It is possible to have an enjoyable retro games hunt in London, although you’ve got to plan carefully.
If you want a very particular retro gaming title (and avoiding the whole emulation business), then your general best bet is to look online. You’ve got the whole world to choose from. That means that titles that once would have been hard-to-borderline-impossible to find are only a few mouse clicks away, presuming you can afford the asking prices. That can be a sticking point, as they’re often steep, sometimes bordering on the ludicrous.
Still, there’s something to be said for browsing a selection and holding actual games hardware in your hands before making a purchase. Not that long ago I trawled through Tokyo’s numerous games stores while on holiday. I have no doubt I ended up making more purchases simply because games were available to me and I could go hands-on with them.
Retro games shopping in Tokyo
If I’d been looking at them from a simple screen, I wouldn’t have done so. A little troubling for my bank balance, to be sure, but great for expanding my games literacy by playing new (old!) and exciting titles.
Honest story: I didn’t even know this existed before my last visit to Tokyo. You may now laugh and point.
So on my recent trip through the UK, and more particularly London, I was keen to get in a little retro gaming shopping, if feasible.
The UK is an even more online marketplace than many countries, Australia included, so my hopes weren’t all that high. Equally, this isn’t absolutely exhaustive, because I’m just one person and my time and funds were limited. Got any tips or thoughts? Drop them in the comments below.
Image: Basher Eyre
Yes, it’s feasible to find a few retro gems in charity shops in London. Depending on the parts of London you’re in, such outlets can be thick on the ground. Less so in more inner-city and touristy bits, so don’t expect an Oxfam outlet right next door to Selfridges or Harrods, but fine in more outer suburbs.
However, the problems here are twofold. Firstly, it’s a total coin flip as to whether there will be anything at all, because such places aren’t specifically games shops. Then there’s the question of what they’ll have. Being the UK, be ready for nearly endless copies of FIFA, and if my own searches are any indication, lots of copies of, well, this:
No, I didn’t buy any copies. So they’re still all there if you want them!
I did see a few more slightly less common titles, but it’s clear in this online age that you’re not likely to snaffle a bargain. That’s either because they’ve already been cleared out, or because the staff “know what it goes for on eBay”. Equally, it’s a toss-up as to whether anything will even work.
Your comfort level with such purchases may vary, and at least (as long as your ethics align with the charity in question) you’re doing good work just by shopping there.
Image: Jeff Djevdet
There was a time (and I’m seriously dating myself here) when there was an absolutely superb retro-themed branch of second hand goods dealers CEX, down near Warren St tube. Lovely it was.
Gone, it is.
Well and truly, even though CEX itself has expanded to being a truly global second hand electronics entertainment emporium. When I was last through London in 2016, you’d be hard put to find any retro gear in a CEX, but they seem to have taken fresh interest in the area of late.
That being said, they’re well aware of the “going” rate for retro games, and will seemingly apply those rates almost irrespective of condition of games. Again, I can’t say that they’re likely to have been tested to speak of either. Although CEX is just the place if you’re a fan of UK comedy and don’t mind shows that are a few years old. There’s little finer than a 50p live comedy DVD, although I am getting rather off topic here.
Also… and there’s no polite way to put this, CEX…
Although I doubt you could hate me much more after I pointed out how you were illegally selling R18+ games in Australia a few years back, so whatever, some of your stores are, shall we say, a little on the… pungent side? A run through with a fire hose might be advised.
Retro Game Base: Distant but great
Streatham, in London’s South, is a little bit out of the way. With an afternoon free I made the relatively lengthy trek to check it out. I was heading from East London; your travel times may vary.
Yep, that’s quite easy to spot. I rather like the handmade signage, rather than pre-printed posters.
Despite the sign having accidentally flipped around, they weren’t shut, which I was quite grateful for. However, it is worth checking their social media feeds to see if they’re likely to be. It would suck to make the trek only to discover they weren’t open.
Also a big thanks to the staff member who was both happy to chat and for me to take pictures. Not everyone is quite so gracious.
From chatting to the staff, they do test everything where feasible, which is a nice encouraging step for older systems where disc, cartridges and tapes are all starting to show their age.
Decades ago, when I lived in London, I’d spend some time on the weekends around Oxford Street. I would always duck into Selfridges. Not because I needed a new tweed suit, or I was all out of caviar, but simply because they had a largely unattended NES demo system set up. Sure, you could only play for a minute or two until it reset, but those minutes were precious. It was only years later that I learned that there were more than two levels on Super Mario Bros, for a start.
(largely because it came with the green screen monitor, and that’s a bit much for inflight carry-on luggage)
I miss my Amiga. Every day. War has never been so much fun.
I did pick up a small grab bag of retro goodies while I was there. It would be rude not to. This included the delightfully charming, hadn’t-played-it-for-years Castle Of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse for the Master System, and Spider-Man for the Atari 2600, because… I like falling off things, I guess.
There’s an elephant in the room here.
No, not you, Rolo.
That’s the question of pricing. Are you going to score an absolute red-hot-bargain shopping at a dedicated retro game store like this?
No, you’re not. But having browsed the aisles, and their online pricing as well, I’ve got to say that Retro Game Base’s prices are, by and large, relatively fair for the age and condition of the goods.
I was perfectly happy with the prices I paid, and everything worked and was nicely clean too. I didn’t pick up anything super-rare, and to be sure they know the value of specific goods. Equally I also didn’t feel as though they were pushing endless copies of ****R@RE**** copies of Bratz PS1 games, either. For which I’m quite thankful.
There’s also a charmingly loose ethos to the entire shop, and I for one quite like that. It’s not a stuffy place where everything is blocked off so that you can’t either easily browse it any way. At once point I stopped to ask about a rack of N64 games, and the guy behind the counter was quite happy to pass them my way, noting that there was a bunch of stuff he was sorting through, but that “everything else was fair game”.
It’s nice to be in a store where you feel both valued and trusted, and equally one where you can enter into a discussion about the merits of relative console generations. I rather like the idea as mooted by the staff that the Atari 2600 was black & white film, and that Nintendo experienced a Snow White moment with the NES. Very apt, and it even ties in nicely with my own thoughts on the matter.
So while it’s a bit of a journey, even from Central London, it’s well worth the browse, and if my experience is any guide, a chat with the friendly staff too. You could tell them that I sent you, but it’s not likely to make much difference beyond perhaps confusing them a tad.
The one small fly in the ointment, if I read their Facebook page correctly, is that the entire store is up for sale. I’ve got to hope that this is simply a sign of owners wanting to move on and not indicative of some kind of retail issue, because there is something special about retro game stores. It would be a real pity to lose one.
Added bonus: Streatham is one of the very few locations in London that still has a Wimpy Bar. Mmm. I can taste the spicy bean burger just typing that.