19 March 2015

throwback thursday: wayward ramblings about 90s gaming

Since MAGfest I’ve been on a huge nostalgia kick, thanks in part to long conversations with Aaron Clark on retro game collecting, and the sight of some lovely Dreamcast titles in their Dealers Room. That trip (and the resulting scouring of eBay for a copy of Grandia II) was only the tip of a very large, very deep iceberg, which has managed over the past few weeks to spread from video games to card games to tabletop RPGs, back to video games, and about a dozen currently-open eBay windows offering me chances to buy replacement copies of Devil May Cry, boxes of cards for Middle Earth: the Wizards, and a few options for Dungeons and Dragons books I didn’t buy because screw 4th Edition. 

This is my madness, my white whale. This is why I wake up late, stare at my computer for hours on end, and find myself thinking back to a far easier time, before stripping my game collection was necessary to pay my bills, and hoarding boxes of CCG cards wasn’t that big a deal for me. I sit here, in March of 2015, reliving my past quite vividly as I tear apart my closet hoping that some long-forgotten relics of my past are still there, and regret letting go of so many objects that defined who I was as the 20th century wound down to a close. 

I promise I won’t get too philosophical here. And if my ramblings sound too weird, feel free to read Lauren’s views on why you should watch classic anime. She put her ideas together really well, and since anime wasn’t part of my life back then, I can sit back and enjoy her words without worrying they might launch me into some weird Toonami binge. I really can’t afford another binge right now...got a con this weekend. 

I recently made a comment on social media about how my neighborhood was once a nerd mecca. I wasn’t kidding- while I might describe Flushing these days as home to bubble tea cafes and a Chinese bakery on every corner, back in the late 90s it was anything but. Bubble tea hadn’t made a foothold in my neck of the city yet (despite boasting the largest population of Asian immigrants anywhere in the 5 boroughs), and the single Tai Pan bakery (which is now very gone) was located right above where I used to spend weekdays playing Magic the Gathering. 

Back then, Flushing was still growing itself, and the previous decade of filth and after-hours crime was being swept away by a new populace that didn’t have the time or the care for dealing with that bs. It might have started when the Barnes and Noble closed as the 90s rolled in, but within a few years, my home had completely changed. Now I could spend time talking about ethnic enclaves here, but at the time I was all of 13 or 14, and I was more focused on the fact that an laser tag place had opened downtown, a few blocks off Northern Blvd. Not that I had time (or money) to go, but the fact that it was there spoke volumes. Right across from that institution of class-skipping and suburban warfare was an arcade, which was the first place I had a chance to play Star Wars (and later Trilogy) Arcade and Ehrgeiz cabinets, and maybe halfway down the block was Chameleon Comics, which would eventually become my weekend hangout for 2 full years. 

These three places were soon joined by a second comic shop (with a Tekken machine), a card game open play space, two “manga” stores, and a host of locally owned video game retailers. By late 1997, the downtown area of Flushing had become the go-to destination for not just local kids looking for gaming fixes, but for people all over the borough (and as far as northern Manhattan) to meet, play, talk, trade, sell, and experience the best 90s geekdom had to offered (at least as far as CCGs, Sony PlayStation, and some of the best arcade fighting games ever produced). I would eventually spend every weekend at one comic shop, half my weekdays at another, and- when I finally dropped my first college paycheck on a PS1- would be tossing around $20s like they were going out of fashion on every game I could ever have wanted. 

Around this time I was becoming aware of anime (I bought my first few VHS tapes at Coconuts, of all places), but if you were to ask me where my geek loyalties lay, it would firmly have been tabletop gaming. Sometimes, when I look in on the game rooms at cons, I wonder if the players flopping away at YuGiOh or Weiss Schwarz were aware of the size and scope of their hobby’s early days. (Magic players might, if only because it still exists, but the fact that I routinely see only two CCGs in game rooms...hits me right here.) Because back then...while you could call collectible card gaming a boom, it was really more like an eruption. 

Magic was still king, and would remain that way until Pokemon derailed its momentum after the millennia changed. But at Chameleon’s, we had access to- and played- plenty of other fare. Star Wars, Ani-Mayhem, Star Trek, Babylon 5 (damn...lots of SF games I’m noticing), Battletech, Dune, and Shadowfist all had their followers, and their tournament days. Star Wars was the most popular, especially after the Special Edition movies came out, but it wasn’t odd for a few of us to see decks for another game, buy a few, and see what we thought. As publishers snapped up licenses and flooded this new market, experimentation and complexity of play ebbed and flowed, as some games cloned Magic’s formula, and others made you build tiny pyramids out of cardboard because why not? If a rabid game fan had the money to throw down for a deck of something, they probably would.

My little cohort was no exception to these “rules,” limited only by what the local game store had in stock. For us, the game was our life, focused around our few locales, carried with us in our backpacks or jacket pockets, and expressed constantly over the course of a single day. Anywhere we could play, we would, at almost anytime. We built our friendships around the game, and so long as we all played, we all stuck together. Back then, we called ourselves gamers- people who really loved to play games, particularly of the card and role-playing variety.

Like the malignant corruption for the term these days, we had out prejudices when it came to using a term like gamer. Gamers played games, Magic players played Magic. InQuest magazine added “cardflopper” and “dice chucker” to the mix, when “hostilities” between card gamers and roleplayers apparently caused dissent within the hobby. Wargaming was quaint, but not worth the hassle. And video games...well, RPG players often belonged to at least one group of tabletop players, and the rest didn’t really float onto our radar. But we clung to those ideals in our heads, and thought about how amazing it was that we could spend our days building decks or refining plots. It was a simple joy we had, even if some of us wanted to scream at piles or cards, or flip tables when things didn’t quite go our way. And at the time, it meant everything to me- I could never envision a weekend without my mates at the shop, or games at the arcade, or whatever with whoever. My teenage brain existed in such a temporal frame, that all I could see was the next game, the next week, the next month. 

College of course changed that. Priorities always change, and the things we liked as teenagers can find themselves at the mercy of maturity, or just a crux of new experiences. For me, that was a a group of college friends who like to play, but disliked cards and blowing money on pieces of cardboard stock. And before I knew it, my interest in the latest CCG was replaced by exploring the city, reading new books, and making new friends. Manhattan replaced Flushing, storytelling replaced deckbuilding, and anime finally began to take a hold on me, because I had friends who enjoyed it, and had tapes to spare. 

All those comic shops are gone now. One is a health food store, one is currently vacant. Hurricane Collectibles, with its rows of tables and old school cards in the glass case, closed a few years ago. I don’t remember when Game Fan vanished, or Game Express turned into a T-Mobile shop. The laser tag arena didn’t make it to Y2K, but the arcade did, for a time beckoning me in with promises of Trilogy arcade or air hockey before school took up all of my time, and it faded away as well. Sometimes I walk by those old storefronts, thinking about teenage me, and how crazy I was. And every few years, this sense of nostalgia hits me, where I vividly recall those old days, and the significance they represented. While I could never call what I did a fandom- it was too loose, too...unfocused for fandom, really- it was a defining time, social beyond anything I had experienced prior, and it did influence who I am today. And I hold no regrets about participating, only that sometimes I might not have appreciated the experience as much as I do in my head now. Those were some fun times I had.

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