Memories of the Great Video Game Crash & Toys ‘R' Us

Toys R Us 80s


While gamers today are aware of the Great (American) Video Game Crash of the 1980’s, those who did not live through it or remember it, don’t really have any sense or context of what it was like. This is partly because while the the technical facts of what happened been preserved, we have done a terrible job documenting and preserving the experience of what it was like for people. Oddly, a lot of video game “history” is told by young YouTubers playing retro video games whom were too young to play the games when they originally came out. And they also look up the copyright date and assume that’s when people actually played the games, not understanding how inefficient the market was back then and the difficulties of supply chains.

Miami News headline about the Great Video Game Crash in 1983: "Fading demand zaps video-game industry"

So I like to drop tidbits of history as I remember it about the Great Video Game Crash whenever I get the chance. You can see this in some of the  videos I’ve done, such as The History of Video Game Music, and Why We Loved Sierra Games.


With all the recent buzz about Toys ‘R’ Us closing, and people sharing their memories, I was inspired to share some of my own, because The Great Video Game Crash and Toys ‘R’ Us are connected in my personal memories.

The Great Video Game Crash is generally considered to have started in 1983 (sometimes late 1982). However, sources like Wikipedia often claim the crash ended in 1985, but as somebody who lived though it, I deeply contest that. It didn’t really feel like it truly ended until 1988. (Maybe 1987 if you are really generous.)


When the crash started, I was young at the time and didn’t understand that the entire video game industry was crashing. But I knew something was wrong because I felt the effects in multiple ways:


1) Video arcades started closing all over the place, including most Chuck E. Cheese’s. Being in Silicon Valley at the time, the one that everybody knew remained open was the “two story one” off Tully Road in San Jose, which people thought of as the main flagship, even though historically, it is the 3rd one. And in general, for the few arcade parlors that stayed open, very few new games showed up compared to how things were before.

Chuck E. Cheese off Tully Road in San Jose, CA, with the 30 foot rat.

Chuck E. Cheese off Tully Road, San Jose, CA with the 30 ft. sculpture.
Ironically, before Chuck E. Cheese, the building used to be a toy store that went out of business.
https://goo.gl/images/81MuEg


2) Many stores that you wouldn’t expect today, including supermarkets and pharmacy chain stores, used to put arcades in the front of the stores, next to the candy/toy machines. These arcades were all removed.


3) I had an Atari 2600, and used to buy games at Toys ‘R’ Us…

Atari 2600

Atari 2600


At the time, Toys ‘R’ Us was the only store I knew of that sold video games. I presume there were other small specialty stores, but I didn’t know about them. I was very young, there was no internet, and only had word of mouth to learn about these things. I don’t expect there was a Yellow Pages listing in the phone book for Video Games at the time.


Toys ‘R’ Us used to have an entire aisle of video games. It was a thin, locked glass display case aisle of game boxes, so you could see the boxes of all the games they sold. There was no actual cartridge in the box, presumably to avoid theft. Instead, there was a set of order forms under the display case you would tear off if you wanted to buy a game. You would take the form to the checkout counter, and they would send an employee to retrieve a fresh box from a special room. (It is kind of analogous to buying CPUs or RAM chips at Fry’s Electronics today where they have to fetch the real chips from a locked cage at the front of the store.)

Toys R Us large display case

This is NOT the thin glass video game box display case I described, but a bigger one that consoles and computers could be put in for demos. Imagine a much thinner case that is just thick enough to pin/hang front-facing video game boxes for display. 
https://video-images.vice.com/_uncategorized/1505927591263-GettyImages-50598085.jpeg


At the time, I was only interested in Atari 2600 games, but I think I do recall seeing ColecoVision games and Atari 5200 games at a certain point in time. Of course, there was also a separate section that showcased the actual consoles and computers they sold too.

Toys R Us machine aisle

The large case was usually for working demos, which could house a working CRT. But there were also smaller cases to showcase just the physical machines.
http://www.computerhistory.org/revolution/computer-games/16/185/772


My first sense that something was wrong, was one day, all the video games on the display suddenly had a 100% rebate offer. Every game was $20, and next to the order form was a rebate for $20. My parents were happy to buy me every Atari 2600 game there, knowing it would be essentially free in the end. Of course, a bunch of the games were already sold out, so I only ended up with maybe four games, eight tops. For additional context, remember that the number of games was significantly smaller than today, and back then, the market was small enough that it was still possible to know about almost every game for your console.

G.I. Joe Cobra Strike Box Cover

One of the “free” (after rebate) games I got


But the next odd thing was that none of the games in the display were very good. Normally these would not be games I would be willing to spend money on. Besides word of mouth, I also was on Atari’s mailing list and I used to receive a magazine called Atari Age. You can think of it as Nintendo Power before Nintendo Power, except free. (It’s actually more like that free magazine Nintendo used to send out called Nintendo Fun Club News, but nobody remembers that one either.) Despite reading shameless marketing spin, I usually still could sense when a game was good or bad, and none of these games were on the good list. 

Atari Age magazine

Atari Age (magazine)
http://www.atariage.com/magazines/atariage.html


Nintendo Fun Club News

Nintendo Fun Club News
http://www.videogameobsession.com/videogame/mags/ninpow/index.htm


But the games were essentially free, so I wasn’t going to reject them. However, in retrospect, it is easy to see the low quality problem that is often cited as a reason for the crash. None of these games I picked up were particularly good or memorable. But in fairness, none of these games were the worst either. None of these games I picked up show up in any “worst of” lists. For example, E.T. was not there (not that I actually think E.T. is the worst of the worst as there were way more terrible games).

I still didn’t understand what was going on. I just hoped it would be a regular thing where everytime I went to Toys ‘R’ Us, I could get new games for essentially free.

But as we all know, that wasn’t going to happen. On subsequent trips to Toys ‘R’ Us, I noticed the display case got emptier and emptier every time I saw it. No new games were being added, and sold out games were removed.

Eventually, that entire aisle was replaced with non-video game stuff. There were no more video games at all.


The Great Video Game “Drought” was upon us. As a gamer, I was craving new games, but there were none to be found. I still didn’t understand why this was happening. But I was frustrated that I couldn’t find any new games at all. And this went on for years. The few arcade parlors that survived were getting almost no new arcades. Seeing all the other local Chuck E. Cheese’s close also made me really sad. Being in Silicon Valley, we had the fortune of having the “main" Chuck E. Cheese, and two Golflands that played a historical role for test launching new arcade games, but even in these years, it was an extremely slow trickle at these places. I can only imagine how much worse it was outside the hub.

(Trivia: The Tully Road Chuck E. Cheese had a private computer lab filled with Apple II’s and other computers. You had to be a paying member of the Chuck E. Cheese Computer Club to get in, and were issued a magnetic keycard so you could enter the lab. The lab remained there for the first several years into the crash, but was eventually removed.)


With nothing else to do, all my friends pulled our Atari cartridge collections together and we would borrow/swap for decent ones we haven’t played personally. After that, we all had a bunch of Atari games that sucked or just didn’t understand how to play, but being desperate for anything “new”, we sat down and played them to death. This is how we beat infamously bad/hard games like Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. and Superman.

Raiders of the Lost Ark-Atari 2600

I’m amazed we figured out how to beat these games on our own.


We also came to later appreciate games we originally dismissed as ‘meh’. Frogs and Flies is one such example:


I would continue to visit Toys ‘R’ Us, hoping the video game aisle would come back. But I was always disappointed for years to come.



As I showed in Why We Loved Sierra Games video, during this long drought, was the new transition of Sierra On-Line and PC games. While this market was very small, also suffering from the market realities of the crash, this was a welcome change. However, a new Sierra adventure game at the time might come out like once a year, so it was still a drought, e.g. King’s Quest 1 (1984), King’s Quest 2 (1985), Space Quest 1, King’s Quest 3 (1986), Space Quest 2, Leisure Suit Larry 1, Police Quest 1 (1987). 

Space Quest 2

Beautiful artwork in only 160×200 4-bit color
(scene from Space Quest 2)

And these dates don’t fully reveal when we were actually able to find these in stores and the port to whatever system we needed…e.g. I had a friend with an Apple IIgs, and he often had to wait a year or two for the IIgs port. Also getting a personal computer was a costly thing, so I only knew maybe a couple of people that had one during the heart of the crash (usually Apple II or Commodore), so I don’t know anybody who actually got to play King’s Quest 1 in 1984, and I didn’t see it at a friend’s until around 1986-1987.


Space Quest 1 was forced to change "Droids R Us" to "Droids B Us"

Ah, remember the good old days when Toys ‘R’ Us sent a ceast and desist for “Droids R Us” in Space Quest 1, forcing them to change it?
https://www.movie-censorship.com/report.php?ID=5975599

Space Quest 4 was forced to change "Radio Shock" to "Hz So Good"

Similarly, remember when Space Quest 4 was forced to change “Radio Shock”?
Good times. [sarcasm]
http://spacequest.wikia.com/wiki/Radio_Shock


I also have many memories of learning about Egghead Discount Software and calling them up every week asking them if one of the games had shipped and was available for purchase in their store. They themselves didn’t have good information if a game had actually started shipping from the publisher. This shows how inefficient the market and communication was back then.

Egghead Discount Software




Also, during this period, I had one friend who got a Sega Master System. I was fascinated by the system since it was the first new console I’ve seen in years. However, it didn’t really get market penetration, and the few games I got to play tended to be either ‘laughably hard’ (e.g. Fantasy Zone) or ‘meh’. (e.g. Ghost House). (I do have a nostalgic fondness of Alex Kidd in Miracle World.)

Sega Master System - 1

Sega Master System



Finally the Nintendo Entertainment System hit America. This is another place where I take issue with video game “history”. Too many people look at the copyright dates or initial introduction dates and assume that was the end of the drought. People today don’t understand how difficult and expensive supply chains were, and how that affected people’s ability to actually get these things.


For example, Nintendo did a limited US release in NYC in 1985. I never heard about this. (I was on the wrong coast.) I don’t remember seeing any commercials about this. Mass media and marketing is not anything like it is today with the Internet, so word of mouth takes time. In the midst of the Video Game Crash, there would be no centralized video game publications that gamers would subscribe to, thus it was very hard to reach the audience.

NES Box ROB version

NES ROB version
http://nintendoage.com/forum/messageview.cfm?catid=29&threadid=127860


The main release didn’t happen until 1986, but things take time. I don’t think I heard about it and saw my first one until 1987. We played The Legend of Zelda, and I was in love. (It reminded me of the Atari 2600 “Adventure”, but with much more depth allowed by improved technology.)

Adventure

Adventure (1979)

The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda (1986)


Looking at the sales number history, NES hit critical mass in 1988, and this does coincide with my feeling about when the crash ended. More people I knew started getting NES’s, and commercials were now running regularly on TV. 1988 was also the year Nintendo Power launched. The arcade parlors that still survived all these years finally started getting a steady stream of new arcades. And Sierra and the rest of the new fangled PC game industry, which what we have today descended from, were ramping up. (1988 brought us King’s Quest 4 and the start of the sound card revolution.)

Why do I emphasize the difference between ending in 1985 vs. 1988? The point is to share and document the experience of the crash. Put another way, imagine you are a child gamer and suddenly without warning, it becomes impossible to play any new video games because they cease to exist. You have no information why this is happening or even if the market will ever come back because this new video game thing was completely uncharted territory on the edge of history. And for additional context, remember how much faster technology was changing in the 1980’s. Look at the picture from the Atari 2600 Adventure to the NES Legend of Zelda. That is how fast technology evolved in 6 years in the 1980’s. And imagine being a child at say 6 years old, another 6 years means you waited half your life for new games.


I am having trouble finding specific historical information on the different NES kits that were available to buy, and when they were available, to back up my claim, but from my vantage point, I remember the 3rd “cheap” NES kit which didn’t come with any games, didn’t appear until around this time. Maybe it was always technically available, but the production supply chain was limited so they mostly tried to sell the Mario/Duck Hunt version (or ROB version), so nobody sold the cheap version. But the cheap version was another way to get more people into the ecosystem, and this is the version I bought (saving up for a long time).

NES Box Mario/Duck Hunt version

NES Mario/Duck Hunt version
https://goo.gl/images/3GoPvU



And this brings me back to Toys ‘R’ Us. Finally, after many years, the video game aisle was resurrected and you could buy games consoles again. I eventually saved up enough for the “cheap” NES kit and bought it there. I think I paid $79.99.

NES box

NES “Cheap Version"

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/432064157980627046/


(Wikipedia says $89.99, but my recollection was $79.99 for the cheap one, $99.99 for the Mario/Duck Hunt, and I forgot how much for the ROB one…thinking $149.99. I think Wikipedia is wrong because at the time I might have been able & willing to pay $10 more for the next kit, but not $20. Another point to make is that Super Mario Bros. was already available in arcades. I think I saw the arcade before I heard of the NES. I remember I played it a bunch at a Mountain Mike’s Pizza, so I did not feel it was worth the extra money.)

original

Arcade version of Super Mario Bros.
(Ever think about why Super Mario Bros. was designed with a time limit?)
https://goo.gl/images/coHkYT


The Legend of Zelda was the game I really wanted. This was the game that sold the console for me. So I also bought The Legend of Zelda that day, I think for $34.99.


This was still 1988, because I got the last issue of Nintendo Fun Club, and also got the first couple of issues of Nintendo Power for free as part of the change over.


Nintendo Power


It turns out that I did not buy many games for my NES. But they were all the big first party Nintendo games: The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. 2 (American version), Metrod, Kid Icarus, and Zelda 2.


I remember my experience with buying Super Mario Bros. 2. The previews for it looked fantastic, and I was really excited for the game. With every Nintendo owner getting the first issue of Nintendo Power for free, promoting the game like crazy, it was highly anticipated, and everybody was bracing for the fact that it might be really hard to get. I reiterate, supply chain issues and shortages were the norm, and even we consumers anticipated things would be hard to get.


Also, even though Nintendo Power gave us an idea when the game would be released, we didn’t know exactly when. Also, I don’t think any of us were aware at this time that different regions of the world get releases at different times. (It wasn’t until the Genesis/SNES era that the marketing info became widespread enough for us regular consumers to know these things.)


So I remember calling Toys ‘R’ Us weekly, and sometimes even daily if the rumor mill at school said somebody had gotten the game. I think this went on for *months*. I remember when it finally came in, I asked them to reserve one for me, and I got there as soon as I could. One thing I had learned about reservations from Sierra games at other stores, is that even when they say they reserved a copy for you, they don’t always do so. (I also learned they sometimes were wrong or lied about receiving a shipment.)

Super Mario Bros 2


Fortunately, they did have a copy when I got there. I forgot how much I paid, but I remember it was one of the most expensive games I’ve ever paid for. I think it was $44.99 or $49.99. I already mentioned how much I paid for my previous games, and at Egghead, I typically paid between $29.99 to $39.99 for Sierra games, though the latter price typically in the 1990’s. (Though I could be misremembering the price of Super Mario Bros. 2 and maybe it was as low as $39.99+tax and I had not yet ever had to pay $40+ for a game, which made it the first time, and felt expensive.)


By the way, that phrase going around today, “Games have always been $60” is total bullsh!t.



The much harder games to get turned out to be Metroid and Kid Icarus. So there are several important things to understand about this time period:

1) Games aren’t necessarily available to purchase on the release date, and it could be months or years later before you can find them to buy.

2) The release date you find online or the copyright date you see in the game is usually for the first release in Japan, not America, so it can be a year or more until we got them in the US. 

3) And because of supply chains/shortages, even a on a local launch date, it was still unlikely you would see any supply for you to be able to purchase. (Digression: The fiasco of shortages with the NES Classic [Mini] Edition from two Xmas’s ago made me laugh ironically because it reminded me of what it was like back in the original days.)

4) Getting information was very hard. There was no internet, and no major trustworthy and timely publications. (Nintendo Power was a marketing tool and forward looking to future games.) And in this early period, hard release dates weren’t given or well promoted, so you were left guessing about when a game might actually ship.

5) Large chain video game specialty stores had not fully risen yet. We were just coming out of the crash. Genesis/SNES era is where these stores had a much bigger presence.

6) Sales people at the general stores like Toys ‘R’ Us, were not usually particularly knowledgable about the specific video games coming out. You could ask them about if they were going to get specific games or if they could special order them, and they would shrug and not be able to get any more information.


The Official Nintendo Players Guide 1987

https://archive.org/details/The_Official_Nintendo_Players_Guide_1987

So with my “cheap” NES kit, I got The Official Nintendo Player’s Guide, yet another great marketing promo for their games. I remember Metroid and Kid Icarus getting my attention, and then always noticing if it came up in other media, like Nintendo Power.


Metroid boxart

I remember struggling to find this game for many months. I couldn’t find it on any shelves. Since sales people didn’t understand anything video games, it was really hard to ask for help. In addition to Toys ‘R’ us, I called some other stores, such as:

Service Merchandise

BEST

Montgomery Ward

I would always have to first ask the store *if* they carried video games, and then ask to be transferred to somebody who ran the specific department, because if I just asked the person who answered the phone, they had no clue what I was talking about.

Somewhere in this process, I recall seeing the box on display at Toys ‘R’ Us, but it was out of stock. I kept asking when they would get more, and they always seemed to make up dates because the game never came in. 

I think the entire ordeal took over 6 months. I actually don’t remember which store finally got it in. My guess is it was either Service Merchandise or Toys ‘R’ Us.



Kid Icarus NES box art

Kid Icarus was even worse. I spent over a year trying to get this one. I had no clue if this game had actually been released. While there were pictures in The Official Player’s Guide, I didn’t know if they were pre-release pictures. I had not yet met anybody who had seen the game in person or even a real box.


Fred Meyer logo

Then for one family vacation, I went to visit relatives in Oregon. They had a big chain department store called Fred Meyer, and they sold video games. They had Kid Icarus right there and I was in shock. I was in disbelief and thought maybe it was an empty box situation like Metroid at Toys ‘R’ Us. But nope, it was the real deal. I bought it on the spot, I think for either $29.99 or $34.99 (more likely the former because I remember feeling like it was a great deal), and there was no sales tax in Oregon.



Zelda II The Adventure of Link box

I actually have very little recollection of buying Zelda 2 in comparison. I think I bought it at Toys ‘R’ Us, because I have vague memories of seeing it in the thin glass display case. I suspect I had been jaded by the process of getting Metroid and Kid Icarus so much, that a similar effort to get Zelda 2 was now mundane. I do recall that when I called stores asking about availability, I would usually ask about several games, so I should have been asking about Zelda 2 during all this time while trying to get all the aforementioned games.

I should point out that this was the last game I bought, and with ample time to complete all the other games, yet, if you look at the Nintendo Fun Club News picture from above, they promoted Zelda 2 well before their big Nintendo Power debut issue with the sneak preview of Super Mario Bros. 2. And my Official Nintendo Player's Guide already had a Zelda 2 section. So all of the games I bought except SMB2 should have already been out before I bought my NES if you believe the copyright date you see in the games. Yet it was several years after all this that I was actually able to buy the game (and had a really hard time with Metroid & Kid Icarus which were older and should have been out too). This is another example of not being told hard release dates, guessing about whether a game is out due to limited access to information, and I suspect a story of delays and component shortages. (In fact a friend just reminded me that he remembers reading about major chip shortages in Nintendo Power itself, explaining the massive delay.)



Those were the last console games I bought, because NES was the last console I bought. I had been shifting towards PC games, and I had enough friends that were getting different consoles. So rather than picking a side in the console wars, we could round robin by sharing the experience, e.g. Genesis, SNES, Turbo Grafx 16, 3DO, Jaguar, Saturn, Neo Geo, PC, etc.

So I stopped going to Toys ‘R’ Us often since they didn’t sell PC games. I was also into Estes model rockets, and they sometimes carried good stuff there at good prices, but it was often hit-or-miss. Meanwhile, I found local hobby stores that were a little more reliable with their inventory.


As for other consumers, the rise and expansion of specialty video game stores, e.g. Electronics Boutique, Software Etc., Babbage’s, etc, probably swayed customers from Toys ‘R’ Us, given my experience with stocking issues and people who didn’t really understand that market well.


So while I have a lot of memories of Toys ‘R’ Us, I’m also not all that surprised by their closing.

Space Quest 1 Droids R Us Coupons

Space Quest 1 even had to change the physical novelty coupons included with the product packaging.

Thanks Toys R Us!

(Oddly, I mean that both sarcastically and sincerely… I had no idea how to end this article.)


Copyright © PlayControl Software, LLC / Eric Wing