February and continuing through April is the process of marking down & returning clearance merchandise. By the start of summer, when kids are out of school and credit card bills paid, they want the hot new items filling the shelves. The 1995 Christmas season established the Sony PlayStation as the leader of the 32-bit era. The Sega Saturn was a distant second; the Jaguar and 3DO were barely breathing. The Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo sold more games than their 32-bit counterparts that year but few new systems went out the door. It was inevitable that their real estate be reduced to make way for the new.

Sega Genesis 6-Pak

Approaching its eighth birthday, the Sega Genesis was a gaming geezer. Third party production of the hardware would continue well into the late 90s, at the time of this writing it's still being made in Brazil. However, for the most-part the system would see it's retail demise in 1996. Sega licensees largely abandoned the system in 1995, the few new titles were mainly '96 updates to sports franchises. I searched and searched for any Genesis game released after 1995 but couldn't find one. The closest I could find was Spiderman: Web of Fire for the 32X but I never remember seeing it on the shelf. I do remember Space Harrier for the 32X showing up around this time though, it seemed like something that should have been a launch title. The 32X and Sega CD selections vanished from existence before the Genesis. A lot of people owned a Genesis and were still prone to pick-up a $20 game from time to time. At our store Ms. Pac Man, then several years old, always sold several copies a week. The flood of emulated arcade classics hadn't appeared for the PlayStation just yet so gamers looking for a retro fix resorted to this arcade approximation. Heck, Ms Pac Man is one of the few games my wife likes so I'm sure the "buying something I can play with my girlfriend" factor was a big part of it too.

Super Mario RPG

Nintendo, like Sega, focused their creative efforts on their latest system. In early 1996 there was a mad dash to get the Nintendo 64 (which a lot of people still called the "Ultra 64") ready for launch. New titles for the Super Nintendo also came to a screeching halt, the last release I recall being Super Mario RPG. The Super Nintendo, thanks in part to a then solid relationship with Square, was the dominant console for RPGs. For a soon-to-be-dead system the Super Mario RPG launch was treated like a major affair. We received a lot of signage and promotional t-shirts, there was a good deal of interest in it. The original price was in the $60-$70 range so it wasn't a huge seller but was still the top selling 16-bit game at the time. Super Mario World 2, with a similar high price tag, also sold well in the system's final days. The customers buying these games weren't hold-outs to the 32-bit era. Many, especially the Super Mario RPG buyers, had a PlayStation but still wanted these franchise games.

I'm sure no one will be shocked to learn that video game store employees loot the promotional items. From 1992-1996 I collected a lot of free clothing. Since I'm a guy I never get rid of clothes until they disintegrate so I still have the following in my closet:

For every one of these there are ten I've donated to the Salvation Army. The donated ones were largely for things like OS/2 Warp (which we carried briefly) or other productivity titles. I also held on to a couple pieces of decor:

Also seeing their demise in early 1996 were the aforementioned Jaguar and 3DO systems. The Jaguar was slashed to $50 and cleared out in one fell swoop by summer. The 3DO suffered a much slower death, the shelf space gradually shirking over several months. It was still being stocked when I left Waldensoftware, but was in a sad state. We actually received a promo tape for the promised M2 system, a now famous piece of vaporware. Anyone even remotely considering buying a 3DO console, and they were a scarce few, opted to wait for the newer version. The Virtual Boy wasn't "officially" killed until late summer but was well on it's way in the spring. Since we only carried 5-10 games and no accessories it wasn't taking up much space to begin with. It was crunched into a small section with the Sega Game Gear which was also in its final days.

Poker Face Paul's Poker for Game Gear

I didn't touch on the Game Gear in this article. It was a constant the entire time I worked at Electronics Boutique/Waldensoftware. The system sold enough to stay on the shelves but never came close to the Game Boy. The price and infamous battery life kept it limited to a niche audience. Early on we sold a TV and Master System adapter for the it, the Master System adapter almost convinced me to buy one. There were two games called Poker Face Paul's Poker and Poker Face Paul's Blackjack that sold like crazy. I swear everyone who owned a Game Gear bought these two games.

Thinking about the Game Gear gave me an idea (just in case anyone from Sega ever reads this). Sega licensed a few Genesis games to be ported over to the Game Boy Advance. They weren't perfect replicas but close enough. However, I still wish Sega would make a handheld system roughly the size of a Game Boy Advance SP that could play the entire Genesis, Master System, and Game Gear catalog. The technology's there to emulate a Genesis on very small hardware. Emulating the Genesis means emulating the Z80 which was the CPU for the Master System & Game Gear. This theoretical system would also have a rechargeable battery and use tiny cartridges or play legally downloaded games. It wouldn't be competing for the same market as the Nintendo DS or PSP but would be profitable. I'd easily shell out $100 for a system like this and buy a handful of games I either loved or couldn't afford back in the day.


 

May 1996: Epiphany

A nail salon moved into the store next to ours earlier in the year. The there was no ventilation system put in place to accommodate it though. Our store was soon regularly filled with noxious fumes that were strong enough to cause headaches and dizziness. Complaints were made to the mall management but nothing happened.

This summer is when My Loser Phase officially climaxed. The nail salon was the final missing piece of the loser puzzle. To make matters worse, I was in total denial about my situation. Maybe the inhalants damaged my brain, maybe rationalization truly is the strongest human impulse. Whatever it was, I was utterly convinced that my life was on track.

Clerks

Some people see a movie that changes their life. Usually it's something like Schindler's List but for me it was Clerks. I rented it from the Blockbuster in the mall because I thought it was a comedy about working with the public. The couple of ads I saw made it appear that way at least. Yeah, the movie is very humorous but contains a weighty message about life.

I'll try to do this without spoiling the plot for those who haven't seen it.. the lead character is a twenty-nothing named Dante. He dropped out of college long ago and works at a convenience store. He labors under the illusion that his life is going great, that his job is important. By the end of the film Dante has a major epiphany where he finally comprehends exactly how pathetic his life is. This was like looking in a mirror for me. I realized that I was about 2-3 years away from turning into Dante and it was frightening. I knew I had to make some immediate changes and started planning what I needed to do.

Clerks is still my favorite movie. I've easily watched, or listened to it, fifty times.

 

August 1996: Back to School

Back to School

If I was going to stop being a loser the first thing I had to do was go back to college. Not junior college but real college. It was a tad tricky. During the admission process I didn't mention going to junior college since my grades were awful. Instead I gave a story about working for a few years after high school to save money (even though I was close to penniless). My old ACT score was good enough to sneak into an average college. At 21, I was easily the oldest freshman on campus but it didn't matter to me one bit. I knew that I had to finally take things seriously and keep moving in a positive direction.

It goes without saying that I quit Electronics Boutique/Waldensoftware. I didn't blame them for the situation I was in, I made all my own decisions. To move on in life I had to start fresh, symbolically at least. I still worked a crappy retail job (night manager at a crappy bookstore) to get by. It was one of these places that was open until 10:00 PM so I could balance it with class time easily.

Once I started college full-time I stopped following the game industry almost entirely. Even now I'm not keeping pace with new systems. I have a GameCube but bought that to play Zelda and collections of old games. I try to follow gaming news but most current-gen games just aren't for me.

With the aid of summer school I graduated in 3.5 years. I later went to graduate school in the evenings which took another 3 years to wrap-up. [High horse warning] The moral of this whole story is that if you're in a dead-end job, retail or otherwise, you can turn things around. You must be willing to put in 80-hour weeks between school and work while living on peanuts for 3-4 years. Paint two pictures in your mind, the first of where you'll be in 5 years if you change nothing, the other of where you'll be after finishing college (or a similar objective). A short period of hard work makes a substantial difference in where your life leads.



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