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Power up: Calgary retro video game retailer hits reset button with larger store

When asked if he remembered the Super Nintendo game Aerobiz, Calgary video game store owner Jeff McNair said of course he did.

“And then its sequel, Aerobiz Supersonic,” he said.

McNair said people will often try to stump him when they ask for obscure video game titles from the cartridge years gone by.

It’s a good bet he knows them. An even better bet he has them. Probably multiple copies, too.

McNair and his wife, Heather, own the Video Game Trader stores in Calgary – one on Centre Street North and one in Forest Lawn. The 1,000 square foot Forest Lawn location launched with the original owners in 1991 and Centre Street North was added in 1994.

They just announced they’re unplugging the consoles at the original Forest Lawn location and opening up a 4,000 square-foot location in Lake Bonavista.

McNair cited immense city growth in the south and both locations were near the centre / north parts of the city. He said traffic is challenging around the Centre Street North location and ongoing construction and the limited space in Forest Lawn necessitated the change.

He said the previous owners opened a south store near Chinook Centre that he remembers lasting from the late 1990s into the early 2000s.

“There’s been a demand for a long time for a location in the south,” he said.

“There’s been a giant void in the market for those people to satisfy the need for the kind of gaming that we offer, which is primarily a retro-focused business.”

The new location will likely be Canada’s largest dedicated video game store, McNair said. He added that most of the video game resellers have focused the vast majority of their business on merchandise and less on the games and don’t have the same focus on the past gaming consoles.

According to a 2017 report by Newzoo, a gaming market intelligence firm, there were more than 2.2 billion gamers across the world, generating more than $108 billion in revenue, with roughly 94 per cent of that spent digitally (online).

So, in an increasingly digital world, where gamers don’t have to leave the comfort of their couch to play the latest games like Call of Duty, Fortnite and others, why is McNair quadrupling the size of one of his locations?

McNair said the demand is there for people looking to reach back in time to console days gone by. BRODIE THOMAS / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

One word. Demand.

McNair said the more he sees modern gaming going digital, the more he sees consumers pushing back.

He used the example of Cuphead, a Canadian-made game that was released only on the PC and only on Xbox One and only digitally.

“People were outraged that they couldn’t buy it,” he said, noting that another independent game release called Sonic Mania (from the original Sonic the Hedgehog franchise), originally came out only digitally.

Roughly a year later, after backlash from the gaming public, they released a physical copy of the game, McNair said.

“People want to have and own these games. They want to be sold complete games; they don’t want to be sold a digital game that you have to update for two hours and pay for DLCs (downloadable content).”

He said as the gaming companies try to digitize everything and monetize all aspects of gaming, the generation with the disposable income and the nostalgia of feeding cartridges into a console are rejecting it on a larger scale.

“They grew up in the cartridge era where you would get your game and you would purchase that and you would have that game and you would get hours of entertainment out of that game without having to go and buy an additional cartridge,” McNair said.

But the nostalgia is for real. Sony just announced a miniature version of the original PlayStation, called the PlayStation Classic. It’s pre-loaded with 20 classic games. It follows in the footsteps of Nintendo, which launched a similar Nintendo classic in 2016. It was stopped despite being very popular, but apparently plans are underway to re-launch the mini-console.

Ninety per cent of McNair’s business is video games.

Video games are 90 per cent of McNair’s business. BRODIE THOMAS / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

The other 10 per cent is movies. (Yep, movies. He’s said the same principle applies.) Eighty per cent of the gaming business is retro games.

Whether it’s collectors eyeing up a $3,000 rare copy of Aero Fighters (with the accompanying poster) or Gen-Xers looking to relive glory days of racking Super Mario Bros., people are craving that gaming life without strings attached.

And there’s a trickle-down effect, too. When mom or dad wants to power up the Sega Genesis they often do so with the kids. McNair said just this weekend he had a youngster in picking out Nintendo games to play with his dad.

“There’s just something so cool about it, that tactile-ness. Holding that plastic cartridge, seeing that artwork and blowing on the cartridge – all of that stuff is part of it,” he said.

He likened it to music today and the resurgence of vinyl records.

“Vinyl’s probably the most inconvenient way to listen to music. But the reason people love it is because it’s tactile experience, you’re connected to the experience,” he said.

“It’s not like you click on Spotify and go, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ You just tune out. You’re not connected to the experience.”

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The store has lots of original consoles for sale – some in the box they came in. He said if it’s a home video console, they probably have it.

The retro-gaming industry goes in cycles, McNair said. Right now, for example, they’re in a period where Nintendo 64 is popular.

“Kids that grew up playing those things are now in their 20s, they have jobs and they want to reach back to those games,” he said.

McNair said it’s a steady, if not growing, business. His clientele varies from the hard core collectors, to nostalgia seekers, to moms and dads looking for a piece to the Wii, or people looking to stave off boredom on a long flight who pick up a Nintendo DS.

And now it’s time to grow.

Plans are already underway for the move and the switch to the Lake Bonavista Promenade should happen this winter.

To stay on top of the progress, you can visit Video Game Trader on Facebook.