Inside Super Potato, Part 2: Old consoles never die, they become collectibles
The elevator opens on Level 5. The floor smells like stale cigarette smoke. Inside Super Potato, a lonely employee sits at a desk and pays me no attention. He barely acknowledges my presence and seems more intent to keep reading the day’s manga.
There’s a life-sized statue of Solid Snake from the Metal Gear franchise off to the side wearing Mario’s hat. As strange as that may seem, it completely makes sense in the world I’ve walked into. I have entered a curated arcade that’s as impressive today as it would have been in the early 90s. I walk past a Street Fighter II machine, my beloved Chun-Li and Blanka waiting for me. Next to it is Metal Slug, a game that always impressed me with its cartoonish and violent graphics. Further down, I see a line of vintage tabletop machines from Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. I check my pockets to see how many 100 yen coins I have so I can relive my childhood, just in a foreign country in a store named after a vegetable.
I browse through the selection: I debate playing Splatterhouse – a game I never had access to as a Midwestern youth tragically unable to gain access to a TurboGrafix system – but then I see something that hits me with the biggest nostalgic gut-punch of them all: Double Dragon. I sit down, place 500-yen worth of coins on the console, and indulge my inner eight-year old.
The last time I played this game was in the arcade of a Mazzio’s Pizza in Bartlesville, Oklahoma back in 1987 – I’m pretty sure I went home and watched Max Headroom afterwards. The game begins and I punch my way through the mean streets, picking up knives and throwing goons over my shoulders, but half of my brain has regressed; the faint smell of pizza breaks through from the past. I’m mashing buttons, wishing I had a partner to help me out because the game is more challenging today than I remember it as a kid. The game must not be working properly. That must be it.
I don’t speak the language here and without the help of Google I wouldn’t know A from B. But on Super Potato’s Level 5 arcade, I experienced video game as time travel, and it’s put me in touch with a kid I haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan was president. I’ve also sacrificed five-hundred yen (roughly $4.60) in the span of twenty minutes to perpetuate my nostalgia. Worth it.
I play some cursory rounds of Street Fighter II and finally end up checking out Splatterhouse for the first time in my life. Damn, how I wished I could’ve gotten my hands on that one when I was younger. The Turbografx-16 released in the US on August 1, 1990 for $400 though, so it’s not surprising that I never knew a sngle person that owned one.
I sense that it’s time to explore the lower levels before I get sucked into a time warp. I nod toward the lonely attendant behind the counter and offer a timid “arigato.” He nods back. I sense he’s seen the likes of me many times per day. I take the stairs down to the next level of the retro-dungeon.
If Level 5 had me reveling in the arcade exploits of my childhood, then Level 4 speeds me up through my last cartridge system (Sega Genesis) and first PlayStation. It also makes me think about that moment between high-school and college when I armed myself with nothing more than that first gen PlayStation, and I left home for college – a time in my life that some of my friends and I still refer to as The Tekken Wars.
This floor is a monument to the overlap of the cartridge and disc-based gaming eras – an era I remember well, although I only recognize about a quarter of the games on display. The most seemingly unapologetic of Japanese games I played during my PlayStation era was Katamari Damacy on the PlayStation 2, but judging from my environment, that might be a little too pedestrian for the Super Potato crowd.
Most of what I see are games that I don’t recognize, not even vaguely, and the language barrier prohibits me from even doing a quick search on Google to explain what it is I am seeing. There’s a small area of games for the original Xbox, but there is a distinct feeling that the land of Sony and Nintendo is just paying the system lip service. Although the Xbox and Xbox 360 sold roughly 110 million units around the world, Microsoft was the last kid picked at dodgeball when it came to console systems in Japan. The especially pitiable sales of the original Xbox system during its height make it more of a collectible than a legitimate gaming system here.
Sharing the floor with the discs are countless cartridges, all of which I want to blow on for old times sake. Many of them are for 32-bit games and systems. The 32-bit cartridge was a rarity in America, as most 32-bit games in North America were on disc, and Nintendo went straight to 64-bit. I pick up a cartridge case for a game that the internet tells me is called Bow-wow Puppy Love Story. This game was developed for the Casio Loopy – a system released only in Japan in 1995, marketed primarily to female gamers.
A game I haven’t heard of on a system I’ve never heard of marketed for a group most game makers ignored. This makes me wonder how far down the retro game rabbit hole I’ve gone. Maybe I should come up for air, or look for another strange energy drink with ingredients I can barely comprehend.
Even though I’m surrounded by all of these retro mysteries and curiosities, I can’t stop thinking about the Casio Loopy – a video game system that had a built-in thermal color printer that we never saw in the States. If I look hard enough I bet I can find one on these very shelves, take it home, and play Bow-wow Puppy Love Story until the digital saccharine from it burrows its way into my frontal lobe and leaves me a smiling, puppy controlling vegetable for the rest of my days.
There’s another floor beneath me and I have to press on, though I’m not sure how much more I can accept into my brain. I take the stairs down to Level 3 somewhat dazed. The effects of my weird energy drink have worn off and have been superseded by delightful confusion.
When I get to Level 3, I’m greeted by a dozen theme songs from different games, blurring together to create a pleasant and dissonant sound collage. Nothing on Level 3 seems to go over 16-bit. There are rows of old televisions hooked up to vintage systems: SNES (and its Super Famicom counterpart), the Sega Genesis (née Mega Drive), and more.
I play a round of a game called Fat Man. It’s a fighting game. An aggressive AI kicks my ass in under a minute, swiftly declaring that this 16-bit domain belongs to it and it alone. The buttons on the SNES controller are soft, having already endured decades of abuse. I blame my lack of twitch reflexes for the loss at first, but I’m also pretty sure that Fat Man could be one of the worst video games ever made.
I later learn that the U.S. version of this game was renamed to Tongue of the Fat Man, which, I guess, couldn’t cause any further damage to its reputation. If anyone in the U.S. bought and played this game I’m pretty sure you might still have untreatable mental scars from it.
There’s a section for old video game soundtracks. I become transfixed by one of them. It shows a pixelated skyline, red and large on the double-disc packaging, looking as futuristic as its bitrate will allow. In the foreground two heroes prop each other up as if they just made it out of the mega city alive. It’s the soundtrack for a side scrolling Beat ‘em up game called Rushing Beat, published by Jaleco in 1992 for the Super Famicom system. This was a cartridge game, but the soundtrack is now living its own life on a 4 CD set and retails for around $40.00 USD.
I don’t ever remember playing Rushing Beat, and even if I did I certainly don’t think I would be enamored enough to want to listen to its soundtrack, but obviously there’s a market for these things because, well, there it is, sitting with the other treasures. There also might be some people who remember playing this game’s Western translation, Rival Turf!, on the Super NES. It never stood out as one of the larger hits of the 16-bit era in the US but I’m guessing the game’s U.S. cover art didn’t do it any favors.
Moving on, I hold an Atari Lynx for the first time in my life. It’s bulky, hardly portable, and its price as a technological antiquity is about the same as what it retailed for in 1989, meaning that I still won’t be owning one. There’s also a coveted Neo Geo console for sale. Like most people, I could never afford this system when I was younger. Turns out I still can’t today.
I walk around and consider the possibilities: I could own a Super Famicom, or Power Glove and Virtual Boy. there’s an Atari-era handheld system called the Tomy Lsi that I still have no idea what it is. I see a cartridges for Oishinbo, a beloved cooking manga series from the 80s, and to call that the tip of the iceberg of possibilities would be underselling the iceberg. I experience my own nostalgia and I get a glimpse at Japan’s nostalgia as well.
I’ve seen too many things that don’t register with my boyhood memories of gaming. These are someone else’s memories. Now I’m just looking through the window and want to hang around to see how much more I can uncover.
There are some younger kids walking around the same aisles as me, intently hunting for games older than they are. I wonder why as modern-day Tokyo youth they feel the need to go back and hunt for these games that punch none of the pleasure triggers that modern games are capable of doing. Maybe they want the clues and keys about a time and place before they existed and can never be a part of. Maybe the games are more challenging. Maybe it’s the same reason some people born in the age of CDs are obsessing over vinyl. Maybe it’s none of that, who knows?
We’re all here in Super Potato as part of a bigger reason: regardless of how gaming is perceived, these consoles, machines, discs, and cartridges give us a culture, one that’s pretty damn fun to study and do your homework on.
Inside Super Potato concludes tomorrow…
Check out Part 1 here.
Inside Super Potato Part 1: Down Tokyo’s deepest rabbit hole
Inside Super Potato Part 3: Through the retro looking glass