Yesterday I read the news that Toys R Us is going to liquidate entirely rather than restructure debt meaning that the last national toy chain in the US is shuttering its doors for good. Over the years I witnessed the closures of Children’s Palace, K.B. Toys, and FAO Schwarz, and although I was dissatisfied or saddened by the news of each closure, none of them came remotely close to the anguish felt with the news of the demise of Toys R Us. To me this was less a store than a cultural institution and it feels as if a piece of our society is dying as well. My kids will never know the simple joy of going to the toy store and excitedly running down the aisles able to choose a reward for a good report card, as an added birthday present, or as a special occasion. My eulogy in mourning of the death of this once ubiquitous chain is to present my all time favorite Toys R Us memories.
In May of 1992 the NES was clearly fading out of the mainstream as the 16 bit Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis were taking hold, but I hadn’t realized it yet. Instead I had been gifted enough money from my recent birthday to choose an NES game and in my mind there was only one choice. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project had been recently released and as a huge TMNT fan and someone who loved the first Turtles sequel, picking up this game was a no-brainer. On a Friday afternoon after school my mom took me to our local Toys R Us so that I could pick up the Turtles NES swan song.
The process was always the same. First you would go to the video game department and find your game. Once I saw the box art on the shelf the decision was cemented in my mind as my mother asked me “are you sure?” Of course I was sure. Just take a look at that pissed off and determined Raphael looking resolute as ever to grind his way through another foot soldier stomping outing. The next step was to tear a ticket off underneath the box art and bring that to the cash register where a cashier would ring up your purchase. Afterwards you would take the receipt to a service desk near the exit where a staff member would retrieve the game from a back storage room.
The clerk at our service desk was a “lady”, probably 17 or 18 at the time but a mature adult as far as an 8 year old is concerned. When I presented her with the game purchase she provided me with affirmation of a great selection. It turns out she was a TMNT fan herself and she waxed on about how much she enjoyed this game and the franchise as a whole. Atypically this had me talking with her as I was usually quite reserved. Eventually she asked me the pervasive Turtle question: “who is your favorite turtle?” It took milliseconds for me to respond with the only real answer; “Raphael.” “Oh I like Michelangelo” was her response. Immediately I didn’t know what to say to this woman anymore. In my mind, people who liked Michelangelo the best were simpletons, goofballs, rabble-rousers, or otherwise intellectually inferior. Michelangelo was a doofus! How could he be your favorite?
Fortunately her colleague had emerged from the stock room with the title and I no longer had to converse. I had the game in my hands and we waved goodbye as my mother and I exited through the automatic doors. I had no way of realizing it at the time, but this was the last brand new NES game I would ever purchase or hold. At the end of 1992 I would receive a SEGA Genesis and the NES would be relegated to second tier status in our household.
In December of 1996 I had a difficult decision to make. The 16 bit era of video games had clearly passed by and the future was in 3D gaming. I had been given the green light to choose a new video game console for Christmas of 1996 without restrictions of any kind. As an adult such a choice seems somewhat arbitrary or minimal. In a worst case scenario where there are great console exclusives that you want to play which are only available for the game system you did not choose, you would simply pick up the other console and hook them both up to your TV. As a kid in the 90’s having multiple consoles in the household was an extreme aberration reserved typically for the wealthy or the households in which parents were also gamers. My parents never picked up a controller and we lived in the epicenter of middle class blue collared suburbia so whichever console I chose I would need to live with for the next four to five years.
Every day after school I would grab a copy of the 1996 Toys R Us Christmas Book that was mailed to our house and pour over the images within. There was a triple threat match going on for the living rooms of gamers throughout the world between the Nintendo 64, Sony PlayStation, and SEGA Genesis. Nintendo of course was often synonymous with video games themselves and was making headlines across the country with their newly released Nintendo 64 which was in short supply and creating a retail frenzy. Sony was new to the video game scene but its PlayStation console looked to be a strong contender and had been gathering momentum since its North American release in 1995. SEGA had made a huge splash with the Genesis but seemed to have lost customer confidence with several snafus leading up to the Saturn.
Despite having a Genesis and being a hardcore SEGA fan in the early to mid 90’s, the Saturn was never even considered. I had narrowed down my choice to the Nintendo 64 or the Sony PlayStation. The battle see-sawed back and forth in my mind for weeks. As I pulled the Toys R Us catalog out and stared at the pages a plethora of conflicting thoughts would race through my mind. Nintendo 64 was advertised as being a 64 bit game console while Sony’s PlayStation was 32 bit. That meant N64 was automatically twice as good right? However Sony’s console seemed so modern with the use of CD’s and the stylish looking controller while the N64 seemed somewhat dated with its use of cartridges. One of the considerations, and ultimately a deciding factor was that we did not have a CD player in our household. In December 1996 we were still using audio cassettes or in my parents case vinyl records. The inclusion of a CD player in Sony’s console meant that we could finally upgrade to digital audio. Ultimately that was the choice that I made.
I would then use my grass cutting cash in the summer of 1997 to purchase an N64. So much for the lasting impact of my decision.
As soon as I purchased my N64 in the summer of 1997 I continued to read article after article in the gaming press about the impeding release of The Legend of Zelda 64. Originally intended for the 64DD the game was being transitioned into a cartridge only release and the magazines seemed to believe it was going to be the best game since Super Mario 64, probably even eclipsing it. At that point I had never played a Zelda game. I didn’t own any of them, and neither did any of my friends which is honestly very surprising when I sit back and think about it. It was a phenomenon that I had somehow entirely missed. Aside from seeing the cartoon show on Friday’s in lieu of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show my exposure to the Zelda franchise was virtually nil. Yet I still managed to get sucked into the hype and by the summer of 1998 I was preparing for the impending release.
Now christened The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, it was announced that gamers who pre-ordered their copy would receive a limited edition gold cartridge instead of the standard release grey. I only needed to know when pre-orders would be available. Our household was still without a PC or the internet so I was entirely reliant on newspaper and direct mail ads. Fortunately Toys R Us released an ad announcing the promotion and the exact date that pre-orders would be taken, which was about a month before the game’s release on November 23, 1998.
I still recall eagerly pacing after school as I waited for my mom to get home from work to take me to the Toys R Us on day one of pre-ordering to reserve my copy. I had fears of arriving too late. After all this was going to be the game of the year… nay, the MILLENNIUM! Surely people were rushing to Toys R Us as I sat and waited, snatching up all of the pre-orders and I would be left in the dust. When mom finally came home and picked me up I was in full blown panic mode.
Once we rolled into the parking lot I quickly exited the vehicle and walked at a feverish pace towards the doors. I turned the corner to the video game section and frantically scanned the shelves for the Zelda pre-orders. They had dozens of them. In fact, I’d be surprised if I wasn’t the first one that day to pick up a pre-order ticket. I immediately felt a great sense of relief as I snatched the paper and paid my $10 deposit towards the game.
On November 23, 1998 when my mom again took me to Toys R Us to pick up the eagerly awaited title I was elated. I spent the drive home in the passenger’s seat thumbing through the instruction manual and reading the description on the back of the box. Of course as soon as we got home my mom opened the car door and our idiot dog jumped in and stepped on the box. Damaged before I ever got it into the house. Enraged would be an understatement but the damage to the box was minimal and serves as a reminder of the journey.
Toys R Us would direct mail me a few years later to pre-order my copy of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, obviously keeping my information in a database. Again Toys R Us was my go to place for a Zelda game as I pre-ordered Majora’s Mask to get the special holographic label, although I did pass on their special offer to buy a gold Nintendo 64 controller along with the game. Looking back I kind of wish I got that controller.
In the early 2000’s when the hype of The Phantom Menace faded (and the subsequent backlash began) modern Star Wars toy collecting seemed to fade from the mainstream and was only continued by the dedicated enthusiasts. Although several were lured in with the relaunch of the Power of the Force action figure line in 1995, the glut of toys from The Phantom Menace combined with the relative poor quality of the film itself left several fans disillusioned with the hobby. Oddly enough, this was when my collecting became the most intense. Perhaps its because I was at an age where I could finally drive and had some expendable income, or perhaps its because I made a vow only to buy merchandise based on the original Star Wars trilogy. Whatever the reason I spent countless evenings and weekends searching for the latest Power of the Jedi toys before the 2002 release of Attack of the Clones.
One of my favorite acquisitions was the 2001 Tie Interceptor which was a Toys R Us exclusive. I had been reading about the impending release of the vehicle on the internet through a now defunct website called collectstarwars.com and couldn’t wait to bring one home. It came bundled with a Tie Fighter pilot figure with better articulation than the standard release and featured sculpted details on the wings as opposed to the printed decals of the vintage vehicle.
Expecting a long hunt, I was pleasantly surprised when the first Toys R Us I walked into had a nicely stacked floor display of them featured prominently in the action figure aisle. Finding other store exclusive releases seemed akin to going on an expedition for a biblical relic. Needless to say I was very impressed and satisfied with Toys R Us for making this purchase so easy. While I was there I also picked up a 300th Limited Edition Boba Fett figure and came close to buying a 12″ exclusive Sandtrooper on Dewback. The store was loaded with dozens of the latter which commanded the princely sum of $79.99. I passed that day and picked one up in a damaged box about a year later for a quarter of the price which was far easier to absorb.
These represent but a fraction of the memories I have of shopping at Toys R Us through the years. I could also add anecdotes about the first Jakks Bone Crunching WWF Figures that I picked up with a friend of mine at a Toys R Us, the first time I saw WCW Toy Biz figures, the plethora of Jurassic Park, the searches for new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures, and much more. On the surface Toys R Us closing is merely a business shutting its doors as the result of a string of unfavorable circumstances or bad business decisions but to many of us it’s the equivalent of a piece of our childhood dying. I’ll have to be sure to stop by a local Toys R Us one last time before they shutter completely so that I can have one more memory to cling to as another piece of my past fades away.