It’s no secret that retro videogames are back in a big way. But it’s not just nostalgic twentysomethings fuelling the resurgence.
By day, many of them are tech support staff, website programmers, university students and, well, nerds. But, by night, these modern-day Peter Parkers turn into deadly street fighters, ancient creatures, and master swordsmen, all with the touch of a button on a customized joystick controller. The group of about 30 men who attend the weekly fighting-games marathon at A & C Games at Spadina and Bloor all have one thing in common—they’re hooked on dated, glitchy video games filled with primitive graphics and catchy melodies.
Much like vinyl records and vintage clothing in recent years, retro video games have come back in style. The market for collectible Mario, Donkey Kong, and other vintage games in Toronto is booming as the kids who once loved these games turn into adults with disposable income. This community of mostly twentysomethings will happily pay hundreds of dollars to buy back their favourite childhood games.
“It’s definitely a pop-culture thing right now,” says Gar Wan Toy, co-owner of A & C Games, a store that buys and sells retro games. “A lot of nostalgia comes back. When you hear the music, you remember, ‘Oh, I used to play this game’ and you get this good feeling—you feel happy all of a sudden.”
If that’s the case, retro gamers in Toronto must be feeling very happy of late. Stores like A & C Games are abundant in the city, with Gamerama near Yonge and Eglinton, Game Shack near Yonge and Dundas, three separate Game Centre locations spread out across the city, and the recently opened Game Mania near Keele and Bloor. These stores, and many others, coexist with eBay, Craigslist, and other online shops as well as online game emulators—i.e., replica files—that can be legally downloaded to a computer or game console for less than the price of a physical copy (or illegally for free).
“We have loyalty from our customers that a lot of corporate places don’t,” says Jeff Eidelman, manager of Gamerama, where the 1991 Super Nintendo game The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past sells for about $50. “Customers want to support the little guys.”
The stores are also thriving because the classic feel of old games on their proper systems make downloads less desirable, says Wan Toy.
“When you download it, it’s an emulation of the game. Maybe certain little things, little details like the graphics, look a little blurrier or the graphics might look a little different—that actually gets to people,” says Wan Toy. “Playing games with a real N64 controller, there’s nothing like it. You can’t mimic it with a Wii-mote.”
A Facebook poll by Xbox suggests that what Wan Toy says is true. In just seven minutes, more than 1,000 respondents indicated that they would rather buy a physical copy of a game, while just 84 said they would prefer to download it via Xbox’s Games on Demand.
“I think a lot of this attachment to things that are retro is to guard against a hyper-electronic age where things can be lost really quickly,” says Tonya Davidson, an assistant sociology professor at Ryerson University whose areas of interest include public memory and popular culture. “Playing a new game 30 years ago meant you were on the avant-garde of gaming, now people play that same game in a sort of an ironic, tongue-in-cheek kind of way.”
Some bars in Toronto have also embraced the fun of retro games. Both Handlebar in Kensington Market and The Bar With No Name near High Park have introduced vintage game nights in the last year. Patrons can’t get enough.
“It seems to go well with the bar—it’s absolutely a very popular night,” says Patrick McGann, owner of The Bar With No Name. His bar has held a biweekly vintage game night for the past eight months featuring classic Nintendo 64 games such as GoldenEye007 and Super Smash Bros. “People definitely like playing the old games, especially when they have a chance to win a free pitcher.”
The barflies may be onto something—for A & C’s Wan Toy, the popularity of such theme nights support his declaration that retro games are more fun than today’s games.
“A lot of people say that they’re better than the current games because back then there were limitations in graphic quality, so they had to use creativity to balance it out,” he says, listing catchier music, funny glitches, and the collectibility of retro games as other reasons gamers as young as 10 buy from his store. His most popular game systems are the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64, which sold for $199 in their heydays. Today’s used versions cost around $100 and $50 respectively, and popular game titles can range from $30 to $70. To Wan Toy, there’s no doubt that the younger generation is making his business grow.
Ana Madrigal, a part-time sales clerk at both A & C Games and Gamerama, is a perfect example. The 17-year-old high school student has been collecting since childhood, and recently spent $400 on the manual and the box—one with no game inside—for the rare Super Nintendo game EarthBound.
“I know it’s a big thing on the hipster scene right now—lots of people who you wouldn’t expect are buying games like Pokémon,” says Madrigal, who estimates her vintage gaming collection is worth about $2,500. “A lot of people really like how accessible these games are in comparison to the games we see today.”