Retailer Toys R Us has been in dire straits for some time now, with the US side of the operation filing for bankruptcy in 2017. This week has brought us the news that the UK arm of the business is going into administration, putting 3,000 jobs at risk.
You may view this news with indifference; in the age of the internet, massive stores like Toys R Us feel like relics of the past. However, gamers of a certain age will have a tremendous affection for the store, because back in the '80s and '90s it was one of the best places to source video games. Back when specialist video game retailers were limited to tiny independent stores or shops like Radio Shack, Dixons, Woolworths and Boots the Chemist, Toys R Us was a major player in the games business; its incredible buying power meant that it got the latest games first, and was a great place to buy hardware and accessories.
As the curtain falls on one of retail's biggest names, we decided to have a little look back at our favourite memories related to the UK arm of the brand.
We didn’t have a Toys R Us in my local town, so we had to travel a good 30 to 40 minutes to the out of town “superstore” in Leicester. As a child, this distant location added to the magic, making it a real occasion to visit, like travelling on an adventure to a mythical land of toys and games. Toys R Us was also a unique shopping experience for me; games were usually behind cases, so you had to pick up a slip of paper and take it to the counter and pay before you could even touch the game box.
I have fond memories of visiting the store in Leicester on the first day of opening after Christmas. I would have counted up all the money I had received as presents and figured out which game I was after – there was rarely any browsing done at this time of year – I usually had a specific game in mind.
Specific memories that spring to mind would have been 1993, when I finally got my hands on the almighty “SuperFX” powered Starwing (Star Fox) on the Super Nintendo, and 1997 when I bought Diddy Kong Racing for the Nintendo 64, alongside my very first Rumble Pak.
The drive home would consist of meticulously reading every single word on the box, cart and instruction booklet as the excitement grew. Both these games had “first-of-a-kind” memories for me, I was wowed by both the 3D graphics in Starwing and the Rumble Pak support in the N64’s premier karting experience, Diddy Kong Racing.
It’s a shame that Toys R Us has found itself in its current state, and I wonder if gamers of the future with instant digital downloads will have the same sense of excitement getting a new game physically in their hands. Alas, digital is here to stay, but I’m glad I’ll always have those memories.
Like Ant, I lived a fair drive away from the Leicester branch of Toys R Us, which was nestled in a (then) futuristic-looking out-of-town shopping complex called Fosse Park (it's still there now, but Toys R Us moved into the centre of the city many, many years ago). I recall visiting the store when it opened in the '80s and my prime focus at that time was toys rather than video games; I have many happy memories of buying Transformers, Lego, He-Man and Hero Quest, as well as many other classic toys and board games of the era.
However, as the '90s dawned my attention was captured by the rows and rows of glass-fronted cabinets near the front of the store, which I would normally have walked past without giving a second glance. Inside these were all manner of gadgets and gizmos connected to glowing television sets. This was the first place I witnessed a NES in action, alongside the interesting-looking R.O.B. the Robot and the iconic Zapper. Around this time (Christmas 1990) I got a Japanese Mega Drive, and Sega was - at the time - most definitely the biggest gaming brand in the UK console area. Despite this, Toys R Us bucked the trend by giving Nintendo products pride of place, and for a while the NES and Game Boy looked like exotic items I'd never own myself, given that my love of Sega was so strong.
Nevertheless, I would use my visits to the Leicester store as "research" to check out what all the fuss was about with these systems; I will readily admit to being a Sega fanboy even at that tender age, and couldn't fathom why anyone would want to own a NES when the Mega Drive presented such clearly superior visuals. However, picking up the controller and playing Super Mario Bros. changed my mind on that; the visuals may have been primitive compared to my shiny new Mega Drive, but the gameplay was utterly sublime and I don't mind admitting that I later rented a NES from my local convenience store (yes, they did that back then) just to spend a bit more time with the game.
Toys R Us is also the first place I saw Sonic the Hedgehog in the wild; the classy, minimalist UK box art still gives me a pang of nostalgia today, and seeing it hung up in the store was a real thrill, as I'd been following its progress in the pages of CVG and Mean Machines for months. As the '90s progressed, the Mega Drive gained its first real rival in the UK in the shape of the SNES. With video game retail in the country still limited to big chains and tiny indies, Toys R Us was vital when it came to actually securing a system at launch; I remember nervously visiting the Leicester branch with my dad, and him making sure my expectations were tempered ("A lot of people want one, you see") only to find that - amazingly - they actually had one in stock. We picked up F-Zero along with Super Mario World, and for the weeks that followed my Mega Drive gathered dust. Later visits would result in seminal titles like Super Tennis and Final Fight entering my collection; all of which were supplied by Toys R Us.
Shortly afterwards, we began to give local indie stores more and more of our patronage as they not only stocked tantalising Japanese imports but also offered a part-exchange schemes which - for someone who only got £2 pocket money a week - were vital. With another source available to fulfil my gaming needs and my interest in toys now well and truly put to bed, I stopped visiting Toys R Us. My next visit would be around 1997, hunting for Tamagotchi (which, I'm sorry to say, were totally sold out).
It's easy to feel sad about the passing of a store you have fond memories of, but the fact is that the world of retail has advanced to a point where gigantic shops like Toys R Us are no longer relevant. Online shopping is changing the way we purchase practically everything (UK electronics chain Maplin has also gone into administration this week) and if we're happy to take advantage of lower prices on the web, we shouldn't be shocked when bricks-and-mortar stores close. Toys R Us has also seen its relevance in the video game arena eroded by the rise of specialist chains like GAME (which, ironically, is also feeling the pinch in the age of the web) as well as superstores like Tesco, which stock a wide range of games alongside almost every other household item. Add to this the arrival of Amazon on the scene and it's clear these old-fashioned chains stand little chance; at least we'll still have our memories.
Let us know your own memories of Toys R Us - both in the UK and worldwide - by posting a comment below.