"I don't know where to start! I'm so excited" blurted out in an enclave of retro gaming memorabilia, and a phrase which saved me from my own funk in a number of ways. Japanese store Super Potato has a certain uplifting effect on most of the people who visit – be it one of their many branches or the mainstay stores in Tokyo or Osaka – it's weird how a chance meeting can make you self-examine to such an extent.
This was the result of bumping into a middle-eastern retro gamer in the renowned retro game Mecca in Akihabara. In silent and instant reflection, in the face of pure exhilaration and excitement, it made me realise how disconnected I'd become with the scene. Something I'd over many years come to take for granted held a different appeal for this visitor and, rather than play the clichéd "I've been here for X years and it was better then", it made me reflect on the fact that I had become horrifically jaded.
Super Potato has its detractors – that's for sure – and in some cases the reasons are partially sound; unboxed games are priced extremely high, some of the more "novelty" items tend to command extraordinary high prices (we are discussing items such as Mario-branded Golf Shoes here though – so not your usual items), and – not a Super Potato specific trend by any stretch of the imagination – the very high prices of very rare retro items. In truth, the single most annoying facet of many retro gaming/collecting outlets is that some items are flagged as "not for sale" and remain tantalisingly out of reach. However, that still means that said items are there for examination and, as collectors, we should still be thankful for that at the very least.
It's not uncommon for Super Potato to receive bad press from local gamers. "It's too superficial", "the prices are too high", "they are pandering to a certain crowd" – these are common attacks levelled at the store. However, in the main, this ignores a lot of what sets Super Potato apart from similar stores. Super Potato is more an experience than an actual store; from the initial viewing of the façade, we have clear references to its retro roots: Mario, Pac-Man and other pixel art icons adorn the exterior while constantly piped chip-tune music entices you inwards.
The journey to the store itself is as reversely stark as the store itself; an unassuming brick-lined corridor leading to an initially glum staircase to the third floor, or an elevator. In a "Chose your own adventure" style twist both have benefits: the lift is full of dedicated retro art, adverts for clothing and predictable self-promotion. The stairway reveals custom art for games such as Mega Man (or Rock Man as he is known here), full maps to games and signed memorabilia from previous visitors. I advise taking the stairs up (all the way to the fifth floor) and the lift down, lest you miss some highlights including a full staircase that shows Rastan pixel art and a massive original Legend of Zelda map.
The fifth floor – dedicated to retro arcade – has a flavour of the amusement centres of the late '80s and early '90s, including a mocked-up sweet store packed with tooth-attacking items from yesteryear. This is all stylishly overseen by a full-size Snake from Metal Gear Solid 3 – usually wearing a Mario hat for additional comic effect. The arcade games themselves range from the usual fare of 2D beat em ups – such as Final Fight and Double Dragon – to coin-op staples like Wonder Boy in Monster land, whilst taking in the odd curiosity and MAME-based machine along the way, as well as the ubiquitous Pachinko slot machines which, at least, tend to be gaming-themed so you may at least get to try Monster Hunter, Gradius and Fist of the North Star as an interactive slot.
The fourth floor is centred around more recent retro, and also covers paper-based media and soundtracks. There is also a nod to "import" gaming from the Japanese perspective with a small selection of games and some mildly interesting western machines such as the Atari Jaguar, 3DO or the US Super Nintendo. While I've only visited the Osaka branch perhaps 9 or 10 times, it still holds a place in my heart for being the only Japanese location in which I've witnessed a Sinclair ZX Spectrum running software. This is where Super Potato's magic is perhaps most apparent – you never know what you will see once you enter; each week is likely to be different.
No floor proves this more than the third. While the fifth floor is home to such great items such as the "Famicom throne" – a throne made entirely of used Famicom cartridges, natch – and the fourth floor holds MSX gold, lesser-seen PlayStation goods, the occasional X68000 Ace Queen and a selection of crazy plushes, it is the third floor that is arguably the heart and soul of the store. Focused on 8-bit and 16-bit hardware, the current entrance means a straight-up meeting with a "life-sized" Mario – previous to this there was a similarly-sized Game Boy that had games running on the display. On this floor the true level of devotion to gaming becomes apparent; while the other floors have decorations and items of note it seems that every single angle of the third floor is covered with some sort of gaming memorabilia, ranging from level print-offs to stuffed toys, "pearler" sprite art and insane curiosities such as the aforementioned Mario Golf Shoes. If you can imagine it, it likely exists (or has existed) on this floor at some time or other.
The headache engine that is the Virtual Boy still retains pride of place, alongside rows and rows of boxed and unboxed retro goodness covering the Famicom, Super Famicom, PC Engine, Mega Drive and practically everything else you can possibly think of. In the hardware section it's not uncommon to see Famicom Twins in AAA condition, alongside the odd Titler and CPS Changer hardware for those interested in the truly obscure. While prices have consistently moved upwards, the store deservers the credit where due: the reason Super Potato retains its popularity over arguably better examples in the area is due to the fact that it truly feels like a celebration of gaming, rather than an overtly commercial venture.
Each nook and cranny, every angle you look from, each label on a game, each alphabetical divider positively oozes gaming history. There is no direction you can look in this store without staring deep into a combined love for the hobby and medium that we all share. If you do make the journey to Akihabara (or indeed any other location with a Super Potato outlet) go in with a clear, relaxed attitude and absorb every perspective, every element, every piece of what it has to offer – budget for hours, not minutes – and simply enjoy a walk through a gaming enthusiast's paradise. Leave the jaded preconceptions at the bottom of those poster-covered stairs.