I may not have grown up in the “golden age” of gaming, but all things considered, I still consider myself damn lucky to have grown up in an era where video rental and toy stores were still relevant. In fact, I grew up right up the street from a Blockbuster. As I got older and gaming (as well as slasher flicks) began to take over my life, it became a place where I’d blow a handful of allowances. Of course, all good things come to an end and that Blockbuster is now an Audio Express.
What killed off Blockbuster was fairly obvious- a physical video rental store just couldn’t compete with the likes of online streaming services. For many, it marked an end of an era and there’s been no shortage of images online mourning the loss. (Not to mention that every one of those “90’s Kids” pages on Facebook has a plethora of posts with some reference to the former video rental giant)
Now, retailer Toys R Us has met the same fate as it recently filed for bankruptcy and is shutting all its doors in America. Just as the death of Blockbuster signaled the end of the video rental era, the death of Toys R Us has signaled the end of the traditional toy store. The cause of death was similar- the company just couldn’t compete in the online arena.
To be fair, I don’t have as many memories of the store as I do Blockbuster or Funcoland, but there’s one in particular that has always stuck with me. It was in (the now vacant) Ferguson, Missouri location that my obsession with the classic Super Mario Brothers titles began one summer day in 2003.
I was 7 years old, had a little extra money to spend and was looking for something new to play on my Gameboy Advance (although I also had the Gameboy Player for Gamecube, being the lucky kid I was). I was always quick to head to the back of the store where all the video games were kept (though occasionally I’d go through their stuffed animals beforehand), and that’s where I first played Super Mario Bros.3 (well, the Advance version anyways)- on one of their Gameboy Advance demo units that had chocolate and grease stains a plenty from the other kids.
At that point, my only experience with the Mario franchise was Super Mario 64. Something about the screenshots on the cardboard cutout promo they had for the game caught my interest- they reminded me of the Sonic games I had played on the Genesis that were “on their side” (as I put it back then). I still vividly remember that first time I saw the world one map on that tiny screen, pushing the directional buttons and being dumbfounded as to why I “couldn’t get in a level like in the pictures”.
Fortunately, one of the employees was on-hand to hit A for me (duh). With a single push of a button, I was in- and I slowly became hooked (despite having run smack dab into damn near every goomba on the first board). It didn’t take long for me to decide that it was what I wanted.
Needless to say, the next few months were spent attempting to master and complete the game as well as finding out what other mario games were similar to it. It wasn’t long before I was playing the predecessors, the Land series and World. Thanks to prima guides and an older cousin showing me all the commonly known secrets, it wasn’t long before I became adept at 2D Mario games in the same way I had Crash and Spyro a few years prior. Soon, these sidescrolling game took up the bulk of my play time as a kid. While I loved the 3D, open-world action and platformer games on the Playstation and N64, these older games were a bit more challenging and I couldn’t just cruise through them in the same way I could those. Quite appealing for a gradeschooler with limited funds living in an era where you could still buy SNES and Genesis games for pennies on the dollar (even if the other kids made fun of me for liking “old junk”- I’m willing to bet some of those same kids are now hipsters covered in retro game merch).
Even if I didn’t go into Toys R Us nearly as much as I did the other giants of yesteryear, I’m still going to miss it and I’ll be hanging onto that one solid memory I have of the place for life. Also, if the Toys R Us employee that was at that location some 15 years ago is somehow reading this- thank you for pushing that A button and initiating my love for Super Mario and retro games in general.