That New Console Smell

The next generation of PlayStation and Xbox consoles is arriving in just over a week, and I am finally allowing myself to feel the excitement. They’re really almost here. Wow. I was not able to secure an Xbox Series X preorder but I was lucky enough to snag one for the PlayStation 5, and I have obsessively been checking its status every day to make sure it doesn’t mysteriously get cancelled. Is that silly? Yes. Am I going to keep doing it until I get a notification that it has shipped? Also yes.

Getting caught up in the hype of a new console has me reflecting on my history with getting consoles at launch, so I wanted to write a retrospective before reliving the process with the PS5. The first consoles we had at my house (Atari 2600 and Balley Astrocade) weren’t technically mine, and the first two consoles that were mine (NES and SNES) were purchased months or years after launch. The first console I got at launch was the Nintendo 64, and I can already spot some similarities between my experience then and my experience now.

The level of hype surrounding the N64’s release can’t be understated. Although Sega had carved out a nice slice of the market for itself by the mid-90s, Nintendo had been the industry leader for over a decade and their development teams had made some of the best and most iconic games of the 80s and 90s.I had a subscription to Nintendo Power at the time, and for months they had been trumpeting the “Ultra 64,” a console that mainstream media outlets were covering as a “hot toy” going into the 1996 holiday season. A huge part of this hype, of course, was the transition from 2D to 3D graphics, and I am still struck by the fact that there has not been (and may never be) a shift in the gaming scene as big as this. Aside from the obvious gameplay implications, this shift made people look at video games as more “sophisticated” or “high tech.” Early video game consoles were meant to be taken seriously and were marketed at adults, hence the use of the word “computer” in many of the product names. In the 80s, Nintendo had marketed their products more in line with toys, and that became the norm for a decade (I would argue we’re still struggling with this misconception to this day).

With the N64, Sony PlayStation, and Sega Saturn, adults who had dismissed games as primitive and childish suddenly took notice, as these machines seemed capable of producing graphics and effects that seemed more realistic and allowed for more “mature” themes, in line with games that might be found on the PC. I’m babbling a bit, but my point is that I and other Nintendo fans were not the only ones making a big deal out of this system. Another component that contributed to this hype was the previews of Super Mario 64 that Nintendo had been circulating. When Toys “R” Us installed demo kiosks where you could play Mario 64 in their stores, I went every chance I could get. If no one had claimed the spot, I would jump on the alien tech-looking controller and lose my mind over how good it felt to run, jump, and punch goombas as Mario. If someone else was at the lone kiosk, I would skulk about, peeking around shelving units like a possessive creep, muttering “get your filthy, sticky mitts off my Mario” to myself. Okay, I didn’t actually do that, but I might as well have. After playing that demo, I wanted nothing more in the entire world than an N64 and Mario 64.

Growing up in a lower-middle class family meant that money was almost always tight. My sisters and I never got expensive gifts outside of birthdays and Christmas, and even then we would often have to plead our case for why we absolutely, unequivocally needed it, because we knew we’d inevitably be hit with questions like “why can’t you settle for this cheaper thing?” or “do you really need this? You’ll probably just get over it and be on to the next thing in a month.” With how many times I had to convince my parents that some expensive thing was worth the price, it’s no wonder I ended up in the field of rhetoric. Sometimes, if a thing was expensive enough, we had to use the nuclear option: suggest this gift would be our birthday and Christmas present, combined. Because the N64 was $199 and Mario 64 was sold separately for $60, I had to deploy this strategy, and given that my birthday is in mid-November (prime console launch time), the timeline worked out nicely.

Once my parents were sufficiently convinced of my dire need for this console, my dad took me to Toys “R” Us and the entire ride there I was asking questions like “what if they don’t have enough?’ and “what if someone grabs the last reservation slip (I think the terminology at the time was “reserving” a game and not “pre-ordering” it) right before we do?” They had plenty of slips for both the system and the game, but in the days leading up to release, I continued to pepper my dad with questions about what we would do if they we showed up and they said they had no record of our reservation, or if they simply said they had run out of units before we arrived (which is why I insisted we leave for the store as soon as my dad walked in from work). We did, and as we waited at the customer service cage where you picked up reservations, my anxiety grew. The woman there took our slip and disappeared into the back area. I was convinced she would return empty handed, or maybe with just the game and no console. She did not. She returned with a shiny, new N64 and a copy of Mario 64 and I was so excited I could hardly stand it. I gazed longingly at the game preview thumbnails on the back of the box in the car on the long drive home, and took an immense amount of joy in unboxing and setting it up and playing Mario 64 for hours that night. It’s been 24 years (almost exactly, as of last week) and I still have the console, the box it came in, and the receipt.

The next console I got at launch was a PlayStation 2, though I wasn’t lucky enough to get one on launch day in 2000. The demand for this console was, like the N64, massive, and it was months after launch before you could reliably find a PS2 box on store shelves. I worked in a record store at the time, so this was the first time I was able to buy a console myself, but every store I called at and after launch was sold out, always, and they never knew when they were getting more in. I became disenchanted at some point, feeling left out and like I was way out of the loop (even without social media, which would have only inflated that feeling greatly).

Then, one day in March, I was hanging out with my friend Ron. He was saying he read that Sony had made a big push and sent out a load of new units to retailers. I wasn’t great at saving money when I was 18 but I had just gotten paid, so I happened to have enough money to get the console and one game. Charged by this news, we decided to call up every retailer we knew of to find an elusive PS2. We called two Best Buys, two Circuit Citys, three Toys “R” Uses (pluralizing proper nouns is weird), Walmarts, K-Marts, Electronic Boutiques, Babbages’s, GameStops, and any other stores that we could think of that might carry them. With each call, we were told they were once again out of stock. A couple of them said some version of “we just sold our last one.” Our hopes dwindled. We began self-consolation. “Maybe they’ll get more next week.” “We should have known. We’ll get one eventually.” We ran out of stores to call. We tried to brainstorm more. “Isn’t there a Kay Bee Toys in the mall?” “Stratford?” “No, Woodfield Mall.” “Maybe?” We never went to Woodfield Mall because it was far and it was usually very crowded, so even if they had a console, I was sure it would be sold out. I called anyway.

“Hi, do you have the PS2?” “Yes, we do.” “Oh, uh – like, in stock? Right now?” “Yes, we have one left.” “…oh my god. Can you hold it for me?” “I’m sorry, we don’t hold things, but if you get here soon I’m sure you’ll get it.” I thanked him and hung up, and if my memory is not mistaken, Ron and I literally hugged and jumped up and down. That’s how I remember it so that’s just how it is now. We hopped in my car and sped (drove slightly, safely over the speed limit) to the mall. Think back to the N64 story. Can you guess what we were asking each other during the entire drive? “What if someone buys it?” “What if we see someone walking out with it in their hands as we walk up?” “What if they didn’t actually have any and he was mistaken?” Once again, however, my fears were dismissed when we arrived and saw the beautiful, minimalist blue box on a shelf behind the register. Something in my mind was still nervous, sure it was a display box, but I approached the man at the counter, asked for the PS2, and he turned and grabbed the box. He sounded like the same guy from the phone, and I remember him smiling at how obviously giddy Ron and I were to get this thing. I bought a copy of Quake III Revolution with it, and on the way to my house we stopped and got McDonald’s to celebrate. Getting fast food after a console purchase would become a tradition for us. We got back to my house and placed the hefty blue box on a pillow between us while we ate and talked about which games we were excited to play.

The Nintendo GameCube came out later that same year (2001), just two days after my birthday. My parents had been divorced for a while by then, so I rarely asked for big ticket items for birthdays or Christmas. I was working less at the record store at that point, and I had a bill to pay, so money wasn’t as readily available as when I splurged on a PS2. I really wanted a GameCube, though. I loved my PS2 but that magic Nintendo nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and I was definitely caught up in the hype around “Project Dolphin,” as it was once known. Nintendo threw a prerelease “party” (really just a showcase) in Chicago, and Ron and I somehow got tickets to go. It was in a very shady part of the city, and we got lost and were pretty sure drug dealers tried to approach our car to sell us something before we sped away. When we made it to the event, there were cosplayers, Stuff Magazine staff handing out swag, and lots of games. We tried out Super Monkey Ball, Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee, Eternal Darkness, and more. I still have some of the swag from that event.

As the GameCube’s release neared, I grew sad at the idea that I might not have the money to afford it. Or, if I could, I’d have to wait at least 2-4 weeks after I bought it to afford a game or two. I decided to ask my mom to split the cost with me, for my birthday. I was surprised when she agreed, but I was still nervous that I wouldn’t be able to get one because stores would be sold out. Because, of course I was. And a few stores were, indeed, sold out, but I was able to find one at a Target near my house. I really wanted a black version, the alternate to the main color it launched with, purple, but they only had one purple console left. Beggars can’t be choosers, as they say, so I bought my little purple “l(a)unch box” on my way to work at the record store. I called Ron, who lived just a few blocks from the shop, and he rushed over to check it out and hang out with me. We got fast food to celebrate and I went to our neighboring store, Microplay, and bought Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader and Super Monkey Ball. We ate, marveled at how small the discs were, and talked about what the next Zelda or Mario game might be like.

The Nintendo Wii was yet another console released around my birthday, and its 2006 launch is probably my favorite and most eventful. As you might have noticed, if you’ve read this far, I have never camped out for a console. I’ve either preordered or gotten lucky at or around launch. I realized this before the Wii’s launch and wanted to change this sad fact. Camping out sounded so fun! Also, most stores weren’t offering preorders for the Wii. Still, at the time, most people I told I was going to do this thought I was an idiot. A sad, nerdy idiot who was going to wait outside for hours, all for a console that no one wanted.

“What!?” I hear you say in dramatic exasperation. “But the Wii sold millions! Everyone wanted it!” First of all, please lower your voice, you are causing a scene. Second of all, the buzz around the Wii before launch was mostly very negative or, at best, highly skeptical. The Xbox 360 and PS3 promised high definition graphics, multimedia capability, and robust online systems. The Wii was far less powerful and did less, and if you read gaming websites, listened to early gaming podcasts, or checked in on various blogs or message boards, people did not have high hopes for the Wii. As they seemingly have since the days of the N64, people wondered aloud if this would be Nintendo’s last console release. Many seemed sure the Wii would fail with Nintendo’s “blue ocean” strategy failing to find the broad audience that they had intended it to.

We know how it all turned out, of course. Within just a couple of weeks, those same people were asking me how to get a Wii because they’d heard it was the hot Christmas “toy” in 2006. But those people did get in my head, and I wondered if lining up for the Wii the evening prior was silly. Would I be the only person in line? Would I be waiting for hours for no reason? Well, to alleviate that, I recruited our old friend Ron, who jumped at the chance to also get a Wii at launch. I lived in Alabama at the time, so we made plans for me to drive up the day before release and drive by the local Target that evening. If people were in line, we’d wait. If not, we’d come back later.

The drive from Montgomery, AL to Streamwood, IL takes about 12 or 13 hours, which I did without sleep. I arrived around 6pm, if I remember correctly, and after greeting his parents and unloading my luggage, Ron and I decided to drive to Target. The more we had talked about it, the more certain we were that there probably wouldn’t be anyone in line at that time, so we didn’t bring any equipment or anything. We pulled up and saw six people, clearly in line for the Wii. We were stunned and hurried back to his house to get everything we might need for a 12 hour campout. We were in a panicked rush because we were convinced 30 more people would show up in the fifteen minutes it took us to grab stuff and get back to the store, so we just grabbed some basics – a couple of blankets, some drinks, and some snacks. When we returned, no one else had jumped in line, so we set up camp as numbers six and seven. It may not come as a surprise, but throughout the night we continually wondered how many units the store would get and worried that it would, of course, be just five. Let me share a picture of the store from Google Street View:

That’s exactly where we lined up. See that low, concrete curb in front of the trees? We thought that would be an okay place to sit. For twelve hours. In a Midwestern November. After our asses began to harden into cubes of pure ass-ice, we had to make a change, so Ron ran home and got us sleeping bags and camping chairs, which helped. The temperature was still hovering around freezing, but we distracted ourselves by making separate runs inside the store, tossing a football around (until I jammed one of my frozen fingers), watching Jackass Number Two on Ron’s laptop, and getting food from the McDonald’s across the street. Our friend Gari also stopped by with more fast food, which was a nice distraction. But the night moved fairly quickly until around 1am. An hour later, Ron suggested we take turns napping in the car to pass the time, so I agreed and went first, at 2:30. I awoke at 4am to a call from Ron, letting me know it had started sleeting. I came out and Ron went in. It was so cold. Even with layers of clothing, a coat, a sleeping bag, and a hat and gloves, I was freezing. In the 1UP.com blog post I wrote about it at the time, I said “The snow was big and wet, although it wasn’t sticking to anything for too long. I pulled the sleeping bag up around me as much as I could, and pulled my hat down as far as it would go. It was still cold. Mainly because the cold snow/water on my sleeping bag would touch my neck or face every now and then, sending chills throughout my body.”

That’s me, far right and freezing.

I also tracked the number of people in line in that blog post, and reported that for most of the night there were 15 of us in line. By the time Ron woke up (and made another McDonald’s run), at 5:30am, there were around 25-30, at 6:45, around 35, and by 7am (when store employees came out to give us tickets and explain the situation) there were 45 or more people. The store director that came out said they only had 39 consoles, so several people (and the people that arrived later to try and just walk in and buy one) were turned away. After we got our tickets at 7, we were free to leave and come back at 8, when the store opened, so we packed up our stuff and dropped it off at Ron’s house before coming back to wait in the car. We were in and out in less than ten minutes once the store opened.

Ron picked up The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Excite Truck, and Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam. I picked up Twilight Princess and Trauma Center: Second Opinion. Once we had our hard-earned loot, we hit up a Wendy’s for the traditional celebration meal. I specifically remember getting a vanilla Frosty, which was a new thing at the time. Ron had sung its praises but I’d never been willing to try it because, uh, chocolate, duh. But to mark the occasion, I figured getting a vanilla Frosty to commemorate our shiny, vanilla-colored consoles was appropriate. We headed back to Ron’s place, enjoyed our feast, unpacked our systems, made our Miis, and then tried out each game. We were weirdly excited by the blue glow of the disc slot. I was in the first 20 or so minutes of Twilight Princess when I completely crashed. It was a long, cold, glorious night.

It wasn’t until the PlayStation 4, in November of 2013, that I bought another console at launch (the day before my birthday, of course). This experience wasn’t as exciting or eventful, in part because I preordered it as soon as anyone had the chance to do so, and didn’t have anyone to share the experience with at the time. I received the package on the day it was released, set it up, was impressed by both the new controller and the interface, spent a lot of time checking out the livestream apps (I think it was Twitch and… something with a D), and tried out Killzone Shadow Fall and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

Four years later, in March 2017, I once again decided to camp out for a console. This time: the Nintendo Switch. The Switch and the Wii’s launches were similar in that the consoles were so different than what many had expected that the hype around them was mixed, at best. Because of this, I had no idea what to expect in terms of a line, but when I drove by my local Target at 9pm the night before release, no one was lined up, so I went home and took a short nap. I woke up at 11pm and packed up what I thought I might need for the night: a camping chair, a phone charging thingy, a book, and a blanket. It was March but still cold, so I prepared for freezing temperatures. I drove to Walmart at 11:30pm for snacks, because they are open 24 hours, and as I was walking in it dawned on me that they might be selling the Switch at midnight. Sure enough, I made my way to the back of the store to find a pretty lengthy line. I got in it and waited the half hour, only to be three people short of getting one. I wasn’t too disappointed, though, because I had planned on camping out anyway. I got my snacks and drinks and headed to Target. I was the only person there.

I was able to take plenty of pictures with my phone, and many of them have captions because I sent them to friends on Snapchat. One of these captions informs me that it got down to at least 20 degrees, and I do remember it being very cold most of the night. I spent some time in my car, but because random overnight Target employees kept showing up and making me think they were going to steal my coveted first (and only) spot in line, I spent most of my time outside. I read Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Video Game Zinesters, played Pokemon GO (the Target was a PokeStop!), and for the first time ever, peed in a fast food cup (I had gotten food on my way from Walmart to Target). I wasn’t proud of it, but I did what I had to. When I first decided to try sitting in my car to warm up, I also set up my chair like a scarecrow to ward off the car that drove by every hour or so. It wasn’t until around 5am that someone else showed up: a young woman and her mother. She was getting the Switch for her boyfriend, as a surprise. We talked for a bit, which was nice. At around 6, other people started showing up. There was a younger guy who was, if I remember correctly, an NIU student, and a guy that was older than me. We chatted as a group about classic Nintendo games, what games we’d like to see on the Switch, and then just video games in general.

Many more people showed up right before 7am, when they handed out tickets (as they had for the Wii). I think I estimated there to be around 25, at the time, and I want to say the store got like 22 or 23 units. I was originally planning on getting the black version, but when the store director came out to distribute tickets he said they only had like seven of the blue and red versions, so I decided to get that one on a whim, heh. With the console, I picked up 1-2-Switch, a pro controller, and the special edition of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I got celebratory McDonald’s on the way home, then unpacked everything and chronicled it with pictures.

I camped out at the same Target with my friend Tab for the SNES Mini console, but I don’t know if that counts and I’m sure this is already too long, so I will spare you the details. I’ll just say that it was nice to have Tab there, it was cold (again), and we were first and second in line.

I won’t have the opportunity to camp out for the new consoles. I have a preorder for the PS5 and my local stores have said they are not allowing camping due to COVID. There is a new angle of anxiety in getting consoles now, with the mad scramble to beat fans, bots, and scalpers to a preorder click before the online orders disappear. It’s less taxing than camping out in the cold, but it’s also less fun, and it feels less fair. Maybe fair isn’t the right word. But competing with just the people in my area for a couple dozen units seems easier to navigate than competing with thousands of faceless strangers across the internet. I missed out on an Xbox Series X preorder and have been refreshing retails sites every day since, with no luck. I’ll have to try on launch day, but I’m already expecting to be disappointed.

Reflecting on my history with console launches has revealed a couple of patterns to me. One, not surprisingly, is anxiety. Whether it was securing a preorder and then worrying it wouldn’t be honored, or camping outside a store and then worrying that they would run out or someone would cut in line and get your console before you, there has always been a level of concern that (I think) shows how much these consoles mean to me. And it’s something that hasn’t gone away. That PS5 preorder I mentioned? I check almost every single day to make sure Target hasn’t canceled it. Why would they? I don’t know! But I worry. The other pattern is in the rituals that come with the post-victory glow. Getting something delicious to eat. Staring at the shiny new box as I (or we) eat said deliciousness. Gently (probably too gently) unboxing the unit and marveling at its sleek design. Taking a moment to appreciate that new console smell. This is a long post and I’ve gone over what seem like a lot of launches, but if you look at their release years, these things don’t happen very often. They are rarities, and when they generate magical memories, they become important parts of our identities as gamers. That is why I wanted to chronicle my journey here, and why I am looking forward to the next generation and many more to come.

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