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Background
A few winters ago I was visiting my wife's grandmother; her sidewalk was especially icy so I offered to shovel it. When I opened her closet door to look for some salt I found myself instantly buried under an avalanche of old phone books and various catalogs. Despite her protests I threw out anything that was over five years old. However, while sorting through the piles of dusty books I found a couple of gems. Notably, several Sears Catalogs from 1988-1994. I'm not talking about those smaller "Sears Wishbooks", I'm talking about the full-blown 1,500-page catalogs that listed every item Sears had for sale. I don't know if they even make these anymore, I suppose the internet has made them totally obsolete. Anyway, I tore out all the video game pages and scanned them for posterity. In hindsight maybe I should have saved the catalogs and tried to sell them on eBay. I don't know, that sounds like too much work for someone as lazy as me.

A few things strike me about these catalogs, mostly the insane prices. $60 for Home Alone, $40 for Space Harrier, $50 for Tecmo Super Bowl, $600 for a CDI system; did this stuff really cost that much back then? It's amazing how game systems have become hundreds of times more powerful while managing to keep in the same price range.

All the pictures are huge (~1200x1600), I held off on posting them for a while because of how much space they take up. I asked around to see if a classic game site wanted them but no takers. Maybe I'm the only person in the world that finds them interesting. Anyway, the pictures on the left are thumbnails. There are links below the thumbnails to medium and high quality scans.

Oh, one last note.. I've seen these reposted on image sharing sites like Photobucket. I obviously can't stop people from doing that but I'd appeciate a link back to this page. I'd hate to have to add giant watermarks whenever I post something like this again.

Since the original post I've stumbled across a few other Sears catalogs so some of these are not from the closet find described above. Not that anyone reading this really cares where these came from.


1988: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) vs. Sega Master System (SMS)
1988 saw a presidential election pitting George Bush against a liberal ex-governor of Massachusetts; oh how times are different here in 2004. As for video games in these catalogs, it's a pretty sorry year. There was significant yellowing of the two lonely pages of video games. Sears got burned pretty badly from the infamous video game crash so maybe they were hesitant to push video games as a legitimate product again. Of course, by 1988 the NES was white-hot and the SMS was faltering so it's odd that they gave each system the same amount of space.

My favorite thing about this scan is the kid's haircut. Yeah, when I was his age I had some pretty bad hair too. This scan really exemplifies why the SMS lost out to the NES. It wasn't due to bad games; titles like Phantasy Star, Out Run, Ys, Zillion, Miracle Warriors, and Shinobi were better than the average NES game (although the NES certainly won out in the quantity department). Nah, the SMS was defeated by it's image. From 1986-1988 it was "cool" to have an NES and not the SMS. Look no further than this scan: the 3D glasses, left-handed joysticks, those overly cartoony "Great" sports games, and don't even get me started on the Sports Pad. Face it, if you admitted to owning any of this stuff you'd be crammed into a gym locker.


I distinctly remember when Zelda II: The Adventure of Link was the "must have" game of the year. I thought that year was 1987 though. Not a real big selection of games to choose from at Sears here. Of the twelve they list I owned five at the time: Zelda, Zelda II, Section Z, Punch-Out, and Ghosts 'n Goblins. I've never played "Jaws - The Revenge Before" but it looks like little more than an Atari 2600 paddle game with slightly better graphics. There's even a copy of the game about 5 feet away from me right now and yet I'm not curious enough to try. That modified printer cart on the right cracks me up.




1988 Canadian Wishbook
We've seen what Sears had in the states in 1988, how did our friends to the north fare? Looks like they only had the Sega Master System, maybe the NES was introduced late in Canada? If there are any Canadian readers who know the story please drop me a line.

That's right, the prices are in Canadian dollars so everything looks even more expensive. They also use British spellings like "defence". Of course spelling it with a 'c' would make those d-[picture of a fence] signs at football games more logical so maybe we should switch. Also, the Canadian catalog folks decided to go ginger with their 3D glasses model.

Although the Sega Master System was crushed by the NES, fans can take consolation in knowing it had some games that blew away its competitor. One such game is the previously mentioned Out Run which they did an amazing job converting from the arcade. I'd go so far as to label it the best 8-bit racing game. Now if only they had a right-handed joystick to play it with...

The half price cartridge deal isn't too shabby. There are at least two games worth buying on this page to qualify. Quartet, by Reiko Kodama of Phantasy Star fame, is a real sleeper for the Master System. I only played it for the first time recently and had a lot of fun with it.




1990: Dawn of the 16-Bit Era
In 1989 I jumped right into the 16-bit era by purchasing a Sega Genesis with Altered Beast. Overall, the Genesis is still my favorite system. By 1990 it looked (briefly) like the TurboGrafx-16 (TG-16) might catch up with Genesis. Alas, a small and weak library would ultimately doom the TG-16 to relative obscurity. Yet I still remember the time when people debated which of the two 16-bit systems to buy.

Even with 16-bit challengers, the NES was still the top dog in 1990. For about half the price of the competition you could pick up a NES with two games, two controllers, and a neon orange light gun. I don't think I know a single person who doesn't own a Super Mario Brother/Duck Hunt combo cartridge. 


Here's the real reason the NES stayed on top for another year, the games. The NES game library really hit it's peak here. Super Mario Brothers III, Dr. Mario, Wizards & Warriors II, Double Dragon II, TMNT Arcade, and Castlevania III to name a few. OK, those are almost all sequels but name a current Nintendo hit that isn't based off a 8-bit NES franchise. Hard, isn't it?


Ah, more bad hair. Ever wonder why the Game Boy was such a sensation. Real easy, it was fun. That's all there is to it, make some simple yet fun games and you'll sell a million systems too. Nintendo's pretty much stuck with that formula through the years. I never got tired of games like Motocross Madness, Super Mario Land, and of course Tetris. Oh, and it came with the best pair of headphones I've ever owned.


When I see this original design of the Lynx I'm not surprised that it lost out to the technically inferior Game Boy. Let's face it, that original Lynx was a boat. No way you could hide that in class and sneak in a game. As for the TurboExpress, it lost purely on price in my opinion. $90 for a Game Boy vs. $250 for the Express. I know which one parents are going to buy. The model holding the Turbo-Express has no idea how to use a control pad.


That's right, $390 for a TG-16 CD. That was in addition to the $160 for the base system, no wonder it didn't take off. At the time the only good game for it was Ys Book I&II. Actually, that was the best game made for the system period.


A lot of people bash Altered Beast as a pack-in game. I'll admit, it's only five levels and I was bored with it after playing it once. That notwithstanding, the Genesis had a very strong first generation library. Last Battle is the only game here that I would say out-righted sucked. Everything else were solid titles that helped build the Genesis up to be a respectable rival to the NES. Of these games I owned Golden Axe, Revenge of Shinobi, and Ghouls 'n Ghosts. Revenge of Shinobi remains one of my favorite games.




1992: 16-Bit War & Portables Galore
Now this was a great year for video games. A full-scale, no-holds-barred battle on several fronts. Nintendo was at the center of them all. On one hand we had the Game Boy beating down two technically advanced competitors. On the other hand we had the Super Nintendo (SNES) competing against the established Sega Genesis.  

It's worth noting that in 1992 I started working at an Electronics Boutique store (now EBGames/GameStop). At this point I was just seasonal help but I'd end up working there full-time for way too long. It was a fun place to work, I made a few good friends, and it helped me save a few bucks for college. If working at Electronics Boutique paid what I make today it would be a tempting job. Memories of the 1992 Christmas season come rushing back every time I look at these scans..

Man, look at that awful "Game Light Plus". The Game Boy sure launched a cottage industry of cheap accessories; and we sold them all. Surprisingly, those knock-off handhelds were popular too. Well, popular with parents who didn't want to spend money on the real thing.


Nice selection of games here. I don't recall any of them being particularly big sellers though. Ten years later Nintendo would continue to bend over backwards to ensure they worked on the Game Boy Advance SP. Off-hand I can't think of another company that supported their legacy titles as well as Nintendo.


This smaller version of the Atari Lynx for $99 should have been able to compete with the Game Boy. Although, by this time the Atari name was such a joke that people wouldn't even touch what was a vastly technically superior product. Note that I say "technically". The library for the Lynx was never really that great. I'm sure I'll get lots of hate mail from Lynx fans but whatever. Face it, there are maybe four good Lynx games and the rest are crap. Just breathe deeply and tell yourself that a few times, it'll sink in eventually.


The Game Gear, on the other hand, should have done better. It was basically a portable Sega Master System, with a simple converter you could play it's entire library at least. It didn't need the converter though as Sega put out a strong collection of games for it. If they could have just dropped the price a little they might own the lucrative handheld market even today. Nintendo didn't make a better portable than the Game Gear until the Game Boy Advance SP a decade later.


Even in the dying days of the NES there were some quality games available. I remember Dragon Warrior III selling fairly well this holiday season. It seems like game companies always underestimate how well console RPGs will sell. I love the "A, D&D Dragon Strike" typo on this page. There's a screenshot for Paperboy 2, I had no idea that was made for the NES. Apparently it was rare because I see it going for $20 on eBay now.


Nothing about this page strikes me in any way. The screenshot of Carmen Sandiego that's cut-off: that's how it looks on the original page. The catalog is over 500 pages, they're going to mess at least one of them up.


I believe this was the last NES bundle released before they redesigned it to a compact model. There's something nice about the old boxy design.


I bought this Turbo Duo bundle because of the stack of free games it came with. I built up a nice catalog for it when we started clearing it out in 1993. The TG-16/Duo hit it's peak too late, after the Genesis and SNES already controlled the 16-bit market. That screen shot from "It Came from the Desert" looks like it's from the Amiga version.


The Genesis had a reputation for being a "sports system", these next two scans show it was deserved. This was a huge factor for customers in their early 20s. Time after time I saw them choose the Genesis over the SNES based solely on the strength of the sports games.


Between the sports games there are a couple other interesting ones here. They have the hard-to-find D&D game for $65, it's almost worth the price too. A year after the first Gulf War they have the newly released Desert Strike.


I laughed out loud when I saw the storage center picture because I remember selling that hunk of crap. It took up a ton of space, which is precious in an already cramped game store. The real kicker is that it was very clearly designed to fit a different system. The ad mentions that it fits the Master System II, I'm guessing that was the intended system for it.


That might be the worst drawing of Mario I've ever seen. He looks like he had a stroke. Mario Paint is featured on this page, to this day I can't believe how many copies of that game we sold. It came with the mouse and people honestly believed there would be more games that used it. If you want to play games with a mouse just buy a PC.


Not a real convincing selection of games here. I wasn't wowed by the first generation of SNES games except for Zelda: Link to the Past. I can't really put my finger on it, this first wave of games just didn't do anything for me. I didn't buy the system until Zelda was the pack-in. Although by 1994-1995 I was definitely playing the SNES more than any other system.


Street Fighter II really drove sales of the SNES. It was just huge at the time. The SNES had it and the Genesis didn't yet, if you wanted SFII there was only one option at the time. Yeah, $70 was the going rate for it too.




1994: Just the CDI
This catalog was weird, I didn't see any Sega or Nintendo games in here. Maybe this was when Sears was in horrible financial trouble and were changing their product line around. Now that I think about it, they barely stock video games today. I only go there if I need some cheap shirts or a garage door opener. One of these pages says the CDI "was $799.99 in our 1992/93 'Y' Annual Catalog" so maybe there were multiple catalogs and this was the one without mainstream video games. Anyway, all I found in this catalog was the horribly overpriced Phillips CDI. We didn't carry the system at Electronics Boutique but I remember it being billed as something as an all-in-one "edutainment" system (ugh, I hate the word "edutainment"). I'm hard-pressed to think of a game system with a worse library than the CDI, maybe that Amiga CD32 thing. Once the 3DO entered the market the $600 sticker price would look cheap by comparison.

"Oh my God, a freakin' tiger will leap right out of my screen for only $600! That's a '$200 savings' according to this ad!" I've never met anyone who owns one of these. Not even someone who bought one on the cheap on clearance or off eBay. If I find one at a garage sale for 50¢ maybe I'll pick one up. I bet I could hollow out the case and stick a mini-itx motherboard in there.

Note: A couple years after writing this I found a CDI at a thrift store for $5. I have yet to do anything with it including hooking it up at all.


Here's that awful game library I was talking about. Well, if you can call half this stuff a "game". I'm sure people were lining up to buy that "high-fidelity stereo" version of Battleship, or to drop $50 on "Treasures of the Smithsonian". Eventually Phillips would sue their way into getting two Zelda games, but even those were dreadful.




1994 Canadian Wishbook
The Canadian version of the 1994 Sears Wishbook makes me question the American one I found even more. It must have been some super-boring variant that didn't include the video game section. Whatever the case, this makes up for it with a nice representation of the 1994 game selection.

As previously noted, since this is from a Canadian catalog the prices will look insane. Despite this disclaimer I fully expect to see these posted on a forum with commentary like "LOLZ!! Look at how much video games cost in the 90s!! Retro games suck!! Call of Duty 5 is the best game EVAR!!"

One thing I noticed right away is that hockey games are always featured prominently. We can go ahead can check off that stereotype. NHL '94 is the first game on this page and was one of the best Sega CD games (coming from someone who doesn't like hockey) so it's not a complete stretch. If it were up to me I would have focused on Sonic CD instead.

Here we've got NHL All-Star Hockey '95 up there with the hottest game of 1994, Mortal Kombat II. At the store I worked at I think we sold less than 10 copies of that game. The EA Sports NHL series did extremely well though. Someone named Mario Lemieux is on the front cover who I can only assume was a player on a Canadian team. Actually now that I think about it, is that an penguin on his jersey? Maybe he played for Pittsburgh but was from Quebec based on his name. Before you send hate mail about this please note that I've seen exactly one professional hockey game in my entire life. It was the Chicago Wolves vs. Milwaukee Admirals who I seem to recall aren't even NHL teams. Or maybe they are.

That EA Sports 4 Way Play used to come bundled with a few games which was a great deal. In the description for the wireless remote it says "Compatible with virtually all Genesis and Sega CD games". Very odd, what did it not work with? Was there a latency problem that made some games unplayable?

The cellular phone offer on this page has me totally stumped too. Was Sega in the cell phone business in Canada? This catalog raises so many questions.

Hey look at that, a hockey game right at the top of the page. Moving on... there are five to six must-own games on this page depending on your tastes. I'd recommend Super Metroid, Donkey Kong Country, and Mortal Kombat II to any readers in currently in 1994 Canada.

Alright, more hockey and British spellings. Despite these obvious signs of Canadianess I'm really truly do expect to see a forum post mocking the $74.99 price tag on the Super Game Boy.

I like to think I know a lot about the Super Nintendo but I can't recall a single game that supported five players. I suppose theoretically you could go up to eight but that's crazy talk.

Ever see a Game Boy playing the cartridge label for Sonic 2? Now you have, now you sure have.

Anyway, darn fine selection of Game Boy games here. Link's Awakening is better than many console Zelda games.

I've been looking for Item C for a while. Although it's unlikely that any still floating around hold a charge.

The Pico is an under-appreciated system, my kids both got into it. The graphic and sound capabilities aren't that far off from the Genesis.

I'm completely stumped that electronic personal organizers still retail for $100 today. Even the lowest-end cell phone does everything they do only they're given away for free.

I'll admit, I think that Mortal Kombat LCD game would be nice to have in my collection. I'm sure the game is terrible but the unit itself looks cool.

I included this one as a bonus because I figure people who like looking at old video games also like looking at old computers. The part I find amazing is that in 1994 they were selling 1024x768 monitors and 15+ years later that's still the most common resolution. Show me any other spec on those PCs that isn't considered horribly obsolete today yet somehow that monitor resolution has stuck around.




Bonus
Here's a one-pager from a random 1990 comic book. I'm not a comic book fan but I will pick-up really cheap boxes of them from yard sales to harvest the fine retro ads. Clearly the marketing department at Sears didn't know jack about video games because 3 out of 4 screenshots are mislabelled.




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