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.

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