Welcome back, ladies and gents, to another thrilling edition of Brick & Mortar, the only segment on Retroware that can get away with a 2500-word article that has nothing to do with Video Games. No WordPress glitch is going to stop this train from moving forward, so let’s roll! Honestly, thank you for sticking with me! I promise that we’re getting back to the goof stuff this week. We return to my storied hometown, Worcester, and to the first retro shop to capture my heart and my imagination as a wee lad: That’s Entertainment.


sonic-2-md

 My life in gaming began in the summer of 1993, and was all thanks to the “cool” 6th grader living next store. Jonathan had just gotten a Sega Genesis, along with Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and it captivated me. While he and his older friends quickly lost interest and went outside to skateboard in the street, I sat in his room, under the dim glow of the television, mesmerized for hours while I struggled in vain to get past Chemical Zone Act 2. I had never experienced anything like it before. At age five, and the oldest child in the family, I had never before knowingly come into contact with video games. But suddenly I looked up, hours had passed, it was getting dark out, and my mother was shouting out the front door for me to come home. I came home changed that night, and my goal for the rest of 1993 would be to obtain a Sega Genesis of my own. And on Christmas Day ’93, after months of begging and bargaining, I found this under the tree:

original-sega-genesis-sonic-2-video-game-system-complete-in-original-box-rare-3aeadc08f228165202821c4707bad30e

And that’s where it all began. We also got Aladdin that holiday, which turned out to be an excellent platformer in its own right, as well as Clue, which for whatever reason creeped me out as a kid, and NHL Hockey, the very first EA Sports hockey game. Sonic 2 captured my attention more than any of the others (although my first fond multiplayer gaming memories come from NHL Hockey), and soon I was reading and collecting the Sonic the Hedgehog comics, watching the excellent Saturday morning cartoon religiously, and hoarding Sonic toys and plushies. My father even found me a Game Gear set with games and accessories off of a Digital Equipment Corp BBS board for the following Christmas. I couldn’t believe that I could hold these brilliant, colorful games in the palm of my hand (well, both hands), and bring them anywhere i went (as long as there as an outlet nearby). That thing went with me everywhere.

sonic-and-knuckles

Still, this whole vieo game thing could have easily been a fad, like Power Rangers the year before, but then Sonic 3 & Knuckles became a media sensation, showcasing a live reveal event on MTV from Alcatraz Island, appearing on TV game shows like Nick Arcade, and again it pulled me back in. That game (or game combo) would become my first true video game classic, one that I completed dozens of times, whose levels I still have completely memorized. Unlike anything else I had played before, Sonic 3 & Knuckles’ zones told a cohesive story, some having environments that would shift mid-act, and there were even cut-scenes of sorts where the characters would pantomime to express what they were saying or feeling. It captured my imagination completely, and even when I was running around with friends outside, we would act out scenes from the game and “play” through the zones together, from the Floating Island to the Death Egg.

sonic-3-knux2

I started to read game magazines by this point, like EGM, and was becoming aware of the market. I made friends with a kid named John who had built an extensive collection of early SNES, Saturn, PS1, and Sega CD role-playing games, all in pristine condition, which sparked my obsession with collecting as a way to preserve gaming history. Most of these systems had a magical sort of appeal to them, as I so rarely saw these systems in the wild at the time, yet they had these extensive libraries of games with deep worlds and fleshed-out characters.

SuperMarioRPGSNESCoverArtUS

My childhood best friend Jason was a Nintendo nut, and inspired in me a love for Nintendo as well, and by Holiday 1996 I was also the proud owner of a Super Nintendo as well (and copies of Earthbound and Super Mario RPG). There were still few video game retail options in Worcester at the time, so we actually drove all the way to Connecticut to get my Super Nintendo at a Funcoland. That place was like magic to me, but also so fleeting, and so far away.

funco

Then I witnessed Super Mario 64 in a kiosk at Sears. And my jaw instantly dropped. My mind couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. My fingers couldn’t quite figure out the analog stick. But I knew right away that the future was here, and I needed in. I saved up my allowance for a year straight to get my Nintendo 64, which we had to drive to the Toys R Us in Auburn to scoop up. Again, Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time captivated my imagination like nothing before.

smsr4

Shortly afterwards, the biggest gaming obsession of my lifetime, Pokemon, came to Worcester, and I bought Pokemon Red at the local Wal-Mart the very first night it was out. Pokemon would finally come to eclipse Sonic as my favorite franchise of all time, and unlike the Game Gear, my brand new Game Boy Color could actually go with me anywhere. The series turned me into a lifetime collector, and I bought multiple copies of Red, Blue and Yellow just to complete the Pokedex and see my first Pokemon reach level 100 (it was a Wigglytuff!).

250px-Red_EN_boxart    250px-Blue_EN_boxart

And of course it didn’t stop there. Catching the anime on Saturday mornings was an event. Digging up glitches, codes and secrets hidden in Pokemon was what led me to joining my first online forums and bookmarking my first video game sites. It turned me into a Nintendo Power subscriber, after seeing the issue about Pokemon Snap. And of course, I dove into the cards and comics. In my Sonic days, I had to buy the comics off of a rotating magazine rack near the register at our local Shaws. But my middle school friends all told me that if I was looking to get into cards and comics, there was one place I had to go: That’s Entertainment.

admin-ajax

I must have passed this place dozens of times as a kid, but never thought once to walk in. Video games were my obsession, and the superhero characters and figures plastered all over the windows did little to entice me at the time. As a sports card collector, my father had been multiple times before, but I had never joined him. Now, it was my turn to take a look at this place. And holy hell, did it make an impression! The place is like a damn warehouse inside. It seemed like history was hiding around ever corner. But at the time, That’s Entertainment wasn’t in the video game business, so I just got in and got out. That’s Entertainment remained my go-to spot for Pokemon Cards for the next couple years, and thanks to them I amassed a complete set of the Original, the Fossil, Jungle, and Team Rocket sets.

s-l1000

But all of that changed one day, when I went in for another pack, only to come upon a crate of odd-looking, dusty cartridges, marked for $1 each. I asked the store staff about it, and he explained that those were Atari games. I had only previously heard of Atari when my father would talk about the first time he played Pong. They explained that these games ran on the Atari 2600, a game console released in the 1970s!

atari2600ad

Honestly, I had no clue that home consoles went back that far. I had never before really felt nostalgia towards games before, but suddenly I felt this overwhelming urge to dig into the history of this industry that had given so much to me. I asked the staff member if this meant that they were getting into the games business. “Nope, we just bought this system and games this one time, and the system already sold”. Dejected, I wandered the store, and then promptly stumbled upon a coffee book titled “High Score: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games”. It felt like it was meant to be! I spent all the money in my pocket to take it home with me.

High-Score-book

I read that thing cover to cover multiple times, and for the first time in my life, I learned about the Magnavox Odyssey, the Game Crash of 1983, the third-place finisher Turbografx-16, the early CD era with the CD-i and 3DO, the SNES CD that wasn’t, and what came of the Atari Jaguar, Virtual Boy and the Sega 32X. This whole mysterious world suddenly became clear for the first time, like a delicious buffet laid out before me, and I was ready to gorge. Fortunately, That’s Entertainment changed its tune about getting into video games, and by the time I got into High School in 2002, they had become the go-to hub for retro game collecting in Worcester.

20160402_132659

Each visit to the store, I watched as that small cardboard box of Atari games grew into a full shelf of games, consoles and accessories… And then it grew into an entire row, and then eventually encompassed the entire front third of the store. By this point, I was making weekly trips and spending whatever I had at That’s Entertainment to grow my collection. You honestly never knew what you might find! It was a perfect time to jump on the Dreamcast, as prices were falling rapidly, and I got dozens of games and accessories for that platform for under $5 each. I picked up a CIB Atari 5200 there for $40. I got an Atari jaguar  with the Jaguar CD and a copy of Myst for $75. I got my Sega Saturn there, as well as most of my Sega CD collection. I snagged the highly sought-after Dreamcast Broadband Adapter for $50.

Early on, it wasn’t always clear if That’s Entertainment knew what they had when they had it, so it wasn’t uncommon to get insane deals if you did your research and stopped by the store often. Even as they became more refined video game salesfolks over time, their prices remained fair and reasonable for the most part, and I’ve always respected them for that. Even after moving out to Boston in 2012, I’ve made multiple trips back just to check on my old friend where it all began (oh yeah, and maybe to visit my family too). And it’s my great pleasure to take the Retroware Community inside this store today, to take a look at the heart of nerd culture in the “Heart of Massachusetts”. So, without further ado, let’s go!

 

20160402_132629

 

The first thing you’ll see upon your approach is that That’s Entertainment lies on the corner of Park Ave and… Lois Lane. Yes, THAT Lois Lane. How cute! I’m pretty sure that the store lobbied to Worcester to change the street’s name, because I’m pretty sure it wasn’t called that when I was a kid. The outside of the store is decked out in comic book themes, but with a couple exceptions, fails to even hint at the video game collection hiding within. A lot of the window signs are mute and faded too, making the entrance not as immediately eye-catching as something like Sudden Impact. That said, the place reeks of authenticity, the parking lot is always packed,  and you get a good idea just from standing outside that this place is BIG. So, let’s head inside!

20160402_132813

So, this entryway is what you’re greeted with when you first stroll in. And upon closer examination, this hallway does an excellent job of showcasing what That’s Entertainment is all about, before you even enter the store proper. We begin with the extensive collection of books along the left wall with a “take one, leave one” sign posted above it.

20160402_133143

The left wall is also covered with corkboards where local pop culture fandom of all stripes can advertise for their events, plan meetups, and post clippings from local print publications. If you want to know what’s current and coming up in the Central Mass scene, the entryway of That’s Entertainment is actually a good place to start! For instance, who knew that the students of Clark University were putting on a small game/anime fan con? That’s awesome! I hope this exposure helped to make the event a success!

20160402_133027

It also looks like Worcester County has it’s very own ComicCon-style fan convention now – the dramatically-named SUPER MEGAFEST! OMG guys – Burt Reynolds is going to be (was) there! The Man, the Actor, the ICON! I do love me some cheesy, endearing hype. I bet this was a lot of fun to go to, if you’re into retro television stars! [Ok, I cannot figure out for the life of me who the “Wooooooooo!!!!” guy in the bottom-right is… bonus points if you can tell me in the comments.]

20160402_133035

It’s clear from the get-go that That’s Entertainment is as deeply focused on community-building as it is on selling products. Most of us grew up in homes under a generation of parents that had little to no interest in gaming or pop culture and saw them as nothing more than toys, or a childhood fad – or worse, some kind of sin or tool of juvenile deviance. But we’re slowly approaching a time when enthusiasts are starting their own families, and passing their passions onto their children. And That’s Entertainment wants to be a part of that process!

20160402_132836

The hallway heading in is lined with the coloring work of dozens of little ones, each providing their own personal spin on Chandler, “The That’s-E Robot!”

20160402_132957

Some kids even got their own personalized artwork displayed. I liked this one in particular – Super Smash Bros XL5, and it warmed my heart to think that the Smash Bros series is still capturing the imaginations of children, as it did for me with the original entry back in 1999. For the record, this kid also knows who Ristar is, so he or she is pretty much the coolest kid ever. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

That’s Entertainment even had a tray of pamphlets for parents, discussing “how comics and graphic novels can help your kids love to read!”. Growing up, games and comics always had this sense of deviousness associated with them, a refusal of society at large to accept them, value them, or understand them. So, looking around this hallway just shows how far we’ve come from the 1993 Congressional Hearings… We may not be mainstream, but we’re a community now that spans generations. And we’re EVERYWHERE.

20160402_132926

So, as I made my way down the hallway, I passed an open doorway that I’ve passed many times before. That’s Entertainment has a large community play room, where folks meet up to text-run their latest purchases, socialize, and compete via portable console, tabletop game or trading card game. For the latter, That’s Entertainment is part of the Magic competitive circuit, and tournaments and meetups are held here regularly. I just so happened to catch one such meetup in progress! As you can see, That’s E caters to more than parents and children – this particular crowd was almost exclusively college-aged.

 

And then we get to the glass case of rare and intriguing curios. First off, we have some Official Sulu Cologne. Excelsior!

 Next, we’ve got this extremely old “Ninepenny Piece” pamphlet for children from 1839. How the hell did they even happen upon this item? Foxing, indeed! [Ok, bonus points round two: what does “foxing” even mean in this context? I looked it up but couldn’t find a definitive answer.]

20160402_133057

And of course, we have some signed photographs of Molly Ringwald, which have been both PSA and DNA certified, so you know they’re legit! So, now we get it – That’s Entertainment is a place to gather and share your passion for all corners of pop culture, and the assembly of intriguing items are bound to satisfy a collector of any kind, with some items that might make you do a double-take due to both their rarity and oddity. Without further ado, let’s enter this warehouse of dreams!

 … and serious folks, leave your Heelys and Pocket Vapes at home, please and thank you.

20160402_133210

So, remember that little cardboard box of Atari games i mentioned earlier? This is the video game section it transformed into over the past fifteen years. The first aisle is dedicated to portable games on the left, and home console controllers and accessories on the right. Their controller section sports a pretty excellent level of variety, from the Master System arcade stick to the Saturn analog stick “3D” controller, to Dreamcast keyboards for some Typing of the Dead action.


However, about half of this section has changed since my last visit, and sports an impressive selection of third-party reproduction controllers, still in box. I was tempted to snag one of the NES “dog-bone” repros to go with my NES-101.

The selection of portable carts didn’t disappoint either! They had copies of Final Fantasy Legend I – III, as well as Dragon Quest I & II and the “Monsters” spin-off series, inspired by the Pokemon craze at the time.

And boy, do I have memories playing Monster Rancher Battle Card and Pokemon TCG on Game Boy Color! Ranging from $5 to $20 per game, these aren’t steals, but certainly fair and reasonable prices.

While not pictured, there was an entire section dedicated to Game Gear and Lynx games, all at very reasonable prices (almost never over $10). I think the one exception was a copy of Phantasy Star for the Game Gear, which is quite a find! I wasn’t even aware that Phantasy Star made it to a portable platform before PSO.

20160402_133429

This is the view you’re presented with as you dive deeper into the video game section. It’s hard for my eyes not to bug out and attempt to dart in every direction at once. Every last iota of visual space is filled with colorful artifacts of gaming’s past.

20160402_133222

If you look closely, you’ll notice that the walls are even lined with boxed rarities all the way up to the ceiling! Let’s lean in for a closer look… There’s an Arctic Purple N64 ($130), SNES Model 1 ($165), Odyssey 2 with 12 games included ($100), and an NES Action Set, all CIB. I will sy though, what got me positively salivating was the CIB Sega CD Model 1, which includes a Model 1 Genesis and a copy of Sol-Feace… Sadly, $250 is well out of my price range. My Model 2 Sega CD doesn’t fit in the cabinets I store my game systems in, so I’ve been dreaming of obtaining a Model 1 for ages, but today is not my day.

20160402_141122

If you continue to look along the walls and behind the front counter, you’ll discover where the rest of the CIB consoles are hiding. An Xbox One ($299), Xbox Uno-Original-What-Do-You-Even-Call-This-Now-Thanks-Microsoft ($50), a Halo 4 Xbox 360 ($160) and a SEALED Sega Pico (can’t make the price out, but who honestly want the shell out for a Pico?)

And then we’ve got two more CIB NES Action Sets… Hold on, two things. First off, does a Complete NES System now retail for less than a Complete SNES these days? When did this shift occur? Has retro fever finally aged out of the 8-bit generation and moved onto the 16-bit scene? Intriguing… Second off though, what the hell is an Aquarius? I must have over-looked that one while taking these pictures, because for $80, I’m intrigued.

Oh! Look at this thing, it’s cute!

Apparently, the Aquarius was the successor of sorts to Mattel’s Intellivision system, codename “Checkers”, and was Mattel’s attempt to get into the microcomputer home market. Sadly, as it was released in 1983, a year before the second generation of gaming went belly-up, and took Mattel’s electronics division with it. It was also underpowered in comparison to Coleco and Atari computers out at the time. But in it’s short life, it did get ports of a number of popular Intellivision games. I wonder if Snafu ever came out for this little guy…

20160402_135150

If those prices seemed steep, then the non-CIB section may be more your speed. Boasting reasonable prices, That’s Entertainment has the following on offer: NES ($60), SNES ($70), N64 ($60), Wii ($50), Sega Saturn ($60), Xbox Original ($40, and yes, that’s what I’ll call it I guess!), Sega Dreamcast ($40), and Playstation 1 ($20). Again, not a steal, but entirely reasonable, I think.

20160402_134737

Finally, we see the selection of portables on offer. Nothing too surprising here, including the prices: GB Pocket / GB Color ($25), GB Advance ($30) and GB Advance SP ($40). No Game Gear, Lynx, TurboExpress, Neo Geo Pocket or Wonderswan units on offer, unfortunately.

20160402_134042

And now, onto the games! We begin with a surprisingly large selection of CIB Atari 2600 games, sold in  packs of six for the very reasonable price of $15 per pack. Much like the original set of NES games, the first-party Atari classics look excellent as a set on a shelf. And much like the NES library, third parties on the 2600 ruined any hope at cohesiveness by making the boxes all sorts of shapes and sizes, altering font and format, and sometimes not even putting the game’s name on the spine of the box. It’s for this reason that many Atari and NES collectors hunt for CIB sets of all original-style box games. And I can see why!

20160402_134203

Wall of NES games… Musings: Gyromite (anybody looking for a Famicom pin adapter?), Solstice (that game was a bastard, and the weird music haunted my dreams as a kid), Simon’s Quest (for $10, that seems reasonable), Super Mario Bros + Duck Hunt ($5, see!? That’s not bad!), To The Earth (what game is this? The font definitely reminds me of the Earthbound logo), Hydlide (LOL), Dragon Warrior (nice!), Air Fortress (an early Iwata joint, and a damn good game with some stellar music! Played this a ton as a kid).

20160402_134239

Wall of Genesis games… Musings: Ecco (I like how some kid felt the need to cross out “Ecco: The” and “TM”), Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine (best Puyo Pop game ever, FIGHT ME), Jurassic Park: Rampage Edition (underrated classic – you get to tear shit up as a mutated Velociraptor!), Super Hydlide (SUPER LOL), Tiny Toons Adventures: Buster’s Hidden Treasure (better than SNES’s Buster Busts Loose by a MILE – again, FIGHT ME).

 

 Some N64 goodness.Pretty sparse section this time around, but everything they have on display is a gem. Reasonable prices are reasonable ($15-20).

The cream of their Playstation crop…I had no idea that Civilization 2 made it to the PS1… cool! Also, what is Deagonseeds, and why is it worth $45 – ten dollars more then Final Fantasy VII? And holy hell, isn’t that the non-green (“Greatest Hits”) original release of Final Fantasy VII? I thought those were worth a fortune! They’ve really come down in price.

20160402_134938

Okay, now THIS selection of Sega Saturn games caught my eye more than anything else in the store. While Sega Ages was a popular (and plentiful) series in Europe and Japan, you almost never see the versions that came to the States in those huge, bulky jewel cases – hence it being $140, I suppose. To the uninitiated, Sega Ages was a collection of Master System, Arcade, and Genesis games lovingly emulated and cleaned up by the excellent retro remaster houses D3 and M2. The first came to the Saturn in all territories, followed by a Phantasy Star Ages collection for the Japanese Saturn (I spotted this when I was in Nakano Broadway in Tokyo and didn’t bite), and later a series of collections on the Japanese PS2 called “Ages 2500” that offered remasters of the originals as well as complete 3D remakes of these classic Sega titles. M2 went on to create the much-lauded Sega 3D Classics series on the Nintendo 3DS. It was thrilling just to see in person where that all began!

Also, who knew that Warcraft II got a console port!? I suppose it makes sense – Sony got Diablo, Nintendo got Starcraft, so Sega got Warcraft. Sadly, unlike Starcraft 64, this is one player only. Still, I was so close to picking that one up. $40 seemed completely fair.And I’m sure the sight of Street Fighter Collection and mega Man X4 for Saturn would make any Sega / Capcom fan weep. I didn’t know that either of these came to Saturn. I apparently need to dig deeper into this quirky console’s catalogue!

20160402_133833

 As I made my way further back into the store, through an aisle filled with a hude colelction of DVDs and Blu-Rays, as well as game-related collectibles, pop figures, Pokemon Trainer hats from various generations, etc., I stumbled upon this box of old Nintendo Power magazines from the early ’90s, and it was a treat flipping through some of these. My heart would leap each time I’d see one of these poking out of my mailbox back in the day. It became such a ritual that I refused to kill my subscription off until a ways into the Gamecube era.

 20160402_140145

So, did I mention that That’s Entertainment is huge, and that there’s more to it than just video games? If you’re a retro comics fan, then welcome to your new favorite shop! The selection of comics and graphic novels on offer is dizzying, and it easily take you an entire afternoon to pour over it all.
20160402_140423

The entire back of the store is dedicated to this particular niche of pop culture. I can’t even do these wide shots justice by attempting to sum them up. Pour over them yourself, and just try and imagine how many treasures are hidden here.

The center of the store is dedicated to two pursuits: collectible cards and music. Based on the arrangement of the cards section, I couldn’t get a good shot, but this aisle was entirely focused on Magic and Pokemon.

20160402_140223

An entire extra aisle is hiding up and over on the right, dedicated to sports cards and other related memorabilia, such as historical photographs, signed items, and even a bench from the original Boston Garden. This is the wing of the store that my Dad would beeline to when I was a kid.

20160402_140047

And then here’s the music – or more specifically, the vinyl. You’re unlikely to find anything on compact disc or cassette here, but the vinyl collection is eclectic and exciting, a toss-up between legendary classics and contemporary hipsters, with little uninteresting junk in between. Unlike a place like Cheapo Records in Central Square, That’s Entertainment clearly curates their collection to maximize your enjoyment (and likelihood to make a purchase) while flipping through it.

20160402_140454

And we certainly couldn’t forget the Tabeltop Gaming scene, could we? There’s a small but densely-packed section of games in the very back. I won’t say much here, because I personally do very little Tabletop Gaming, but I’m glad this niche is represented here like all the others, even if it does skew a bit towards mainstream hobbyists (with at least six versions of Catan, and at least three versions of Ticket to Ride). Hold on… is that a Mega Man tabletop game tucked in there? Holy shit! What?Please do a little research and tell me how that one’s played, and you might get me to the table. Fun fact: this section used to be where they dumped their shrinking collection of VHS tapes, and it’s where I snagged my copy of The Wizard (“Caaaaaaalifooornia”).

20160402_140110

And finally, MERCH! There’s merch freaking everywhere in this store. If you’re a fan of pretty much anything, That’s Entertainment probably has collectibles for sale for that thing. Heck, if you just love That’s Entertainment after reading this, they sell mugs of their own!

20160402_140005

To bring it all full-circle, That’s Entertainment helps to instill a sense in you that there’s personality, character, and culture not only in this store, but in the city where it resides. Worcester actually is the home of Harvey Ball, the man who invented the iconic yellow “Smiley Face” in the 1970s. Even during Worcester’s decline in the 70s and 80s, it had one hell of a music scene. I’m not sure where the exact phrase “Paris of the Eighties” comes from, but I think it may in part be related to that. I was two and change when the eighties ended – ask my parents! Regardless, those shits are extremely popular, and you see people wearign them all over town. And finally, how could we forget Turtle Boy!? “It’s A Worcester Landmark”, because of course it is.

__________________________________________________________________________________

And that’s a wrap, folks! Another Brick & Mortar in the bag. This one was a passion project of mine between the two articles clocking in at over 6000 words, but it’s a story I wanted to tell, and a store that means the world to me and helped transform me into the retro gaming enthusiast that I am today.

As I mentioned in the intro, a WordPress glitch took this entire article out at about 75% completion two weeks ago, so I took a cycle off to recharge, clear my head, and give it another go. There was a time when it looked like this might just never get written, and I was tempted to just move onto my next topic, but I wanted to see this through – for you, my dear readers, and also for myself. And here we are! Thank you so much for reading along, and join me next time as I dive into the biggest gaming event on the eastern seaboard – PAX East!