Photos by Kiki Vassilakis
A CDTA bus slams to a halt as a middle-aged man leaps from his car, which he abandons in front of the bus in the center of Fourth Street in Troy. The man tugs on shorts as he walks determinedly towards the store at 71 Fourth. He raises his fist and slams it against the storefront’s large glass panel. “Get out here! Let’s go! Now!” he shouts, perhaps to his son. Around 70 heads turn in unison, away from the glow of old-school CRT televisions and into the darkness of the night sky. The chatter of young voices and clatter of video-game controllers that has filled the room dissipates. The man, perhaps caught off guard by the glare of so many eyes, pivots, returning to his car. The bus surges forward and traffic begins to move. The decibel level in the room quickly rises again. The mix of teens to early thirty-somethings, male and female, unpause their games and return to battle. Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, Ken, Ryu, Heihachi, Paul and various other popular video-game characters return to to bashing their opponents’ digital brains in.
For years Joseph Pirro, owner of Pastime Legends, a group of retro game stores in Scotia, Albany, Troy and Ventura, California, and his employees have worked to build a community around Smash Bros., a fighting-game series published by Nintendo that features a cast of well-known and whimsical characters doing battle in outlandish settings. The game is simple, accessible and full of nostalgia for the characters Nintendo made popular in the ’80s.
That community-building effort has been comprised of hosting tournaments in Pastime Legends’s Troy store on Thursday nights, sponsoring regional tournaments at places like Proctors and with students at RPI and sponsoring players so that they could focus on building their skills and compete on the national level. This Thursday night in Troy marks an evolution for the community, as Pirro has opened an extension to his Troy store that functions as a tournament center–an arcade where anyone can pay a few dollars to play retro games on old televisions, and a broadcast center where competitors can stream their matches to Twitch, a popular online streaming platform that allows viewers to sponsor the streams they enjoy.
This past weekend Smash Bros. players and competitive fighting-game enthusiasts from around the world traveled to Las Vegas for The Evolution Championship Series (EVO) to compete for large cash awards. The tournament purse for Super Smash Bros Evolution totaled $14,280, with the first-place finisher from Sweden winning $8,568. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U garnered a $15,150 prize pool. For comparison, more sophisticated and recently published titles like Tekken 7 and Street Fighter V garnered $27,860 and $76,250 prize pools, respectively. Pirro would like to see his local players compete in these large tournaments–some already have.
EVO’s matches were not only broadcast online, but ESPN2 aired The Street Fighter V finals, while Disney XD showed finals for the more kid-friendly Smash Bros. WII U.
Pirro’s “arcade” is likely going to be dubbed The Blast Zone, although he hasn’t totally settled on a name. It didn’t suddenly burst into existence through some large cash expenditure or spur-of-the-moment decision that supporting a niche video-game scene would be a lucrative venture. Pirro took his time and pieced the ingredients together by various means. “We’ve been investing in the Smash community for years,” Pirro says, sitting in a large-backed, faux-leather gaming chair set in front of a computer, a large broadcast microphone and the image of a Smash Bros. character-select screen being projected onto the purple wall just over his head. “A lot of places have been moving towards LCD’s and flatscreens, but these games weren’t designed to be played on them.”
Pirro’s solution to the problem of capturing the authentic feel, and optimal performance of playing a game on a CRT television was to hunt down the kind of television sets most everyone has already thrown out or freed themselves of for a couple of quarters during a summer yard sale. Pirro says some of the 25 TVs set up in The Blast Zone were donated, some Pirro secured by less conventional methods: picked up on the side of the road, or purchased from recycling centers. “They work well for Smash because they are lagless,” says Pirro. In other words, the game’s images are displayed in time with actions made by players on a controller; modern TVs are less responsive and don’t display blacks as well as old-school tube televisions.
The televisions are set up on displays purchased from Radio Shacks that recently went out of business, as was the large wooden front desk where Pirro’s staff greets incoming customers. The fancy gamer chairs were bought from a local gaming store that also went out of business. The storefront itself was, until very recently, the home to Foam Brain Games, a store dedicated to selling tabletop, board and card games.
Pirro’s business model is very much based on that same combination of dogged do-it-by-any means determination and the valuing and preservation of old media. Pirro started Pastime legends with his partner and now-wife Emily after successfully selling old games at a flea market. They’ve expanded across the Capital Region and recently to California, thanks to their interest in the culture and community that surrounds retro gaming. “I’ve got my record player and laser discs upstairs,” Pirro says, laughing. “I just love dead formats.”
But the Smash Bros. community in upstate New York isn’t dead–it’s growing. Pirro employed a local organizer to put together regular tournaments and do outreach to local colleges like RPI, where there is already an established Smash community. Some of his regulars are actually quite famous in the international gaming community. Michael Oliver, a soft-spoken, redheaded 25-year-old with gaming glasses covering his eyes is manning the desk tonight. He goes by the name OmegaTyrant on YouTube, where he has nearly 15,000 followers. He posts videos of in-game encounters and various exploits he’s found playing Smash Bros. Some of his videos have upwards of 80,000 hits. “When I started playing we’d get five or six people out. More recently we got around 30 or so, but it was cramped,” Oliver says, motioning to Pastime Legends’ Troy location. “Hopefully, Joe takes off with this and it keeps growing.”
The turnout on this Thursday maxes out somewhere near 100 people. The official tournament goes late into the night, ending somewhere around midnight. Cash prizes are handed out and the kids start a slow trickle out the door. One gamer, who lent Pirro his computer in order to broadcast the tournament to Twitch, is employed at a local nuclear power facility. He can’t say what his job is there. But he finds nostalgia, relaxation and community at Pastime Legends.
Another, older group of players is made up of professionals who long for the old days of hanging out in arcades and competing at games like Street Fighter 2 and Tekken. They don’t think much of Smash; they’d rather have a booming community focused on more competitive games. But Pastime gives them a place to meet and act out a tradition they’ve kept up for over a decade.
“A bunch of us started at Cyberstation [an arcade that used to be in the food court at Crossgates Mall]. There was a huge Dance Dance Revolution scene and people played a lot of Tekken. Upstate New York is Tekken Country,” explains Jonathan Vargas, a married man who works for a prominent union. “Cyberstation closed and I ended up befriending folks at Play and Trade [a video game store] in Colonie Center. So Play and Trade closed and for a while we were playing in China Walk across from Hudson Valley [Community College]. Someone from there was cool with one of our players from the Tekken days and they had a few cabinets in the store. They let us come in on Wednesday nights–I guess it was a slow day–and set up and play. Then later I found out about Pastime in Troy and I made it my business to find another person to let us play in the store. We bring in foot traffic.”
As the crowd thins, Pirro acts as a coach, giving teens tips on how to play competitively. He allows some players to beat up on him virtually a bit, then offers words of encouragement and gratitude to players as they exit the store–like a high school coach, but friendlier.
“We’re really in this for the community,” says Pirro. “We aren’t planning to make a bundle. Twitch subscriptions will really help support the store, and I’m going to be running the store, so that should defray some costs. In the end we just want people to come and play.