Back to Old School
Game Land is never stumbled upon; it is always sought out. There is no storefront, and only one small sign, far from the door. Tucked in an empty hallway adjoining a Western Union on Santa Monica just off La Brea, Game Land is so well hidden that I was standing a few feet away, knew what I was looking for and still couldn’t find it. Like many of its wares, Game Land requires a quest, and for those who are successful, the place is revered. In this video-gaming Shangri-la, Zane, the proprietor, fills his shelves with the glowing treasure of rare and outdated video games that span the history of electronic home entertainment.
“We are the only place in Los Angeles that carries this kind of old-school stuff,” Zane tells a customer one day when I drop by. The customer’s looking for Mortal Kombat on Super Nintendo.
Game Land’s sharecropping on Western Union’s lower 40 makes it feel more like a swap meet than permanent retail space. About 10 feet down the hall, Western Union’s small bank of security-deposit boxes (which, being freestanding and maybe even homemade, look like they could get up and walk away themselves at night), gives way to an assembly of counters and shelves stacked with dense towers of game cartridges. And systems: Atari Lynx; Sega Genesis; Original PlayStation; the Atari Jaguar; Nintendos Classic, 64 and Super; Sega Dreamcast; and even the little-known NeoGeo, which, Zane is eager to explain, is a rare system from the late ’90s, a “rich man’s toy” with cartridges as big as VHS tapes. He carries those too, along with piles of accessories and controllers, including the coveted Dreamcast motion-sensing fishing-rod controller with vibration module. “I know I have M.K. on Super Nintendo,” Zane says as he searches high and low through the stacks like a reference librarian. “Let me think. No, not there. Here? Nope. Oh — here’s one! Right in the machine. It’s the demo unit, but you can have it. Wouldn’t want you to come all this way and leave empty-handed.”
Game Land opened in 2002. Zane made a transaction at the Western Union, noticed the empty hallway and called the owner of the building to ask about occupying it. Maybe people will leave the bank teller with some money, he thought, and then buy some games. “It was slow at first,” Zane says. “Some people do wander over from the Western Union.” Just then, a hard-luck-looking sort, trying unsuccessfully to cash a check, started yelling at the bulletproofed Western Union cashier and stormed out. “They also cause occasional trouble. But I love it back here.”
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Game Land does a brisk business with contemporary titles — a calendar on the wall announces new releases like Over G Fighters on 360 and Crusty Demons for Xbox — but Game Land became, in Zane’s words, “the only place you can get Jump Superstars, you know, the Japanese version of DS Smash Brothers with the Naruto and Dragonball Z characters.”
Good reputation has made up for Game Land’s bad exposure. By the first Christmas, word got out. The seekers arrived, looking for the old-school games, imports, old-school imports and other specialty items only Zane could provide. In video-game retail, where the margins are thinner than in consumer electronics, and moving volume is supposed to be the only way to survive, Zane’s deep inventory and encyclopedic knowledge fill a void for connoisseurs. “Best Buy is across the way, and so is Electronics Boutique,” he says, “and they sell a hundred times more games, but all mainstream, all new, and that’s why they send people over here all the time. They’re cool like that.”
It’s true. That’s how I wound up at Game Land. And as we’re talking, a fan kid wanders in, sent moments before by the clerks at Electronics Boutique. “This place is tight!” he says, eyeing the shelves in awe. “I’ve kept all my cartridges since I was little. I had no idea you were here. How much for the Mega Man?”
At first, the kid said that $59 for Mega Man X2 and $99 for X-3 was a bit much, but Zane explained that they’re collector’s items. “That’s not even peak. I used to get $129 for X-3.” The kid asks about some stuff hanging on the wall. “Bleach 3, that’s a kick-ass fighting game,” Zane says, launching into a full spiel. “Valkyrie Profiles, Breath of Fire, Radiant Silver Fun — I got all the new sick stuff here.” After a tour of the stacks, the kid eventually bought one of the Mega Man titles he originally coveted.
“Thanks,” he says, heading out the door, stunned by his good fortune.
“Have fun with that,” Zane calls out from behind the counter. “And don’t stay up too late.”
Game Land 4632 Santa Monica Blvd., ?Hollywood, (323) 664-8750
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