The Nintendo Game Boy turns 30 this Sunday, and to celebrate this amazing occasion we'll be running a series of related features this week, right up to the big day.
The Game Boy may be 30 years old this week, but that doesn’t mean the system is dead and gone from a retail perspective; over the past few years we’ve seen an explosion of interest in Gunpei Yokoi’s masterpiece, with people buying up old units and modding them to make them even better than before. Out of this community, we’ve also seen a number of retailers emerge, with one of the most notable – in the UK, at least – being Gameboy Shack.
Operated by Richard Tewkesbury from his base in the UK’s heartland, Gameboy Shack is a business which focuses mainly on reconnecting players with the handheld games of their youth. If you’ve attended one of the many big shows in the UK over the past few years, then there’s a good chance you’ve spotted Richard manning his stand, which is always packed with Game Boy consoles, games and other associated merchandise.
Seeing as he’s just down the road from Nintendo Life HQ, we thought it was only right that we pay him a visit to celebrate the Game Boy’s 30th – and to buy a load of games from him, of course. Below is a transcript of the waffle we had. Enjoy.
What was your first exposure to the Game Boy?
Probably back when it first came out, around 1989. We used to go to Leicester on the bus, me and my friend, every Saturday. We’d go to Dixons [defunct UK high street electronics retailer], and basically play the Nintendo display stand, as well as the Atari Lynx, pretty much until the guy in Dixons kicked us out. Back then, we didn’t have any money, so it was the only way we could play the Game Boy. I must have been about 12 or so years old. My parents wouldn’t buy me a Game Boy, so I had to wash pots and hustle to make that money to buy one. I got really good at washing pots.
What do you think made the Game Boy the market leader, despite the fact that there were more technically advanced machines, like the Lynx?
There were more games out there, which played a big part. It was the most popular system by far when we were at school. Battery power came into as well I think. I was whipping through batteries left, right and centre, so you probably needed £5 or £10 worth of batteries a week – if you’re rocking out an Atari Lynx, you’d need even more! There was only one kid at school who had a Lynx, and only a couple that had the Sega Game Gear. Everyone mainly had Game Boy; so there was the obvious desire to be part of that club so you could share games.
How did you become involved in modding and selling Game Boys?
I started selling at conventions, and I was already doing video games across the board, and my friend Gavin and I basically traded together. The smallest thing I could get in the car was Game Boy, and it pretty much grew from there. It was purely logistics. “I can get 100 games in the car and it only takes up 12 inches of space”, that kind of thing. I only had a car at the time, so we couldn’t get a lot in, full stop. We basically had to get two stores into one vehicle! It’s just grown and grown and grown. There are lots of other video game traders at events, but I’m the only one that does the full range of Game Boys, I suppose.
How have you seen that market grow?
There is a lot of interest in it. There’s a lot of interest from sellers as well, so now the market is getting saturated, I’m afraid to say – which makes it harder for everyone. When I first started out, there were only a couple of games sellers and that was it. And now, you can go to a show and there’s 15 or 20… and now every time we go, there’s another one, and another one, and another one. It’s just part and parcel. The market is growing, there’s room in there for everyone. Personally, I’ve put a lot of effort into making what I do as good as I can possibly do it, and basically giving it that ‘wow factor’. Every console that I sell is refurbished. It’s all taken apart, cleaned up, put back together again. I get them fully working and I usually refresh them; everything’s refreshed when it goes out, so I try and aim for a very good standard of product.
Do you think the market has reached its biggest point? Is there a danger it could shrink?
Sometimes you go to an event, and it all depends on what the event is. There’ll be good ones, and there’ll be very bad ones, and there are new customers at all of them. A lot of people are just those spontaneous people; they want a Game Boy with Tetris, Super Mario, and so on – what they remember from their childhood. Just a quick hit. They’ve got no interest in collecting whatsoever. They just want two to three games, and off they go, and that’s cool. I think there’s plenty of room left in the market yet, when you combine that sector with the serious collectors.
I think there’s plenty of room left in the market yet, when you combine that sector with the serious collectors
How many events do you tend to do a year, and how do you go about picking which ones to attend?
We’ve now gained experience of which shows work best for us. Sometimes it’s down to the preference of what you want to do, and other times its when it happens during the year, and other times it’s simply because I’ve got no money. I basically don’t do any shows between December and March, so that’s the dry spell where you’ve got basically last the winter – and by that point, when you start back, you just take anything that’s going. This weekend there’s an event I don’t want to do, but I’ve got to do it so I can then get extra money to physically get me to the event the weekend after that. Because I have to put so much money into buying stock and getting everything else ready for the event, it’s really a big balancing act; it’s quite horrible at certain points of the year. The two big shows that I do are at the worst point of the year, and if they don’t pay off, then I’m completely screwed really!
Which are the next events that you’ve got coming up?
We’ll be doing Insomnia next weekend. Then we’re doing MCN London. I’ll also be doing my own show – Comic-Con Leicester. I’ll be doing Hyper Japan, London and Film Comic-Con. They’re some of the bigger ones. You try and stick to the larger ones, because there’s more footfall there and you know what’s going on, although I did a random one for a friend in a shopping centre in Hull recently, and that really worked because it was instant footfall – there were people there all day long. But you have good shows, and you have bad shows, and no show is ever guaranteed. Personally, I never take anything for granted. Don’t go in thinking you’re going to make £5000 in a weekend, because you’re not.
Is the mentality just to break even and then see what you can do from there?
Always try and be in the green and cover all your costs. I want to go to an event and enjoy myself – that’s always the main thing. I don’t want to sit there bored out of my mind. I want to be active, interact with some nice people and sell some good stuff. I want people to enjoy what they’re buying, go away with something they’re going to enjoy, and make some money on the side. I have to put hours and hours and hours into getting things ready. That’s the problem. Especially when it’s weekend to weekend, where I’ve only got a couple of days in-between to basically reload again. Over the summer, when there are a lot of shows, that’s when it can get really stressful, and I end up doing 15 to 18 hours a day just to try and get ready for the next show. And then at night time, in-between shows, in the hotel room I’m building Game Boys to sell the next morning. That’s when it really gets bad!
How easy is it to source the stuff that you sell?
I could spend money all day long. I look back at some of the videos when I first started, and I’ve got some pictures of my first stall that I did, and I was selling Game Boys at £10 – now I sell them at £45, and that’s only a few years down the road. That’s where the market’s changed; everything is so expensive now and it keeps on creeping up. Sometimes, I buy multiple copies of game if the price is right, so I can sit on it and find that in a year or two down the line, it’s gone up in value. I spend way too much money on stock, that’s my problem. I always try and keep everything fully-loaded. I can’t stand if the shop is not rammed to the nines; everything needs to be topped up. All the consoles, all the shelves need to full all the time, and if they’re not, I just can’t stand it. If people are like, “Oh, you’ve not got that game”, I’ll go home and I’ll find it, then I’ll get it, and it will be on the shelf next time around.
Do you use network of collectors to source things?
I have pickers that basically pick for me. I use a lot of Facebook and gaming pages. Sometimes, there’s the occasional deal that comes up on eBay. People just come to me with stuff that they want to sell. And then sometimes I just need to get off my arse and go through storage units and actually sort through the stuff I’ve actually got and sell that rather than buy new stuff. It constantly keeps coming in. But it’s a borderline addiction, that’s the problem. My accountant is like, “Stop spending money!”
Which part of it do you love the most?
I do like talking to people. As I said, it all depends on the events. Certain events, the people can be toxic, I will be honest, and at the end of a long day, you just need to have an hour in a quiet room. But connecting with enthusiastic players is a bit part of the appeal.
Sometimes I hate selling – I’ve literally been at the point of handing over the game and I’m thinking “I really don’t want to sell this”, because I really don’t want to let it go
Do you still collect for yourself?
No, my collection now is 90 percent is the stock that I have. I kind of use that as my collection. I have some personal things, don’t get me wrong; I have a Game Boy bubble bath collection, so that’s niche and that’s my thing. I’ve got 26 different bubble bath bottles! But I use my stall as my collection. Sometimes I hate selling – I’ve literally been at the point of handing over the game and I’m thinking “I really don’t want to sell this” because I really don’t want to let it go. And that’s partly because I know I’ll never get another one. It’s wicked when you do find that thing that you never find again, and you do find it. There have been lots of times where I’ve let something go and I was like, “I should never have sold that”. Sometimes, you’ve got to think, “You’ve got bills to pay, you’ve got this that and the other, you’ve got a life, you just need to let it go. You’ve got plenty of other stuff. Ten minutes later you won’t even notice it’s gone”.
You offer a tactile, tangible shopping experience that you don’t really get any more; do you get a buzz out of that?
I like Game Boy collectors that go in and they know what they want, and they get in there. And they come out with a stack of random games and it’s not just Zelda, Pokémon and Tetris. I have said that one day that’s all my stall is going to be. I’ll have nothing on the table apart from a stack of Tetris carts, a stack of Mario carts, a stack of Zelda carts and a stack of Pokémon carts, and that’s it! Some weekends that’s all I’ve done, and that sometimes can be a bit disheartening. I like selling other games, and there are so many good titles on the Game Boy that people just need to get over the hurdle that there are these five games that you essentially need when in fact there are hundreds of other amazing games, too.
What would you say is the most expensive game you’ve ever sold?
About £100. Things like Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow on the Game Boy Advance, for instance. I sold that recently, but I’ve got another one in now. That’s the mission. I’ve got to find another miracle game, and I managed to get one. Sometimes, it’s the finding it where there’s a little bit of meat on the bone for you as well because I can go and buy everything if I didn’t care about losing money. It’s finding it at a price point because every year the shows keep getting more expensive and all your costs keep rising and you need to put your prices up. I don’t like putting my prices up. Sometimes I’m not the cheapest person in the world, but again, everything I sell is really good quality. Boxes aren’t smashed up, it’s all good gear and the Game Boy consoles are in perfect condition. You can go and buy a rotter on eBay, take a chance on it, and it’s £10 cheaper, but at least I put the time and effort into it you can be sure you get a nice solid console.
Moving to online, what’s your current online presence, and what’s the ratio between what you do on events and what you do online?
This is my problem. Because I’m only a one-man-band, I’m really stretched with time. And now, with having a baby as well, and everything else that’s going on, my time is just gone. Having to run the Instagram account as well, the problem is, I put something cool out on Instagram, for instance, and then everyone’s instantly, “Oh, can I buy that, can I buy this, can I buy that?” And the problem is I can’t sell it because I have to have that stock to do the event. If I could sell it all on Instagram, and that would be that, but it’s having that balance, because I need the events to pull in the big money. If I go with a rubbish-looking stall because I’ve sold everything online already, then I’ll just blend in with everyone else. The time I’ve got when I’m proactive on my website is between December and February when I’m off. Did you see I did a Game Boy Mystery Box I did at Christmas? I’m going to do another one of those shortly. I could sell those all day long, but it takes me a while to get the extra goodies together to actually do them. Online is awesome when I’ve got the time to do it, but realistically for me, there’s a greater turnover at the shows than there is online.
You’re kind of going in the opposite direction to everybody else, essentially?
Yeah. I’d love to open a proper shop, full stop. If I hadn’t got a baby then I’d be owning a shop right now! I had some money put aside to open a shop this year, and then the baby happened, and then I had to buy bathrooms and house stuff instead! That’s life. I’d love to have a shop, but it scares the hell out of me, that’s the only thing – whether it’d actually work. I’ve got friends that have got shops; Lee at Sore Thumb Retro in York said it’s the best thing he’s ever done. Ever.
I fit Pokémon save batteries, but my big confession is that I’ve never actually played a Pokémon game
You say you don’t have much time now; do you actually have time to play any of the games you sell?
I probably play 20 lines of Tetris when I’m testing things out, or I’ll have a go on the first level of Super Mario Land. I fit Pokémon save batteries, but my big confession is that I’ve never actually played a Pokémon game. I’ve played the first level where you have to basically put your name in and get to the first room – let’s say I’ve played that 2,000 times, basically to test when I’ve put a new battery in. I’m the master of that bit of the game! The other day I went out of the first room, I was like, “What’s actually outside the first room? Oh, some other things.” Then I stopped!
If anyone reading this is interested in getting into the Game Boy, what’s the advice you’d give them on where to begin?
I would start at the beginning. I’d buy an original Game Boy. I think that’s a good stepping stone. I’d go stock, too, not modded – to literally ‘discover’ it. Then build it up. Work your way through each generation, and then at points get a modded one. Don’t start off with a modded console if you’re new to the Game Boy, because sometimes it ruins the experience. People sometimes come back to me, and they’re like, “I can’t even see it” and I’m like, “Well, that’s how it was designed.” Also, start off with the early games, but look into all the other great titles out there. There are plenty of other wicked games out there that people just don’t touch, and they should do. Do a little bit of research, watch some videos online, and you’ll realise there are plenty of amazing Game Boy games out there.