It is said that all roads lead to Rome. If you've ever visited the city, it's easy to see why mainland Europeans might've wanted an easy route there. No other European capital sports such a wealth of historical curiosities. From its incredible feats of human engineering in The Pantheon and The Colosseum, to some of the world's best loved pieces of art in The Vatican Museums, there is definitely something for everyone in Italy's capital. So naturally, I'm looking for Retro Games.
A quick Google reveals two possible locations to get my fix of Nintendo nostalgia. The first was conveniently a stone's throw away from where we were staying in San Giovanni, so I'd planned it to be my first port of call. Unfortunately, on arrival at where Google told me it was, the store was long gone. Cursing my luck and not wanting to partake in the Pilates the location now provided, I walked back the way I came and stopped into one of the city's many GameStop locations.
After a quick scan of the store, I could see that the chain doesn't stock Retro in Italy, with their oldest stock being PSP and DS. They did however have a great stock of video game related merch. I debated buying a plush Bub from Bubble Bobble before I spotted a Game Boy backpack - something I had to have, because, well, it was a Game Boy backpack... Their selection of current gen titles was pretty vast, and I snagged a copy of Arcana Hearts 3 for Vita at a bargain €8. I asked the store manager while ringing through my purchase where I could find anything retro in the city. She openly admitted that she wasn't sure of any stores because she bought her retro titles exclusively online these days, but told me 'If you're looking for things like Super Nintendo, your best bet is checking out a Mercantino.' She then marked out the nearest location on my incredibly crumpled city map, before bidding me a nice stay in Rome.
X Marks The Spot
Now we were getting somewhere! When Super Nintendo is your immediate goto for a thrift store stock, it must be good! My mind started reeling at the possibilities! I imagined the possibilities of €5 Extremely Rare deals such as countless copies of Whirlo on the SUper Nintendo and baskets of Aerostar Game Boy cartridges.
I entered Mercantino and my eyes lit up. The entrance hall was full of display cases with beautiful vintage pipes and watches. They had solid looking oak furniture with golden handles as far as the eye could see. The slightly over baring splendour was balanced by a selection of novelty aprons, ceramic cats and well browsed books that haunt any thrift shop worth its salt, confirming I was in the right place.
My immediate thought was that I had just stumbled on the greatest thrift store on Earth. I grinned from ear to ear as I went into scavenger mode, while the other half disappeared into the cafe to let me get on with it. I'm happy to confirm in the here and now, I was somewhat right in my assumption that this was a great thrift store. Unfortunately though, not for video games
As I scanned the various cabinets and bookshelves, my enthusiasm began to dip. Scattered around the electronics, were various PSP titles (Loco Roco, €5), the odd PS3 collectors edition (Ninja Gaiden, €15), and an affordable priced DSi (white, €30). All nice items, but not the Super Nintendo my over active imagination had come to expect. I got closer to the media counter and I was met with a few nicer items.
In another large display cabinet was an Italian ZX Spectrum in a custom case with some games (€25), not to mention a boxed Mario 25th Anniversary Wii (€55). Encouraged by this wealth of affordably priced consoles that I'm still kicking myself for not having the room in my luggage for, I approached the counter and popped my English speaking life raft to an Italian conversation.
Fortunately the chap behind the counter did! I asked if the store had any more retro games or Nintendo and he said they did. Across from the counter was a section of vintage toys that again, was awash with glass cabs and bookcases. He showed me a pile of titles from the last gen, before leading my to a cabinet he said they kept all the retro games in. I stood in wonder at the cabinet filled with Starcom and boxed Ultraman toys, my eyes scanning for those sweet, sweet Super Nintendo titles.
What I found however, was not a €5 Whirlo, but a lone GBA cart that I was presented enthusiastically by the clerk. At €3, who could say no to a copy of Hamtaro - Ham-Ham Heartbreak...? The correct answer is anyone with an inch of sanity, but as the guy was holding it as if he'd just presented me with the Golden Fleece of Gaming, I didn't have the heart to tell him it was actually a turd.
Disappointed with my luck, I decided to abandon my video game hunting for the rest of the day, instead opting to soak in the city and it's fascinating history. I walked around with the girlfriend, eating gelato and pointing at buildings with the authority of a historical scholar. I didn't have the heart to tell her I only knew the names of they city's landmarks because of Assassin's Creed 2 (sorry love!), but be sure remember this story when tell you video games aren't educational kids!
Rome wasn't built in a day...
The next day however, my route was planned and there was no doubt in my mind hat the second store, Retro Games Club, was open and trading because Facebook said so! We traveled through Italy's Metro system and made it to the store only to find it closed! I was distraught. The sign on the door said it was open, even Facebook page said it was open! Was everything on Facebook a lie?!
Fortunately, it was then I noticed the sign on the door that said call for assistance. At least I noticed a phone number and a sign in Italian, fortunately my girlfriend was able to translate it. I handed her my phone and she called the number. After a few Italian sentences that ended in laugh and a ciao, she told me he'd gone to get coffee.
"Coffee? But he just opened 30 minutes ago?"
"Of course" she replied. "Welcome to Italy."
After a few minutes, the store owner arrived full of smiles and opened the door to what I can only subscribe as a Scrooge's Vault of video gaming paraphernalia! There were cabinets full of games for any console I could think of and then some. They had a Playdia and games for Christ sake! When do you ever see a Playdia in the wild? I composed myself and after a short scavenge, found what I'd been hoping for. Two cabinets full of boxed Game Boy games!
As I approached the cabinet, the owner actually handed me his phone with an apologetic smile.
"We've got too much stock to browse really, you can check what we have online."
It's a phrase that's both a blessing and a curse. I enjoy the act of looking for games. The possibility find something poking out of a cabinet that's underpriced or just screams 'Buy Me!' because of its titillating obscurity, is what it’s all about for me. To simply have to browse a website took all the fun out of it as it was something I could do from home, no matter how large the stock was.
So I began to flick through a few pages of Gameboy titles with nothing catching my eye other than the prices, all of which seemed to be around current eBay evaluations. I handed back the phone and ask if there were any loose carts or unlisted items, to which he pointed at the top shelf. And there I saw it, in all of its minty glory, a copy of Dragon Warrior 3 for the Gameboy Color.
With it not getting a release in Europe, it's been a game that has alluded me for years. But there it was, in a box that looked as though it'd been hand delivered from some time traveling Nintendo Salesman. However, in my glee I asked the price and was slapped in the face by reality.
"€120 Euros" he said "that's the current eBay rate." The phase everyone hates to hear when negotiating a retro gaming purchase…
The immediate internal monologue of 'sell it on eBay then!' started to play in my head (I found out later he’d tried, as it was on the store's eBay page when I got home), but I remained calm. I asked about a few other Japanese titles, namely Puyo Puyo 1 & 2 (€12 a piece), Star Sweep (€20) and Sunsoft's Batman (€70). Naturally, the dark knight remained.
The other 4 titles sat on the counter though, all supposed €164 worth of it. I whipped out the phone and began to haggle down the price, eventually settling on €150 for the lot. Yes, I hear you, I know DWIII can be had for cheaper, but they were all titles I wanted and it had been a slow month of flea markets.
I said my good byes to the store, contemplated buying the Playdia until I saw it's €200 price tag, and headed for the airport. While I was still cursing my luck at not finding a boxed copy of Aerostar, I was a little bit happier knowing I could kill the plane ride with one of Enix's finest adventures. As I removed it from the little baggie of newness that Gameboy Color titles used to ship in, I was glad I'd decided to get it. It was expensive, but is now the jewel in a sizable boxed Gameboy Color collection.
All in all, Rome is an incredibly enjoyable city. I was fascinated by its wealth of historical architecture and fantastic food, even if it wasn't a great place to go retro hunting. I highly recommend The Vatican Museums as a cultural highlight, as if you're a fan of art you're going to be absolutely blown away by The Sistine Chapel. Just take a day to walk around it, rather than do it in three hours like we did.
It's honestly now one of my favourite cities and I look forward to returning to take the Coliseum tour, walk the grounds of Saint Angelo's castle, but all the while, I’ll keep an eye open for that elusive €5 Whirlo...