An Ode to Toys R Us

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“I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid
they got a million toys at Toys R us that I can play with
I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid
they got the best for so much less, it’ll really flip your lid
From bikes to trains to video games
it’s the biggest toy store there is (gee whiz!)
I don’t wanna grow up, cause maybe if I did
I couldn’t be a Toys R Us kid
more games, more toys, oh boy!
I wanna be a Toys R Us kid”

As a kid growing up in the 80s and early 90s, I knew the jingle like many of my friends. The commercials blanketed Saturday morning cartoons, and after trips to the mall (remember when those used to be popular, along with mall arcades?) my parents would take us to Toys R Us.

It was a magical place for an 9 year old. It had basically everything you could ever want. You first walked into a maze of filler (even 9 year olds knew the real toys were in back) and then reached the back aisles. For me and my brother, we would go straight to the Nintendo aisle, which was essentially a bunch of pictures of various nintendo games all the way down the aisle along with a ticket you would have to pick if you wanted to take the front to buy. My brother and I would pool our money. If we had 20 bucks each, we would magically spend $40 on one game. If we had $10, we would get a $19 game, and so on. There were games of many price points for a broke kid to choose. The selections were limitless. Kmart didn’t have it. Walmart didn’t have it. K-B Toys certainly didn’t have it.

When it came to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe, Toys R Us was the joint. It had to display the largest assortment of action figures and vehicles. It didn’t matter what wave it came in. Searching wasn’t required. It was a one stop toy wonderland.

Sometimes, my budget was only $3.15, only enough to cover a G.I. Joe plus tax (I had the largest collection in my grade). I would browse for 30 minutes all the toys I could never buy from all the commercials I saw. Ghostbusters. M.A.S.K. Thundercats. He-Man. Whatever. I didn’t know what the hype was with Star Wars. To me, I found it strange my friend’s older siblings used to collect them, kept pristine in the packaging. For a 9 year old, this was blasphemy. My toys were always opened during the ride home in the car.

We moved to Germany after elementary school, so I never again visited a Toys R Us until I became a parent. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw a commercial again with the jingle stuck in my mind. My kids watch Netflix. There are no commercial jingles to seep into their consciousness. They certainly know the McDonald arches, but Toys R Us, I don’t think they’ve ever asked. It’s a place they go to see a giraffe sometimes and do a lego demonstration.

This is the inherent problem with their business model. It’s outdated.

Sandwiched between Target and Walmart, which cleaner and newer stores, and online delivery with Amazon, Toys R Us is in a pricing vortex of hell. They simply can’t compete on price while supplying enough cash flow to pay off debt. Some blame Vornado Realty Trust and Bain Capital and KKR and the debt load saddled on Toys R Us. I say perhaps. Take one look at K-Mart, and you can see what happens when you don’t win on price and invest very little into your locations. It’s a branding death spiral.

I’ve been to Toys R Us a few times in the last couple years, and in my opinion, it was clear bankruptcy was inevitable. The parking lots were often crumbling. The facade and paint was worn. When you walk inside, there was the same maze of worthless stuff when you entered, except now, to get to the video games it was usually near the cash wraps. The Lego aisle was always the best of any store (even THE Lego store), the board game section had every expansion known to man, and Star Wars had every variant. The prices always seemed above retail so their promotions would seem like a deal (Buy one get one 50% off isn’t a deal when Walmart already sells it for 40% off all year around). Amazon ships faster and has a larger selection and a return policy where you don’t have to look at an employee to get a refund. Who returns their kid’s toys?

Despite the nostalgia, I was guilty of almost never buying from Toys R Us unless I was exploiting a price mistake or flipping some rare exclusive, despite having the funds to do so. Even for a measly $5, I would simply have my kid wait and buy something online, sometimes right there in the store.

The only hope was store exclusives (which got destroyed by resellers simply clearing the shelf and adding it to Amazon’s inventory) and a better customer experience (toy demonstrations and the giraffe (which will be missed). As for more knowledgeable customer service, I would admit, Walmart toy people are really shelf stockers who can’t tell you anything about anything and seemed angry to be there. Target toy people are really teenage employees in the electronics section spending their time hitting on their coworkers. Amazon, well, you’ll get a customer service rep from India. Toys R Us actually had knowledgeable people in most of the store, and some are downright kids that took the song to heart. One time, I bought a video game at 9pm and didn’t leave until 9:20pm because the guy who rang me up talked about the upcoming Nintendo Switch launch and said he stayed up all night to watch the launch and spouted off all the advantages and reasons why it would be huge. This compares to a visit at Game Stop the same month, where a customer came in, and I heard the guru behind the counter saying the switch would fail like the PS Vita (If you are under 28 and working at Gamestop, you don’t realize the purchasing power of the Nintendo generation). Clearly, my sample size is small, but generally speaking, Gamestop hires assholes paid to lowball people on trade-ins and Toys R Us hires people spending their day in a toy store where a lot of children come in (exception: Toys R Us Managers always tended to be assholes for just about any issue).

What did we lose? Really nothing I suppose. The business model is long broken. The only thing that can’t be replaced is customer experience and having a place ours kids can go if they get good grades on a report card. Everything else, parents can fill in for. We can actually play with our kids and show excitement with the toy, not just forking over cash in the store. We can take them to a Lego convention instead of seeing the Giraffe to build 50 cents worth of legos to a “Batman car.” We can pick up another controller and play with them the video game they want. For experts, we can read blogs and watch youtube  toy reviews. One nostalgic experience can be replaced with something newer, and hopefully better for the next generation.

And we can all still pay the lowest damn price possible. May the best retailer win.

Travel Blog (Traders Village, San Antonio, TX)

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If you have never been to Texas, you have not quite experienced the pride that the people here get by doing everything bigger. This was my first visit to Trader’s Village, and it was one of the largest flea markets I’ve ever been to. The place has so many shops and booths that you might not have the time see everything you wanted. I know I sure didn’t.IMG_1358.jpeg

Almost everything is covered in shed type booths. There are carnivals rides in the “arcade” and food venders, which all seemed to be doing more business than many of the venders. I talked to one owner of a baseball card and action figure themed shop, and he said the rain keeps customers away if the morning looks bad. He pays around $260 a month to keep his shed and seems to be pretty happy with his cash business. His business plan centers of “keeping customers back” by pricing everything for $1, even if he knows he could sell it for $10, so that people check his place first week to week and he can build a customer base weekend after weekend. I nicknamed him the Sam Walton of the Flea Market.

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Do you want to buy some birds? There are plenty to buy for cheap. Cages. Food. Why go to Petsmart when you can go to a flea market? Um …

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I was pretty impressed with some of the booths. This booth specialized in toys and games and most of it was stuff you can’t find in stores anymore. Maybe 60% was still new in the package and the prices varied. I’m not an expert on prices of newer toys, but it seems they were all priced for collectors to buy. I looked for the owner, and he wasn’t even in the shop. He was chilling 50 feet away at a seating area just watching his place from afar.

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And there I was, the reason why I came here. I’ve been searching for an original nintendo, but wanted to find one on the cheap with perhaps a stack of games. I visited one impressive shop and it seemed to specialize in everything electronic. He had gaming systems of all kinds: Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Gamecube, Playstation, Wii, XBOX, and even a few Atari systems. I got straight to the point and asked about the Nintendo in the box, and the owner (who said he’d been doing this since 1990) said he wanted $200 for it. Holy crap. This is beyond even ebay pricing. Okay. He saw the shock on my face, and said he also had two “new in the box’ Nintendos. How much did he want for them? $2000.

I rolled my eyes and now understood why his shed was filled with stuff, all the way to the ceiling as you can see. He had nintendo games, supernintendo games, and Nintendo 64 games in glass cases along with maybe a couple thousand playstation/xbox games for each system. I asked how much the games were, and he told me “depends on the game.” God damn. Where the hell was I? His business model is to actually eye each customer and play the negotiation game with each person?  I had $300 in my pocket ready to outfit my game room, but he lost me with this gimmicks. I didn’t feel like negotiating him down from $60 he probably wanted for the original Super Mario, down to the $5 you can get it for on ebay. He probably feels people will believe it’s a win-win to get it for $30 after he haggles you to death. He did point me to a nintendo (console only) that was slightly cracked, for $80. I walked out around 2 minutes after.

This was my experience with many of the shops: Gem shops, antique shops, comic book shops, book shops … even used baby strollers were priced at $100. This is absolutely ludicrous.

We left after spending a $4 for parking and $2 for a slushie for the kid.

 

 

 

Game Reviews: Techmo Bowl (NES)

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It didn’t get more real that this in 1989 in which Techmo Bowl, the first NFLPA licensed game, was released. This was around the same time I began rooting for my team, the Washington Redskins.

Except in this game, I separated loyalty from awesomeness and seldom played with them.

Out of the 12 teams, there was only two real choices in a game that offered two pass plays and two run plays each time, in which I would only use master half of them: The off-tackle run, and the all go pass.

The team I would pick would be the Chicago Bears. Why? Because it had the best player in the game, Walter Payton. He was fast as hell and could rarely be stopped. If he got out in the open, watch out because he was going to take it to the house (and make a ton of players miss) For the pass play, I would roll back and off to the side and throw a bomb down the sideline every time, without seeing the receiver at all. The game had this little highlighted flag at the edge of the screen that told you approximately where the receiver was and you had to have faith to let your players make a play.

That’s what playmakers do.

On the season mode, I would beat it pretty easily. I think I beat the game with half the teams, including the Washington Redskins just to see if I could do it.

The real rivalry, was when I played my father. He used the only team that could really rival the Bears, the Raiders. You see, if you couldn’t play Techmo Bowl with Walter Payton, you would play with Bo Jackson. He was fast a hell too.

I don’t remember the final tally of who won the most. Most of the games would come down to the final possession, or one rare interception from one of my throws … because I’m sure even my father figured out that I ran only two plays in my offensive playbook. It was essentially a 50/50 guess each time.

It was awesome and fun, and I hope to find another copy of it someday.

SEE ANOTHER NES GAME REVIEW

 

Game Reviews: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)

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This was the second game I ever beat on the Nintendo. Well, when I say “I” that means it was really a group effort. You see, this was a game that took a little time to beat. One couldn’t merely load a checkpoint and continue from a previous day. Nope, back in those days we had to blow on our cartridge, stick in the game, and hope for the best.

Some things in life don’t change.

The game was famous for allowing players to switch between Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo. If you lost one in combat, you would start the stage over, less one turtle, but no matter, you could rescue them during certain stages (I believe the long stage 3 come is the first opportunity).

Back to the group effort. You see, I was pretty good at the first couple stages. We had this thing where my brother and I would test to see if we could beat the swim stage without getting hit once. This proved pretty easy. Then we would test if we could beat it on a single breath without getting hit, and we never could. I dare you to try. It wasn’t until stage 3 that we had some difficulty.

This is because of the fucking scrolls.

I looked online for some pictures of a turtle actually throwing one of these weapons of mass foot soldier destruction, but couldn’t find one in 10 minutes of searching. You see, the scrolls were the only weapon that could beat Shredder, so my brother and I loaded each turtle with the max (I think 99).

Then, this is where the plot thickens, because the biggest gamer in the house happened to be my father, who actually seemed to play this game more than us. So on stage 4, we would hand the controller to our father, who had come the closest to beating the game on a random Saturday.

The goal was simple.

We wanted to beat the game as a family. So over and over, my brother and I were essentially tricked to becoming my father’s scroll mules as we essentially became his restart button. I can’t blame him, this is what I would do today if there was no save function. Just truck the kid that it was a quest together, and they would do the hard work getting the turtles prepped for the harder stages to come.

In any case, I still remember each time “we” would descend down to Shredders lair, which was the most boobytrapped place since King Tut’s tomb. The walls would collapse in with spikes and there was this maneuver where you had to drop three levels just in time. If you lost a turtle, you were fucked, because you needed four turtles to beat Shredder.

This is where my father came in. He had a certain sense of timing. So on the day of reckoning, my brother and I watched as he made the drop and we finally saw Shredder for the first time. My father then unleashed a shitload of scrolls on him, in a deadly battle of wills. My father didn’t have the full compliment of scrolls, but he had enough to win, in which we all jumped in gamer glory.

Then the hard part happened. My brother and I wanted to beat it by ourselves and never could. We tried and tried but always hit a wall (pun intended).

I’m sure there was some gamer trick to it, but eventually, we reached the conclusion that my father and the secret touch. So whenever the time was at hand, we would give the controller to our father, or run outside and tell him to stop mowing the lawn, because we were near the end of stage 6. He would stop whatever he was doing and pull the miracle.

I forget how many times we beat the game, maybe 7 to 10 times or so, but I’ll never forget the father would answer the call to arms.

MY REVIEW ON A SNES CLASSIC

Game Reviews: ActRaiser (SNES)

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I got this game as a christmas gift. When I opened it, I said, “Cool, another Super Nintendo game to try out.” I thanked my Uncle and went on to play Super Mario World for the next week. To me, that is why I wanted the system in the first place. You see, Mario had this new sidekick Yoshi that he could ride … well, I digress.

Eventually I got to ActRaiser, and at first, maybe due to my age, I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. I mean, I would play a stage, and then it would give me some Tinkerbell type angel to help build a city.

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I didn’t know what the hell I was doing for the longest time, mostly because the game was brand new and my friends didn’t even have it (back in the day, most of the key gamer “tips” came on the bus ride to school in the morning and after). Without a key gamer support system, I went out and learned the game by myself, eventually, beating the whole thing. It was a game that could be saved, so there was little problem taking the slow approach. Someone mentioned on my Sim City blog that this was the first simulation they played, and to me, this was more of a mix-sim. There was some city building, but the options were mostly where to build the next section of town.

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I still remember attacking the fucker from above. He was like a swamp-gargoyle. Like every stage boss, he had a trick to beat him. To beat this particular foe, was to realize he acted like some programmed robot (for some strange reason) and just jumped up and down and then to the other side to slowly shoot fireballs at you. All I had to do was sit on the edge of the ledge and hack him down.

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My favorite stage was the snow stage. The big boss was this cosmic snow dragon who could be beat fairly easily (I think just hitting the attack button to get multiple hits on it everytime it swooped down did the trick).

Eventually, after you vanquished all the mini-bosses and build a town on the entire continent, it was time for the final challenge. You attacked some alien big boss with an “enemy” power bar that seemed to take up most of the screen. It was brief and exciting, but seldom did I want to play the big boss again. I would go back and play the snow dragon, possibly foreshadowing my love for Game of Thrones 25 years later.

CHECK OUT MY REVIEW ON A FULL SIM GAME

Game Reviews: Sim City (SNES)

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I remember my first time witnessing the madness that is Sim City. I was spending the night at a friends house and the teenage babysitter basically ignored us as she stared at the screen and built a city. I walked up and smoothly asked a question on what I was witnessing.

Me: What’s the game?

Babysitter: What?

Me: What are you playing?

Babysitter: (with disdain of speaking to a boy 4 years younger) Sim City

Me: Cool. What are you doing?

Babysitter: Building roads.

Me: Why are you building so many roads?

Babysitter: Kid, go get a sliced of pizza and chill.

Me: Ok.

This was my whirlwind introduction to Sim City. I was like 10 years old and a high school freshman chick with a rack was building shit and making stuff happen and looking cool doing it. I would sneak downstairs and get peaks at her city throughout the night until she would pass out on the couch with a controller on her chest, and the city would continue to grow. I was amazed as this “manager of the year” and put Sim City on my Christmas wish list.

It was my first simulation game. With the help of leaving on my super nintendo all night long, I would build grand cities of infinite funds and learn the basic concept of city management (My mother many times crushed many hours of work by “accidentally” turning off the Super Nintendo, thinking it was left on inadvertently). Early on in my Sim City education, I would wake up and check on my city and find half of it burned down. Fuck. The next day, I would discover half the city without power. Fuck. Sim City7.jpg

Slowly but surely, I learned the principles of city management and eventually created masterworks. If there was such a thing as utopia, I built it when I was 10. Yes, I burned down 50 cities in the process, but it’s no matter, I became a city building boss that could impress a girl 4 years my senior. I even did the strange peculiar things like bulldozing all the roads in my city and replacing it with a rail system and ensuring everyone was in walking distance of a nice park. Because, you know, that’s what we wall want, right?

Eventually, I was ready to show off my city building skills and made plans to impress the babysitter. It took longer than I expected, but a few months later I went over to my friends house to spend the night again, but was disappointedly welcomed by his mother baking cookies.

The babysitter must have been in another castle.

I was a master builder of cities and my only reward was chocolate chip cookies.

Sim City, damn you.

READ ABOUT THE DAY I BOUGHT THE XBOX 360

 

Game Reviews: Contra (NES)

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For those of you born after 1990, you do not know the awesome that is known as Contra. This was the game where you could enter the secret thirty-man code (up up, down down, left right left right, B, A, start!) and boom, you and your buddy would run the through the game blasting the enemy as if you were invincible.

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And do you remember the S-gun? Spreading red balls of glory to an enemy near you. It was glorious and epic and deadly. I don’t remember how many times I beat the game without the thirty-man code, but it doesn’t matter now, does it? It was the coolest feeling you could have without having a damn game genie.

I played this game with friends whenever they came over. The coolest thing you could do to help a bro out was to lend them a life. To ask, “Can I borrow a life” was like “Shit man, I suck.”

I don’t know how many times I beat it, but I think I want to beat it one more time. It is time to search ebay and score myself a great copy.

Classic Game rating: 9/10

CHECK OUT MY STORY ON BUYING THE XBOX 360