The English market town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch can chart its history as far back as the 11th century and owes its rather unusual name to the Norman Conquest of England around the same time, when the settlement - then known as plain old Ashby - became the property of the La Zouche family. Its 12th century ruined castle served as the backdrop for Sir Walter Scott's historical epic Ivanhoe and transformed Ashby-de-la-Zouch into a tourist attraction following its publication in 1819, but in recent years the town's biggest claim to fame is the fact that it is the birthplace of one of the world's most acclaimed video game developers.
Founded in 1982 by Tim and Chris Stamper, Ultimate Play the Game put Ashby on the map for many teenage ZX Spectrum owners but would later change its name to Rare and relocate to the sleepy village of Twycross a few miles down the road. Despite this incredible legacy, there's little in Ashby today to pay tribute to the amazing events which took place over 30 years ago - although if you do a little digging, you can find evidence.
Tucked away down a tiny alleyway off Ashby's main shopping thoroughfare is Extreme Gamez, an independant video game store which Stuart Benson has owned for the past 16 years - although the store's history actually runs back as far as 1994. "I was taken on under the youth training program doing the repairs on SNES, NES and Mega Drive console and gradually learnt about the selling side of the business," Benson explains. "When the previous owner decided to sell up as he could not see a clear future, I applied for a Business Link grant which I got and used to buy the shop. I've never looked back since."
Given the store's close proximity to Rare's Twycross base, it's perhaps unsurprising to learn that Extreme Gamez has seen its fair share of staffers from that esteemed firm over the years. "For a good while they used to come in to buy a copy of their latest game to go in their vault at the HQ, as they didn't get final production copies sent to them - but sadly that stopped when Microsoft took over," Benson recalls.
However, in recent times the outlet has been frequented by many of the new studios set up by ex-Rare staffers, including Gory Detail (The Unlikely Legend of Rusty Pup) and Playtonic (Yooka-Laylee), both of which are based close by. "We were given some signed artwork for Banjo-Kazooie Nuts & Bolts & Viva Piñata, which are nice keepsakes. Kev Bayliss (Battletoads, Killer Instinct and now Yooka-Laylee) popped in a while back to buy some of the NES games he worked on while he was at Rare. I felt almost guilty charging him full price for them!"
When they're not serving members of video game royalty, Benson and his staff run a fully-stocked store which not only covers all of the modern systems but also sells toys, merchandise, smartphones, tablets and retro goods. Given Nintendo's tough position in the market at present, it doesn't come as much of a shock to learn that supporting the Wii U and 3DS is tricky from Benson's perspective. "The Wii U has a very select but loyal fanbase that normally tends to only buy the first-party titles. However, customers don't really pre-order on those formats, making it harder to judge how many copies of new releases to stock." The drought of AAA games on Wii U has made things even harder this year, but Benson says he has done his utmost to keep interest in the system alive.
However, he's very optimistic that the forthcoming Nintendo NX will mark a return to form for the Japanese veteran and bring back some of the commercial magic witnessed during the Wii era. "Personally it's always good to have a new machine come to the market as it creates a buzz," he says. "One thing they need to do is to explain more about the console as people are still unaware about the Wii U, even after all this time. There will be the early adopters who will buy into the new console as they love Nintendo, but they need to get back to basics and engage with customers more and give better support to the UK sector than previously."
While the Wii U and 3DS may be slowing down in terms of generating revenue, Benson has discovered that there's a viable market for selling Nintendo's older consoles - as well as other vintage hardware and software. "Retro for us is an amazing thing and is growing in popularity on a daily basis," he says. "It's great to see people still have a passion for the older games and systems. The hardest part is getting hold of enough decent stock as we can't simply ring a supplier to order more. We are getting more well-known for our 'Retro Loft' with people willing to travel long distances to visit the store, and our company is being talked about more on specialist retro gaming Facebook groups."
Another challenge when you're in the retro market is dealing with competition from online retailers and auction sites, but Benson feels that Extreme Gamez has an advantage here. "It's all about the personal experience," he states. "People like to come to the store as they can see the condition of the item, talk to proper gamers and even test the games out if needed. Not all pictures online are what they seem with some only taking photos from certain angles, sometimes hiding damage to a box. With us, you can touch and handle the item before you hand over the cash, which is vital when dealing with second-hand goods. We also accept trade-ins so people can bring in their old games and come away with a retro classic they haven't played in years."
As the modern gaming market increasingly shifts towards digital distribution specialist retailers like Extreme Gamez will be more and more thankful that such an active retro market exists. Even so, Benson has managed to weather many storms in the past and insists that his store will continue as long as there's demand. "Gaming seems to be headed in different directions at the moment, with digital heavily on the rise and internet sales increasing, so it's hard to say where we'll be in five years or so, but for as long as it's viable we will continue to provide the local community with the gaming goodness the require." It's a good job, too. Where else would past and present Rare staffers get their video gaming fill?