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21 Features

Linked to the past: London's last surviving retro games store

By Tamoor Hussain on Wednesday 15th May 2013 at 2:54 PM UTC

"How much is your Magnavox Odyssey worth?" I ask.

"Well, that's a tricky question," replies Tom Humphrey, co-founder of London's last-surviving games store of its kind, Retro Game Base.

The Odyssey, released forty years ago in the UK, now sits on the highest shelf in the store, sandwiched between a Turbografx and a yellowing Sega Dreamcast box. Tom, and his business partner Joe Dowling, gaze at the console with reverence.

Zoom

"There's an interesting story behind how we got that one, but we can't go into detail about it yet," says Joe through a smile. Joe is the one with the natural business acumen; able to detach himself to keep the wheels turning.

"We feel that it needs special attention," chimes in Tom, the unabashed retro obsessive.

In an age where high street game retailers are under immense pressure to sell hard and fast, it's a unique joy to have a breezy conversation with a store owner who doesn't quite know how much his star product is worth.

You don't just come here to buy and trade. RGB is a place to engulf yourself in the simple pleasures of growing up. Crammed within the shop's higgledy-piggledy assortment of home shelving units are hundreds of frayed boxes, fractured CD cases and cartridges bearing their circuit board underbellies. These are not the prettiest games collections you'll ever see, but you can feel the love that went into them.

Breathing in the nostalgia is free, but taking a piece of history home with you doesn't come cheap. The RRP of games has always been odd and arbitrary, but when they age the number assigned to them is a fascinating algebraic sum of elements, from rarity to demand to legacy.

When you glance across the shelves, names and prices will jump out like answers to a quiz. Metal Gear £29. Donkey Kong £36. Adventure Island Classic £34. Keio Flying Squadron £73. Chrono Cross £29. Neo Geo £200. Zx Spectrum £40. rare blue Game Gear £100.

Back to the Future

Retro Game Base is situated in Streatham, a sleepy village to the south of London, where people meander out of the path of oncoming cars.

The store's bright red door is adorned with a hand-painted image of Paper Mario, his little white fist pointing upwards to mail slot. Blinky, the red ghost from Pac Man, peers mischievously into the store from a sign placed out front. The outside window panel is plastered with Tetris blocks and an enlarged Wreck-It Ralph decal (its contemporariness making it seem out-of-place).

There's an endearing lack of thought that's gone into how the store is laid out. While the likes of GAME and HMV have their front windows blanketed with the latest and hottest product, RGB's only window into the store is guarded by a towering arcade cabinet, its wired guts hanging out.

Inside, the shop is decorated with as much tact as a teenager roadmapping his personality on a bedroom wall. Spread across the plain white walls are random posters; from F-15 Strike Eagle to Metroid: Other M.

Tapes and CDs are constantly slipping off the shelves. Amstrads are piled high, bookcases are lined with NES consoles', Super Nintendos, GameCubes, Nintendo 64s, Mega Drives.

The rarer and well preserved games are locked away in glass-front cabinets beneath the counter, accessible only by request. Dump bins are full of loose SNES cartridges, controllers, power and video cables, while memory cards and units are scattered around.

Take away the cash register and this place would look like a garage. Scattered across a messy workbench are tools used to fix cabinets, service consoles and nurse cartridges back to full health.

In the corner of the store, sitting next to a Star Wars Trilogy arcade machine, is Adam, an employee passively checking games are in working order. Carts are slammed in with a worrisome vigor. He hits the power button, glances away from his phone just long enough to see if something pops-up, and then its on to the next. The exception is Street Fighter 2, when Adam decides to go a few rounds against Dhalsim.

When you first enter RGB it's a bit like you've stepped into a museum; you're expected to politely look around. And it's possible to spend a whole day there just thumbing through collections, listening to the ambient music that's resembles some sort of psychedelic Bubble Bobble track.

But, of course, talking to the person next to you - someone who is guaranteed to be as hardcore about games as you are - is a pleasure that never gets old. There's an unspoken ritual of game store chat that's a bit like flirting. Talk starts light ("can you see Radiant Silvergun anywhere?") before naturally unfolding into a deeper discussion where both participants flaunt knowledge. It's not like you need to compliment each other or make physical contact, but there's an undeclared context that, deep down, both of you are delighted to be volleying views about games.

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