Welcome back, boys and ghouls, to another thrilling Brick & Mortar adventure! This time, I travel to what many consider the hometown of Halloween – Salem, Massacusetts! In the spirit of the season, and to honor the opening of Massachusetts’ first barcade, Bit Bar, I decided to take a day trip up to Salem to see what the Gaming and Geek cultural scene was like up there. And I wasn’t disappointed!
Salem has a strange and storied history, dating back to the world-famous Salem Witch Trials of 1692-1693. It was very Puritan colony, and a very superstitious one too. And when young girls, one after another, began showing the symptoms of demonic possession in Salem Town in 1692, several local women (many who were considered alternative to the accepted norms of their society at the time) were (perhaps unfairly) branded as witches, and burned at the stake.
It’s ironic that these women were singled out, ostracized, and ultimately killed based primarily on how alternative to societal norms they were (one of the accused withches had re-married, and to *gasp* a former indentured servant, which was considered uncouth), because today’s Salem openly embraces the weirdness that they once so aggressively rejected. But the Salem Witch Trials are just the best known of many strange stories about Salem’s (presumably) haunted past. Ghost hunters and paranormal enthusiasts the world over know Salem’s name, and I can’t think of many places more associated with Halloween. Many seasonal films have been filmed in Salem, such as Hocus Pocus, and there’s a famous statue celebrating the 1960s sitcom Bewitched in one of the main town squares. The Salem of 2016 is proud of their claim to fame.
Still, for most of the year, 2016’s Salem is a quiet, mysterious place. Whether or not you beleive in sprits, or life past the grave, Salem can indeed be an unsettling place on a quiet, foggy autumn evening. The past comes alive through the old brick buildings, cobblestone sidewalks, cast-iron gates, and huge maple trees. There’s something both beautifully quaint and strangely unsettling about it all.
Even the main drag, the walking road called Essex Street, can be somewhat empty for most of the year. While it was a sizable colony and a center of activity hundreds of years ago, it is now seen most of the year as a pass-through town on the way to the urban centers of Boston and Cambridge.
However, once the leaves start to turn, and Halloween approaches, Salem increasingly becomes a magnet for tourism. Essex Street comes alive with activity. Trinket shops themed around witch craft and the occult open their doors. The Hocus Pocus tours kick off, taking fans of the film to locations where the movie is shot. The Salem Witch Museum becomes booked through the end of the month, weeks in advance. Halloween cruises fill Salem’s harbor, spontaneous costume parties pop up everywhere, spill into the streets, and pack into every bar. Cover bands play impromptu concerts on every street corner. Cars roll past blasting Monster Mash with the windows down.
This celebration is collectively referred to as Salem Haunted Happenings, and it transforms Salem into a must-see destination every October. It culminates in a huge parade and a fireworks show on Halloween itself, but usually the last Saturday before has the biggest parties. It becomes so wildly busy that most of downtown’s roads are blocked off to anything but foot traffic for those last few days. I knew this going in, and luckily I live just a few miles down the road from Salem, so I took the bus in. To get into the spirit, I threw on a creepy bear mask I had lying around the house, and all the kids on the bus thought I was Freddy Fazzbear.
Upon arrival in Downtown Salem, I immediately stopped in at Game Zone. I’ve been comin to this place for years, and I HIGHLY recommend it if you’re a serious collector. The simple NES Controller and generic branding in the windows belies the seriously impressive collection awaiting you within.
This is the view upon entry. Sith and Seventh generation games line the shelves on the left, while games from the current Eighth generation are displayed front and center behind the counter on the right. In terms of contemporary stuff, I was surprised to see copies of Skyrim Remastered already in stock for PS4, mere days after relese, and a pair of Xbox One S consoles for sale, new in box. Apparently Game Zone does recieve small shipments of contemporary games in addition to the classics, providing a locally-run alternative to the Gamestop on the edge of town.
Here’s another look at the left wall. Notice all of those consoles and boxes arranged on the walls along the top? This place has the air of a gaming museum of sorts, something I really admire about the place. These consoles are arranged in chronological order, each with a little information card beneath it stating the name of the console, the company that created it, the year of release, its years of operation, sales figures, and its most popular game. The entire store’s setup aims to be both a retail store and a source of education on the gaming of yesteryear. And it’s damn thorough! Just in this picture, I see an NES, a Genesis Model 1, a Turbografx-16, a SNES, a Neo Geo, a Turbo Duo, a Sega CD Model 2, an Atari Jauar, a Sega Saturn, a Playstaion 1, an N64, a Dreamcast, a PS2, an Xbox and a Gamecube.
While those display consoles are not for sale, those behind the counter are! Here, I see, all boxed, a Genesis Model 1 Sonic Pack, a Genesis Model 2 Sports Pack, a Sega CD Model 2 with Sol-Feace, an NES Action Set, a 32X, an Atari 2600 Jr, Atari Jauar, Atari VCS, SNES, Atari 5200, Saturn, Dreamcast…
This is a shot of the back of the store. As you can see, there’s an excellent collection of boxed games in the glass cabinet on the left – Sega Master System (white, top), 32X (yellow, top), Saturn (white, 2nd row from top), Sega CD (blue, 2nd row from bottom), Atari 2600 (left-bottom), and Vecrex (right-bottom). There’s even a row of loose Neo Geo carts. Along the right wall, the museum continues, displaying the Atari 400 and 800 computers, the NES ROB, Atari 5200 and 7800, Bally astrocade (rarely see this in the wild), Atari XE (I neeeever see this in the wild), and then a slew of portables and oddities including the TurboExpress and the XBand Modem Cartridge (this thing could turn your local multiplayer Genesis and SNES games into online games!).
Here’s a view from the back of the store! See that glass cabinet way up near the front door, on the right? We’ll be heading over there shortly.
I got the opportunity to meet and briefly speak with Neil Crockett, the owner and founder of Game Zone. While chartting, he grabbed something out of the back for me. It’s a laminated page from an old issue of GamePro. Neil told me that back in the early-to-mid-nineties, he began his business by filling a large storage space with inventory that other local game shops and video rental stores were dumping, and then advertised his stock in a full-page ad in the back of every month’s issof GamePro. As you can see in the top-left, the ad included his address and phone number (it was the nineties after all), so local readers began looking him up and asking if they could meet up and directly purchase from him. He supported this, and eventually realized that he could open a full-time store to make this process more natural. As print media fell by the way size, Game Zone lived on.
Here’s Neil himself! I think it’s safe to say that he’s the father of the retro gaming scene in Salem. He’s an extrmely nice guy, and recognizes and remembers me every time I come in. He makes a point to say hello and make small talk. He’s a genuine guy, knows a hell of a lot about the history of video games, and has so many anecdotal stories to share.
Now, that knowledge certainly comes with a price – and I mean that in a literal sense. Like many locally-run game shops, games are priced according to researched market value (Mega Man was $89 here, and it was at cheapest at ~$80 on Amazon), so you aren’t going to get any shocking deals here. If you’re a bargain hunter like myself, you might not find much to your liking here. That said, the prices match pretty evenly with what you would find on Amazon, and in this case you are supporting a locally-run store, so I would still strongly urge you to scoop something up if it intrigues you. And I will say this, this store is FULL of intriguing oddities! Like, how often do you see freakiing Kolibri for the 32X in the wild?
… or Bubble Beach Babes for that matter…
… or a boxed CD-i… (I love how this came with Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia – “A $200 VALUE!”)
… or Neo Geo games… (King of the monsters 2 is SO freaking good)
… or an entire stack of boxed vectrex games!?
This is a particularly eclectic set of Sega CD games… Rarely, if ever, have I seen Dark Wizard, Dracula Unleashed or Dune in the wild!
Here’s an equally eclectic selection of Sega Saturn games.
The Game Gear gets some love at Game Zone as well! A couple of loose consoles, plenty of loose games and even a few boxed ones, although nothing of note jumped out at me.
The Atari Jaguar section was a bit sparse, but hell, the fact that theres a Jaguar section at all is nice. And I’ve been meaning to give Zool 2 a spin… I loved the original on the Genesis.
Remember that glass cabinet up front I mentioned? Well, Neil has this one set up to display some of the rarest items in his collection. Despite a few of these items carrying (steep) price tags, he informed me that none of them are for sale.
This here is a JVC X’Eye, the only I’ve ever seen in person. It’s a strange third-party hybrid Sega console, containing both a Genesis cartridge slot and a Sega CD drive. These tihngs are stupid rare and stupid expensive these days, sought after in particular because of how ridiculous and unweildy the standard Genesis is after being hooked up to the CD and 32X add-ons.
Here’s Clayfighter Sculptor’s Cut for the N64, one of the rarest N64 games released in the states. It’s this rare because it was never officially released in stores, and was only available for rent through a special promotion with Blockbuster.
This here is a Pokemon Gold-themed Game Boy Advance, sold only for a limited time at the Pokemon Center Store in New York – now called the Nintendo World Store. Again, stupid-rare.
This little cutie is the Sega CDX. Like the X’Eye, it plays both Genesis and Sega CD games, and while its design still requires a TV to play, it’s a far more compact design that’s easy to bring with you. Also, the device could run on batteries and even play music CDs on the go! Also, shout-out to the sealed copy of Pier Solar behind it.
And here’s a Neo Geo CD! While it had historically-awful load times, this console was an attempt by SNK to make their console titles more affordable. While AES carts retailed for $200 (as they were essentially an arcade game board wedged into a VHS-sized cartridge), the Neo Geo CD games cost only $40. Some games, like the only SNK RPG, Samurai Showdown RPG, were exclusives on this system. Extremely rare in the US.
Oh boy. Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon and Link: The Faces of Evil. Anyone familiar with “YouTube Poop” knows these games all too well. These were CD-i games, the rotten fruits of Nintendo’s betrayal of Soony that led them to a failed partnership with Phillips and Sony to releasing their Playstation console under their own banner. The historically-awful animated cut-scenes in these games are so cringe-worthy that Nintendo has done everything in its power to convince us that these games don’t exist. To see them, CIB, together as a pair, is a rare sight indeed.
Finally, there was a pretty wide selection of reproduction carts. Want to play the original Mother, in English as Earthbound Zero on the NES? Want to play the (actual) Final Fantasy II in English? How about a strange Super mario World rom-hack? Game Zone has got you covered!
All this game hunting left me starving, so I went around the corner to a deliciously-nerdy artisanal pizza shop called Flying Saucer.
What makes thi place so nerd-chic, you ask? Just take a look at the menu:
Beast Boy, Killgrave, Admiral Ackbar, Nick Fury, Thor, Storm Trooper Commander, Space Invaders, Mars Attacks…
… and that was just the food! The drinks were just as enticing: Java the Hutt’s Cold Brew, Kingpin, Storm, T.A.R.D.I.S., Professor X, Storm, Hulk Smash…
I got the Nick Fury, and it was the bomb-diggity.
Here’s how the place looks inside. Serer with Black Power Ranger shirt, droids on the wall… Good stuff. They had Futurama playing on the TV.
And now we’re on to yet another noteworhy Salem storefront – Harrison’s!
I missed the “established” date on the door, but you get the feeling that Harrison’s has been a Salem staple for even longer than Game Zone! I haven’t seen a store this size celebrating geek culture since my trip to That’s Entertainment!
Here’s the view when you first walk in. It’s difficult to even know where to begin! While I didn’t take a picture of this, there’s a huge wall of candy along the right wall. There also, oddly enough, were a number of coffee machines. But past that was a tresure trove of comic goodness.
The rows near the front were primarily loaded up with collectable figures and plushies. Here, for insatnce, I spotted Mega Man Pop Figures.
And here was a rach entirely dedicated to Nintendo properties.
From there, you reach the comics themselves. While there were a lot of sections showcasing old collectible issues, there was a surprising amount of fresh print to be found, from DC and Marvel to properties like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, to a ton of contemporary graphic novels.
They even had an entire row along the back wall dediciated to comics released on that exact week, as well as the week previous. While That’s Entertainment has an astounding selection of classics, Harrison’s has them easily beat when it comes to what’s new in the world of comics. Above is the “Last Week’s Comics” wall…
… and here is what was new that week!
Excitingly, there was a sizable manga section at the center of the back wall. I wish I’d had more time to pick through this!
Heere’s a class cabinet filled with a selection of retro collectibles. SO much Batman. Also, is that supposed to be Charley Horse from Lamb Chop’s Play-a-long up top? My Nana would love that Howdy Doodey figure on the left…
And the collectibles and comics continue! But what about trading cards? Where are they hiding?
In the basement! Admittedly, Harrison’s selection of trading cards wasn’t as impressive as I’ve seen in other stores, but they primarily focused on Magic and Pokemon. Considering I love Pokemon Cards, this wasn’t an issue for me. I scooped up a bunch of energy cards to give me a little more flexability in deck building.
Finally, as it began getting dark, I walked down essex Street towards Bit Bar. On the way, an art studio caught my eye:
Look at these! Neil Patrick Harris, a Game of Thrones Map, the weird girl from The Breakfast Club, Steve Wozniak, The Goonies, Edgar Allen Poe, Workaholics, Max Headroom… Oh, and that’s my friend Allison who got caught in this shot. Say hi to Allison! (She’s going to kill me)
Inside, there were a number of cool art fixtures, mostly focused on alternative pop culture. This piece allowed you to measure up to the heights of some of your favorite mythical characters, like Bernie Sanders!
This one was strange and Halloween-y as fuck, so I made sure to capture it.
The Waffle House pandemic is slowly spreading. It has already cut off the northeast from the rest of the coutnry. All will be assimilated.
Another Halloween-y oddity. Just freaking cool.
Another wide shot of the studio. Just tons and tons of portraits of popular characters, and a direction post showing me which way it was to Jurassic Park.
One last wide shot of this fantastic little find, and we’re off to…
Bit Bar! A few motnhs in, the place still had a very impromptu feel to it. If you read my interview with the co-founder of Bit Bar, you know that this all began with a travelling free-play arcade called Bit Fest, which culminated in the founding of Massachusetts’ first bar-cade! And as you’ve witnessed from the rest of my Salem journey, Bit bar is in excellent company in Salem.
The bar itself is housed in a remodeled brick structure that once served as the Old Salem Jail (spooky!), which definitely added a lived-in character to the place.
Another venue, another menu. As you can see, every drink is named after a video game character. It looks like, to avoid copyright infringement, they took a few liberties in their naming – Dankey Kang, for instance, or Altered Bee (although that’s damn clever, considering there’s honey in that one). The obvious nod to Q-Bert – @!#?@! – made me chuckle. All in all, middling prices and cool mixed drink options make for a reasonably fun menu!
And here’s a shot of the bar itself. Swanky, Kang!
And here’s some shots of the games themselves! While (sadly) there was no free-play pass option like there was at Bit Fest, the selection of games was still pretty excellent. Here you can see Blasteroids, Killer Instinct 2, OutRun…
Here’s a shot of the back room, which had even more arcade machines humming.
Back up front, we’ve got NBA Jam: TE, an origianl Space Invaders cabinet (wow!), Q-Bert, Ms. Pac Man…
And here’s a wider shot of the main space, where you’ll catch a glimpse of The Simpsons Arcade Game on the right, and another surprise shot of Allison playing Space Invaders (haha seriously, if she reads this, I’m not going to hear the end of it). All in all, Bit Bar was a bit smaller than I expected, but still an excellent space to drink and play. And with arcades mostly a thing of the past here in the States, it’s exciting to know that there’s a place I can always run to to get my arcade on. Absolutely a geek community builder, and I was excited to see so many adults from so many different walks of life, laughing and playing together.
Cheers to Bit bar!
Overall, Salem surprised me by its sheer amount of geek-related locales. I guess i never realized that Salem, an ancient city in American terms, had such a vibrant youthful heart to it. And perhaps that makes sense, reflecting on how openly the Salem of 2016 embraces the strange. Come November 1st, Salem will return to its usual slumber, and the streets will again go quiet, but I’ll certainly be back long after the Halloween buzz subsides. And if you’re in the area, you should visit too! Salem is a must-visit for anyone who loves video games and pop-alt culture.
Thanks again for reading, folks! I’ll be off two Wednesdays from now, as I’ll be making a thrilling return to Japan! I’ll be exploring Osaka and Kyoto before I return to Tokyo, so expect the next few articles upon my return to cover all things Japanese gaming. If you have any suggestions for me, please leave them in the comments. And until then, remember to support your local scene! Happy (belated) Halloween everyone!