Last Updated on February 11, 2023
The high street is at low tide. We all know it when we put our online ordering down and actually go into town to pick up some rotisserie poultry before swinging by the skip to dump our last round of purchases on the way out.
Perhaps it is the age of my middle age but I am sure that the high street used to have more to offer than this. Didn’t it used to have allure? I recall the arrival of an American import Super Nintendo at my local games shop in the autumn of 1991 and the magnetic effect that it appeared to generate across the whole town. Pale-faced social heretics like myself squeezed our way in and across the limited shop floor to get a glance of this much anticipated machine.
You could have parked a Ferrari Testarossa outside the computer game shop and started revving it to the red line but we would not have looked away from F-Zero. It was faster, better looking and harder to come by than the prancing horse. If the Megadrive took us into the cultural space of the 1990’s then the Super Nintendo confirmed it. You couldn’t deny the impression it left on the crowd around me at the time, and you couldn’t even leave with one either. My local had one for the crowd but none for the counter.
I can remember thinking that one of the kids was going to steal it, surely, probably then only to blow their parents’ household electrics as wrenching the machine away would leave the step-down converter behind. But this was 1991 and all children back then came with a passport for the punching of them.
Good days. Let’s go shopping…
The side street to Micro Plus
Living where I did I was not local to the kind of electro-scenic memories that fill the mind of many a retro enthusiast. The local seafront, multi-floored entertainment shops, the dirty corner of a cinema, I had little access to the bread-and-butter culture of the day. But I did have an independent game shop a few miles away called Micro Plus and they were happy for you to request a game to play. Of course they were happy to turn you down but you would strike it lucky enough times that it was always worth the asking.
Off a side street, with two steps down from the entrance, Micro Plus was a poorly lit cave of various compatible wonders. Cassettes, cartridges, disks, a cheap arcade cabinet in the far corner and a rich whiff of warm electric cables; it was more than I could understand. I recall looking at a cassette case of a Pit Fighter conversion and thinking that the screenshots looked identical to the arcade game. It couldn’t be, could it? I looked at the pictures again and the answer was yes, it did.
Of course in fact, no it didn’t, but I was young and the shop always paste thick with smoke so my head would go funny. Gamers’ incense as they called it back in the day. It had a low ceiling, too, and right at the far end a cramped counter with the scattered unboxed belongings of a thousand gaming mathoms strewn across it. And behind that was the owner and whoever else might have been there under his employ. Their faces are lost to me on account of time and the fog of the shop but the owner seemed rakish and stooped under the low ceiling. He never had to move his body for items, he just spooled out his bony arms and his hand returned with the object in his claw.
Super Nintendo or Sega Mega Drive?
Impressionable stuff at the time; my brother was a little in with him and they would chat over the counter. Probably about the Atari STE as my brother was an avant-garde apologist for the thing at the time. I wouldn’t have been paying attention to them though as once that import Super Nintendo arrived I was either playing the thing or waiting for another go. And sometimes those fresh imports, like Super Contra, were two-player. There was always an unspoken bond playing that game two-player with a stranger.
The game was as tough as an old sickle but the running and the gunning was a joy with a kamikaze companion, and there were always plenty of those around. Then one day Street Fighter 2 came into the shop and led me to something of a T-junction. I was by then getting around to actually purchasing my first console and the one way led to a Super Nintendo and the other to a Sega Mega Drive. A typical pickle; then I saw the Menacer light gun for the Mega Drive and that was it. I got ol’ gangly to reach it all down to me and thus the vow in my heart for Sega was taken. It remains today even if I am now a spinster reduced to the rose-tinted marginalia of the bygone.
Soon after Micro Plus moved into the thoroughfare itself and with it came glass fascias, glass cabinets and a glazed response from me. Even at the age I was I could see that this place meant business. Not my business, especially after they got an Amiga CD-32 in for demo, but other people who didn’t want to step down into a shop that just barely didn’t require a XXX sign above the door.
You had to step up to get inside now. Unbelievable.
I remember now why the customer turned away from the high street; it’s because they turned away first and now we’re facing back-to-back with mobiles in our hands. Perhaps it is time for a heart-to-heart.
Goodbye computer game shop, hello classified emporiums
By the later parts of the nineties I had as I recall, gone native on the import scene and by consequence discovered the import emporiums in the classifieds. Project K were my guys. I knew their number and my bank details by heart. I didn’t know them as a proper shop (which they were) so much as the people with the goods. I paid and they delivered, like a pre-decimal Silk Road. All very wholesome perhaps but how do we return or else rediscover the relationship to our purchasing? Modern games are sold clinically down a smooth conveyor belt to your door and the retro world is a magpie madhouse.
Some lack of enchantment has happened, some disconnect with a middle man that we didn’t realise we have missed; the face of the unknown regular guy who is the gateway into the culture and the meeting of other folks who have come to mingle around the same mood. Phoning the classifieds is always fun but it turns out that it isn’t just the playing of the games that captures the spirit, it is the local parish with its gamers’ incense and warm cables.
What once was will be again. See you then for a round on Contra.
John is a writer and gardener. He comes with various 90’s Sega attachments and is the author of The Meifod Claw and other works. His favorite tree is a copper beech and he would like his coffee black without sugar, thank you.