The town of Bay Roberts now has not one, but two dedicated video game stores: Game On Collectibles and the second branch of a store located in St. John’s called Entertainment Center. Like most modern games stores, video games are just one component of these businesses along with trading cards and other collectibles, but they’re more than what I had when I was growing up. To say that I’m jealous of the youth who are growing up in and around my hometown is an understatement. I would’ve been happy with just one store close to my house that had selling video games be a major part of their business, but two?!! Now that’s just rubbing it in!
On the rare occasion that either my brother or I had the funds to buy a video game, there was one and a quarter options: whatever department store Wal-Mart was at the time and during the last few months of the year when a small Canadian Tire located in Harbour Grace that has long since closed would bring in a few games to sell with the Christmas toys. When my brother wanted to spend his money that he had collected from family members to buy Donkey Kong Country in 1994, you couldn’t pre-order a copy, you simply had to get creative and think of places that could possibly have the most desired game of the holiday season. There was a trip to St. John’s where we were scolded by an employee of a department store for running as we raced to the electronics department to see if they held this technological wonder that was brought to life by the machines that birthed the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.
I first heard of a store that dealt exclusively with video games during a few brief times of the year when we would get complimentary previews of American television stations like Fox. During the Saturday morning cartoon block, they would run ads for places like Funcoland and all I could do was watch and extrapolate with my imagination what living close to a place like that would be like. I had seen what a dedication section of a store looked like that sold video games, but a whole store?! It might as well have been as mythical as a dragon or unicorn.
On this east coast of the island of Newfoundland, there are two video game stores that opened when I was a kid and have managed to keep their doors open for decades. The first is Entertainment Center, once called Nintendo World, that changed its name for fairly obvious reasons. Despite the name change though, Entertainment Center is still very much associated with Nintendo products, often being the best place to score consoles, out of print games and hard to get amiibo statue collectibles. During the great NES Classic shortage a few years back, your chances of securing one were much higher if you kept checking back with Entertainment Center.
I stepped though the doors of Nintendo World for the first time in 1994. I remember this because my brother came dangerously close to walking out with a copy of Wolverine: Adamantium Rage, a game that we would find out during a rental after the fact is quite terrible but we were clearly attracted to it because of the character on the front of the box. Our time there was very brief, so the layout of the store, which has since changed locations, escapes me, I just have flashes of being overwhelmed by the amount of product on the shelves. It was like a video rental store, only you didn’t have to bring back anything but of course everything cost much more. I’m sure my parents were trying to rush us out the door to either head home or get to what we actually came into the city for, but I probably would’ve been content to spend hours there, picking up boxes, staring at the few screenshots on the back packaging and reading whatever plot summary accompanied them just as I did with rental stores starting out.
The second store was previously called Microplay, once part of a mighty chain of stores that stretched across the country but now has all but disappeared. Like Entertainment Center, Microplay has undergone a name change to Games Exchange after separating from the Microplay brand within the last decade or so.
The layout of Microplay is etched into my brain, mainly because I still frequently go to Games Exchange and even though they broke away from a franchise, the store is very much the same as it always was. The worn, gray carpet that hugs the floor is probably the same one that I stepped on the first time I entered Microplay in the late ’90’-s, as are some of the ads that circle the store from game and console launches long since past.
Microplay was a store that I got the chance to visit a lot more as it was situated in a tiny retail location attached to a Canadian clothing business called Mark’s Work Warehouse that’s now an auto parts store. During our trips to St. John’s, my mom would sometimes have to go look for something at Mark’s, so I would use that opportunity to stop into Microplay and look around.
The flow of Microplay guides you in a U-shaped formation around the store, starting at one end and ending at the other with the checkout counter placed between two parallel lines of display cases. You couldn’t pick up things and look at them in Microplay like you could at Entertainment Center, but the clear cases gave the feel that you were almost at a museum where you could walk away with the artifacts. It was difficult to know how to make a proper loop at Microplay as the amount of product was simply overwhelming. New, complete in box games lined the walls while previously enjoyed games both old and new were safe from sticky fingers and hot breath thanks to the many display cases.
The idea of trading in games to a store, or selling them on a digital marketplace, are known concepts now but were foreign to me once upon a time. It was at Microplay that I learned that you could take games you had already completed in exchange for credits towards a new one. This is something that I wouldn’t do until many years later, mostly because I didn’t own a lot of games and the ones that I did possess were precious treasures that I wouldn’t even dream of parting ways with.
The small block of stores that houses Microplay is but a mere ten-minute or less walk away from the Avalon Mall. Its proximity was a large tease to me growing up though as I was given strict orders to never leave the mall whenever we went into St. John’s. This was mostly because there wasn’t such thing as cell phones back then so I had to either stick close to my parents or to meet up with them at a designated place and time to avoid endlessly walking back and forth the two story shopping structure in search of them. They knew to look for me in a handful of places: anywhere that sold toys and video games or the arcade, but they could be anywhere.
I could’ve disobeyed orders and ventured to Microplay on my own, but I was a kid who always followed orders, even though my heart longed to visit the video game store. It was probably for the best that I didn’t because the Avalon Mall is located on one of the busiest streets in St. John’s, Kenmount Road, and separating Microplay from the mall was a busy intersection. In my excitement I more than likely would’ve ran across the street when I wasn’t supposed to as being from a small town, the concept of walk and don’t walk signs were foreign to me. Our small town street were never busy, so you just simply looked back and forth and made a run for it when the coast was clear.
My brother left our province in 1999 to go to our countries capital, Ottawa, to attend university. Many of his friends chose to stay within the province and headed to St. John’s to continue their education, something I probably would’ve preferred my brother did so he would be closer. I’m very proud, and envious, that he had the courage to make this decision as it’s something that looking back in hindsight I wish I was brave enough to do.
Between the start of the semester in September and the time that he came home for a short time at Christmas we would keep in touch over the phone and I would come to learn of a store called Electronics Boutique, now known in this country as EB Games. This was a store that not only dealt exclusively in video games like Microplay did with the added bonus of being centrally located in a shopping mall. This was something I had longed for my entire life and wished that this concept would migrate eastward towards Newfoundland.
Much to my happiness, Electronics Boutique would come to our province, though it would take a few more years. If my memory serves me correctly, Electronics Boutique opened their doors to business in both of the major St. John’s malls in 2001, a very exciting year for the video game industry. That summer Nintendo would debut their true successor to the Game Boy, the Game Boy Advance, along with a new home console that fall: the Nintendo GameCube. Right alongside Nintendo’s latest console a new contender, Microsoft would enter the console market with the first Xbox.
What this meant for a video game enthusiast like myself is that there was finally video game stores in our province that I didn’t have to beg my parents to bring me to at a time when the amount of choice players had was staggering. On top of Nintendo and Microsoft’s new machines you had Sony’s PlayStation 2 entering its second year and still some place left over for titles for the original PlayStation and the Nintendo 64. If you walk into an EB Games now, you’ll find more clothes, toys and mugs than video games, but in their first year here, it was all about the video games and one of the most exciting times to visit the store. 2001 would also be the year where I would get my first ever summer job so I even had some money to buy games when we would go into the city.
My introduction to Electronics Boutique would mark a time when my taste in video games was beginning to change. For my entire video game playing life up that point video games largely meant Nintendo. At the turn of the century, the calendar would roll over from 1999 to the futuristic sounding year 2000, which would just so happen to be the time when a console not manufactured by Nintendo would enter the Farrell household.