This piece originally appeared in Tower Magazine Issue 1.
At some point, everyone in the retro video game collector community has “The Dream”. It goes like this: you find yourself in a store. You’re not sure how you got there or why you’ve never been in before. You start looking around, and you notice that they have dozens, hundreds of things for sale that have been out of print for decades. You stumble across a bargain bin of old Nintendo Entertainment System games that would each go for hundreds of dollars today, and they’re marked down to single digits. And then, of course, you wake up.
The Dream isn’t about money. What’s so exciting about it isn’t the prospect of being able to resell these things—it’s the sense of returning to something lost, the nostalgic pleasure of being in an old KB Toys or Babbages and finding things on shelves that you would have seen twenty years ago. Maybe these are games you used to own when you were a kid, but you’ve sold or lost them in the time since. Maybe you never had them, and The Dream is about being an adult who can realize your childhood desires. Regardless, everybody has it.
I wasn’t surprised, then, when my friend Gary told me he’d had it recently. We were getting coffee at a gas station on a brisk Saturday morning—the plan was to head into Manhattan and hit up this game store that apparently had some refurbished Game Boys in stock, then get lunch at a noodle place in the East Village. It wasn’t the first time he’d had The Dream, I knew that. But he seemed more excited about it this time, more agitated.
“It felt so real,” he said, sipping his coffee at a red light. He got a wistful look as he stared out into the cloudy morning sky. “Like it was a real place, you know?”
“I know,” I replied. “It’s such a letdown to wake up after one like that.”
“Right. Only this time, I wasn’t let down.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do me a favor. Look up this address on your phone.”
He passed me a drugstore receipt with a street name I didn’t recognize scrawled in sloppy marker. I punched it into the maps app on my phone and it showed me a location way out in northwest Jersey, nearly Pennsylvania. The app said it was a store called The Game Emporium, but there was no site, no reviews, no photos of the interior.
“What’s this supposed to be?”
Gary smiled in his shitty, knowing way. “That’s the place I dreamed about.”
“You’re joking, right? This doesn’t even look like it’s real.”
“It’s real. I saw the name in my dream.”
I frowned. “Since when do you go in for that kind of woo-woo thing?”
“I don’t. Maybe I saw the name somewhere online years ago, or maybe heard someone talking about it at a con. But I know that’s the place I saw in my dream. You want to check it out?”
“I thought we were going into the city today. You’re telling me you want to drive an hour and change out to Fuckoff New Jersey just because you had a dream and you think it’s this place that probably doesn’t even exist?”
“It exists. Check the map again. There’s a shot from the street.”
Sure enough, there was an image of a solitary little building with a small sign posted in the window that read ‘Game Emporium’. It was grainy and barely readable. The mapping trucks probably didn’t get out that way often.
“Still,” I said. “You think this place is going to have better stock than anywhere in New York?”
“If you’d seen what I had, you wouldn’t be asking me that.”
I sighed. This wasn’t the first time Gary had tried to drag me out somewhere in the hopes of scoring a good find. I liked the guy, but he had a tendency to get over enthusiastic and then sullen and mopey when things didn’t pan out the way he’d built them up in his head. It wasn’t so much the idea of driving out there that bothered me, it was having to sit with Gary in the car ride back while he seethed in inevitable disappointment.
“I don’t know, man. If that’s what you really want to do today, then just drop me off in the city and I’ll get the train back later. You go check out your dream store on your own.”
He shook his head. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I want you to see it with me. Trust me, dude.”
“Look,” he said, “come out there with me, and I’ll give you my copy of Mega Man X3.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, man. That cart’s worth hundreds of dollars.”
Gary grinned. “You don’t get it. I’ll just pick up another at this place—new in the box, for less than the original retail.”
“Come on, don’t be stupid. Anyone who had that kind of stock on their hands would just look up the prices online. Those sorts of deals just don’t exist anymore.”
“So you’ll come, then?”
Gary could be overbearing and sulky at times, but he stuck to his word. If he said he was going to give me a $300 game for spending a couple of hours investigating a store that almost certainly had gone out of business years ago, then why not? Besides, he was still my friend. And this clearly meant a lot to him.
“Yeah. I’ll come.”
“You’re not going to regret this,” Gary said giddily as he pulled onto the 78 ramp. “You’re going to lose your mind when you see this place.”
“Well, you’ve already lost yours, so that’ll make two of us.”
Traffic was light as we drove steadily west, passing shopping centers and suburban housing developments, turning off the 78 at Springfield and onto the 24, a smaller road bordered on both sides by trees and greenery. I sucked at the bitter, burnt dregs of my coffee as Laura Branigan played on the car stereo—part of the 80s playlist Gary and I had put together a while back.
“So,” I asked him, “what have you been playing this week?”
He lit up as he always did when someone asked him this question. “I found a new Zelda randomizer, so I’ve been trying that. Oh, and I’m been making my way through some of the old Genesis shoot-em-ups, those are kind of a blind spot for me. Got through Granada, that one’s pretty cool.”
“Nice, nice. Anything new?”
“New? Well, like I said, I’ve never played most of those Genesis shooters before. Found them too hard when I was a kid.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t mean new to you, I mean like, actually new.”
Gary smirked. “Good one! New. Why would I play anything new when there’s so much great old stuff out there?”
“I mean, people are still making cool stuff. I’m not saying you have to play Fortnite or anything, but I think there are some titles you’d like.”
“The industry’s been creatively bankrupt for decades. It’s all about microtransactions, engagement, DLC, and exploitative mechanics now.”
Here it was. I’d heard the speech before, and I felt stupid for having walked into it.
“The video game industry today is run by a bunch of suits,” Gary pontificated. “Suits who are backed by scientific research on dopamine and reward systems in the brain. I mean, ‘economy design’ is a whole subfield of design nowadays! These big games are made with staggering budgets and go through so many different people that they can’t possibly convey anyone’s artistic vision. They’re designed by committee to appeal to as big an audience as possible and to extract as much time and money from that audience as they can.”
“That’s kind of reductive,” I said, making my usual play when we got into this kind of conversation. “What about independent developers?”
“I don’t deny that there seems to be worthy work being done in that space,” Gary replied, in his frustratingly erudite way. “But it’s too much to keep track of. No, it’s much easier for me to stick to retro games.”
We sat in silence for a while, rushing down the road as the seemingly endless wall of trees shifted past us. Driving out of the city like this always reminded me of road trips with my parents when I was a kid, trying to play my old brick Game Boy without a backlight, my dad yelling at me and saying turning the car’s interior light on while driving was illegal.
“Do you ever wonder,” I said, “if we’re wasting our time?”
“I told you—this place is real.”
“Not the place. Generally, I mean. What is it that draws us to this stuff, anyway? Are we just trying to hold onto something that’s never coming back?”
“Feeling philosophical today, are we?” Gary mused.
“I guess so.”
“Everybody needs hobbies. And we live in a world where everyone’s always trying to push the next big thing. We’re told every day that we have to upgrade our phone, see the next blockbuster, be a part of the conversation by watching whatever prestige TV show Amazon or Netflix is spending hundreds of millions on. It’s disgusting.”
“But nothing. Listen, we’ve had this conversation before. Do you think most great art in human history is being made right now? Or is it much more likely that most of whatever’s being made at any one time is crap?”
“Yeah, that’s true,” I said. Gary was right—he almost always was—but something about the drive was starting to weigh on me. I was in my late 30s. Was this really my life? Driving around rural New Jersey looking for old video games?
“You know what your problem is?” Gary said. “You can’t stop picking at things. Your brain won’t let you enjoy anything. You always have to be asking, well, is this okay? Or am I perpetuating something or performing something or god knows what? Somewhere along the line you learned that’s what smart people do, pick at things, but all it’s doing is making you miserable.”
“Sorry. But what’s so wrong with liking old stuff, really? It’s not hurting anybody. You can try to act like you’re above it, but I’ve seen your face when you stumble onto a good find on eBay. I know you still replay Chrono Trigger every year. So come on, just give yourself permission to like what you like. Anyway, when you see this place, you’re going to be so excited you’re going to forget to be all detached and analytical about it.”
I stared out the window, stung by Gary’s assessment. “You’re right.”
“Of course I am. And guess what? I was right about this place, too. We’re here.”
We pulled off the country road into a gravel parking lot. A lone building sat off in the corner. It looked ancient, possibly abandoned. But from the car I could just make out that same little sign in the window: ‘Game Emporium’.
Gary parked and we got out and looked around. There were no other cars in the lot. In fact, we hadn’t seen any other cars on the road for a while.
I braced myself for Gary to throw a tantrum when we got to the door and found the place had been closed for years. I let him go first, practically rubbing his hands together with anticipation as he crunched across the gravel.
He pulled at the door handle and it actually opened. Turning back at me and raising an eyebrow, he entered the store and I followed him in.
It was like stepping back in time. The place looked like it hadn’t updated its decor in at least 20 years, but my attention was captured by the shelves. Row after row of old games lined them. Stuff dating back to the mid-90s. And not loose cartridges, either. Even the Super Nintendo games, which originally came in these flimsy cardboard boxes that everyone tossed, were sitting there looking brand new. The smell, too—maybe it was just the old paint and linoleum, but it was nostalgic, instantly transporting me to a Toys ‘R’ Us in the late 80s.
I just stared slack-jawed, trying to take it all in. I couldn’t quite process it. Then I realized—this had to be some kind of a trick. Maybe this was some old collector’s place, a kind of museum. Maybe it was some sort of viral pop-up for influencers to take selfies at. But then, why would it be out here in the middle of nowhere?
“Are you seeing this? Are you seeing this?” Gary exclaimed, poking his head out from behind a shelf. “They’ve got everything, man! And look at the prices!”
Still stunned, I wandered over to Gary and examined a row of boxes. Sega Genesis titles for ten, fifteen dollars—and not just the shitty licensed sports titles you see in thrift stores. Incredible games. Sonic 2, Streets of Rage, Gunstar Heroes, Toejam & Earl. And lousy, but rare and expensive stuff too. Master of Monsters, Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel, Liberty or Death.
“How is this possible?” I asked. Gary was already halfway across the store, gawping at everything on offer. “Seriously, how is this possible?”
“I don’t know,” Gary said, finally responding. “But it is! It’s real! And it’s all ours!”
“I don’t see anyone working here. Where do you think the owner is?”
“Maybe in the back?” Gary replied distractedly. “There’s a door over here. Oh my god, they’ve got Neo Geo Pocket Color games. This place is a gold mine!”
“Yeah,” I said, examining what appeared to be a new-in-box copy of Goof Troop for the Super Nintendo. “But doesn’t that strike you as odd? This store shouldn’t exist. I mean, it’s out of the way, but you’d think people would have heard of it by now.”
“There you go, picking at things again. Why can’t you just enjoy this? This is the find of a lifetime!”
Something about Gary’s voice sounded strange, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that none of this made any sense. But he’d called me out on the same thing earlier, and I didn’t want to spoil his mood. “Sorry. I’ll go see if the owner’s in the back.”
Crossing to the door at the back of the store, I noticed new sights every time I glanced around. Had that rack of old copies of EGM and GamePro been there a second before? Or that clear-shelled original Xbox? Hell, they even had a Nintendo 64 demo unit like they used to have in McDonald’s.
The door to the back was already slightly ajar, so I pushed it open. If the front of the store was a collector’s dream, then this was heaven. They’d set it up like a kid’s room in the early 90s—Ghostbusters and Ninja Turtles posters, thick carpeting, and an old tube TV with an NES—the original front-loader—hooked up.
“Gary, you’re going to want to see this!” I called back through the door.
“Hold on!” came the reply. Maybe I’d just never heard him this excited before, but I could swear his voice sounded higher than usual. I stepped further into the room, which felt comfortingly familiar. Here was everything I loved as a kid, all of the images and sensations that had been burned into my brain back then. For a moment I could swear I smelled Micro Magic french fries just out of a microwave. I looked around but still couldn’t see any sign of the owner, nor any other way out of the room.
I couldn’t help but hit the power button on the TV, which switched on with the satisfying hum that only CRTs can provide. I turned on the NES, too, sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor, and picked up the controller. It was Skate or Die, a game everyone owned back then. It was part of the culture. Even if you had no interest in skateboarding, you wanted to feel like you were cool.
“Gary,” I called out again while trying not to bail on the 8-bit half pipe, “Get in here, man. This is really awesome!”
No response came. Maybe he hadn’t heard me? I kept playing, figuring that Gary was off in his own little world. I started to lose track of time, sitting there. When I finally thought to check my phone I’d lost twenty minutes.
“Gary?” I tried again. Still no response. I got up and turned off the console, and out of habit, I started to wrap the cable around the controller to put it away. And when I did, I noticed something—a black mark scrawled on its back. Flipping it over, I realized what the mark was: my initials. Could my childhood console have found its way here after I’d sold it decades earlier? It was possible, but would be a tremendous coincidence. Still, being reunited with the machine that had given me so much joy as a kid was an incredible feeling. I had to tell Gary about it. He wouldn’t believe it.
I turned to leave, but something was wrong. The room had changed, shifted since I’d entered it. It was no longer reminiscent of my childhood bedroom—it had become it. Every aspect was reproduced in perfect detail. Generic eighties imagery had morphed into toys almost nobody but me remembered anymore. The little touches, the ways I’d made that space my own, were all here. Glow-in-the-dark star stickers on the ceiling, beloved stuffed animals on the bed. Treasures I’d spent hundreds of dollars and countless hours trying to track down again were all here. Action figures, models, plush characters, pieces of cultural detritus I couldn’t let go of. I burst back through the door into the front room of the store and yelled for Gary.
Again, no reply. I panicked, rushing around the place looking for him. “Gary, we have to get out of here! That room, in there, it’s– it was my childhood!”
“I know,” a little voice replied. “Isn’t it great?”
I turned in the direction of the sound and saw it—Gary’s coat half-sunk in a gigantic bin of old games. And within the huge coat, there was a child rifling through the cases with a wild grin plastered across his face.
“Battletoads!” He shouted. “Mega Man III! Dragon Warrior! This is so freaking cool!”
The kid looked up, and from the shitty little smile on his face, I knew it was him.
“Gary,” I repeated. “We have to go. We have to get out of here now. Something isn’t right here.”
“Aw, why do you gotta be such a downer?” He said in a whiny voice. “I’m not done! I don’t wanna go!”
He was sinking into the bin—or was he getting smaller? A moment ago he looked eleven or twelve years old. Now he seemed seven at the oldest. I went to grab him, to pull him away, but he wriggled out of his coat and continued to dig through the heap he was sitting in.
“Adventure Island! Clash at Demonhead! Crystalis! Wow!”
I glanced back at the front door, which seemed to be further away than I remembered it. When I looked back at Gary, he’d become a toddler. His tiny hands excitedly dug deeper into the bin as his words began to slur into babytalk: “Mawwio! Mawio 2! Mawwio Thwee!” I grabbed at him, but he sank into the bin. With both hands, I started throwing boxes out onto the floor, trying to find him. Nothing.
I’m not proud, but I ran out of the place. I ran into the parking lot and down the country road, and I didn’t stop running until I collapsed from exhaustion.
By the time I realized I was out in the middle of nowhere, it was dark and bitterly cold. I walked back to Gary’s car, found that it was locked, and called for a ride. While I waited in the lot, I peered over at the old shop from behind the car. It was completely still and silent. When my ride finally arrived, I worked up the courage to walk up there one last time, but the door wouldn’t open and the windows were blinded.
A few days later, the police came by to ask me about the last time I saw Gary. I told them we’d both gone out to a store in Jersey, found it closed, and that he’d wanted to wait to see if the owner showed up while I took another car home. I think they suspected something for a while, like maybe I’d killed him for his collection, but they found his car and the old store out there and ended up writing him off as a missing person. Their best guess was that he’d wandered off into the woods to take a leak, slipped, and froze to death.
But I know what really happened. I saw it. When the police went to check the place, they found it abandoned. That’s because they weren’t like us.
Collectors are a special kind of person. We can’t let go. We amass things, invest time and energy in our collections, surround ourselves with them. We fixate on these periods we can never return to except through these items. I think whatever was in that store was a collector too. It collects people like us.
I have to assume that Gary’s dead. I never saw him again, and I certainly never went back out that way. When his family gave up hope after a few months I helped them sell off his collection to pay for a funeral. And as I was pricing his old games, I remembered the look on his face the last time I saw him. He looked happy. Really, truly happy, like I’d never seen him before.
As for me, I still have The Dream sometimes. These days, though, I’m always glad to wake up from it.