LANESBOROUGH -- My friend Nick -- the same culture vulture who tipped me off to Bagels & Brew's addition of evening hours during which the breakfast joint offers beer, wine and affordable appetizers in downtown Lenox -- mentioned that he was headed to the Berkshire Mall to buy a Game Cube.
"Hold on a moment," I wondered aloud. "Weren't those sold by Nintendo when we were in high school?" (For reference, when I graduated Iraq was a sovereign nation, our economy was booming, American flags draped from nearly every pickup truck's rear window and our president spoke of "evildoers" and claimed that we either supported his efforts to "smoke them out of their holes" or that we sided with their united front, dubbed the Disney antagonist-worthy "Axis of Evil").
The answer was yes.
"What store at the mall sells vintage video game systems?" I asked with the excitement of a high-schooler.
"It's the same place that's been a video game store for years," he said, "But it's not a GameStop anymore. A small, local chain took over the shop a few months ago and now they sell all kinds of retro games and systems. You can even play the old games there."
This wasn't shoptalk or a meandering of sentiment. It was the whirring of a youthful excitement that I
hadn't felt in ages. A decade maybe. Perhaps longer. I felt a rush after learning that someone in the Berkshires has revived various generations of half-forgotten staples of interactive digital entertainment, from the early 1980s up through the latest releases, and made parts of its space available for public gaming most nights until 9 p.m.
We hopped in the car and sped to the Berkshire Mall with more enthusiasm than the first half of this sentence would normally permit, arriving at 8:30 p.m. to greet a tableau from a past era. The relatively recent past, for sure, but a social setting once typical that I now just spot in rare peeks.
It was Saturday night, and around Jay St. Video Games this is Pokémon tournament night. Two competitions ran simultaneously, each with six participants -- one a roundtable for players of the card game and the other a circle of chairs seating Nintendo DS players, competing for an ongoing tournament-style title with a Pokémon game made for the 2004 handheld gaming system.
"We want people to come in here and have fun. We want people to come in, talk to us, ask about events," said employee Ian "Sully" Sullivan, who organizes the weekly Pokémon battles and similar competitions involving fighting games (he name dropped Smash Brothers and Street Fighter!) as well as other tournaments running now and through the summer. "A lot of kids know about Mario, but their parents will be like, ‘Oh, I actually remember Mario.' "
Mario fans of all ages should be excited to learn, as was I, that Mario Kart 8 for the Nintendo Wii U system will be released Saturday. The night before, Jay St. Video Games will invite the public to play all of the previous Mario Kart games in anticipation of midnight, when the new release will become officially available to consumers. At this point, Sully plans to pop in a copy or two to store systems for whoever shows up to enjoy.
Sully and his four coworkers have mindfully tapped into a realm of social, cultural and ritualistic expression that has aged long enough to bear a generation of youngsters who grew up playing video games featuring the same characters and stories that their parents spent their youth manipulating with simpler controllers and no sense of depth.
It wasn't the racks upon racks of vintage video games, hardware, accessories and additional accouterments that made me beam, though these sights were welcome ones. Nor was it even the Hyperkin RetroN Gaming System, a machine Jay St. keeps on a constant, interactive display (and in stock) that plays games made for the original Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Famicom and Game Boy Advance on the in-store television screens, running in the store so shoppers can try out a variety of yesteryear's games before making a purchase.
It was the groups of gamers playing together into the night, socializing, using technology to help augment the social and competitive experiences, compete and laugh in unison that made me happy. The shop houses a palpable sense of community, and a niche one at that. This is uncommon among retailers, but makes more sense given that Jay St. Video Games is a small, regional chain with a shop in Crossgates Mall in Albany and two in Pennsylvania.
"This is my childhood," said Nick to Ian, while cradling the Game Cube he'd just purchased in his arms.
"See you in an hour," said Sully to one of the Pokémon gamers, as he walked out of the store, into the butt of the mall, at closing time (they're open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays).