As a child, I spent a lot of my time here –
It’s the Queensgate Centre in central Harlow. A little off-road retail park near the station, with everything a family could need for a solid day of retail therapy. There was a Pizza Hut, a Burger King, a garden centre, clothes shops, and even a cinema.
Just look at that. Look how grey and depressing it is. Look at the angular 90s cars. Look at how all the stores were basically just warehouses with signs. But then look at the logo peeking in at the right there, a shining light of hope and attraction. A world of hope and dreams. A PC World.
There was something about an electronics superstore that really appealed to me. This was the 90s, and technology was still new and exciting. We had a Windows 95 PC at home, and I’d spent hours just messing around on Paint, playing Chip’s Challenge, or messing around with screensavers. So for a child like me, a whole ‘world’ of this stuff was just heaven.
It was a place where the promises of tomorrow were always on sale. The newest processors boasted about their incredible speeds. Rows of Soundblaster soundcards enticed you with the latest in crystal clear audio. And then there were the games.
I loved games. I still love games. Computer games are probably my favourite thing in life. Most of the games I played were borrowed from Bishop’s Stortford library, where I’d rent and re-rent LucasArts adventure game classics like Monkey Island and Full Throttle. As a child without a steady income, hanging out in the aisles of game shops was a transcendent experience – seeing everything I could ever want, but not being able to have any of it.
But it wasn’t just PC World. Here’s a full ranking of all those wonderful secret grottos that I spent weekends wandering through.
Whatever happened to Tempo? They had the BEST jingle at the time – “Don’t sign on the dotted line until you talk to Tempo!”. I guess they couldn’t handle the competition from the other stores as they don’t exist anymore, and they didn’t offer an overwhelmingly impressive array of games. I’ve go have a look while my parents went to check out a fridge or something, but I’d often quickly run out. They did a lot of rubbish software too, 3D garden planners or budget trackers, that kind of useless stuff. I also recall the computer stuff being in some weird upstairs area too.
Is Comet still around? In my head it was always very similar to Currys – maybe they merged or something. In any case, they had a decent offering of games to check out, though I remember the aisles being quite narrow and dark. I bought a boxed copy of The Curse of Monkey Island here, and it’s one of my favourite games ever.
Completing the Holy Trinity of homogenous electronic stores, I can’t remember much about our Currys. Of the above three, this is the only one that still remains in the Harlow Queensgate Centre, so they must be doing something right. Average games-wise but pretty solid on the electronics front. I think they were one of the few ones that generally had a playable console available, which is a must for any decent games store.
2. Toys R Us
Not necessarily an electronics store, but it still did games very well. A large section of the shop was dedicated to games, and it was so beautifully presented. The games were all kept in brightly-lit white display cases, which you’d walk along and inspect. Instead of picking up any physical product, you’d simply retrieve a little slip for the game you wanted – a shopping experience almost gamified in itself. After checkout you’d proceed to a little separate desk, give the slip to the person, who’d disappear and return with a wonderful little gift that was all yours. I got so many games this way, and the slow, complex experience is deeply-rooted in my subconscious. Chucking £40 down on a game on Steam can’t replicate any of this. Give me a little yellow slip any day.
1. PC World
The undisputed master. Everything in-store was geared towards selling electronics and games. The gaming section was enormous and flowed across multiple aisles. And these were the latest and greatest in gaming. Games that you’d need a new computer to play. Games that would only play on Windows 98. Games that had more than 256 colours. 3D games.
You could probably buy every single game I saw then today for in total less than £20, but at the time it was some unattainable zenith of aspiration. I remember finally getting a double-pack of The Sims and its first expansion Livin’ It Up and it just making my whole year.
- WH Smith. Yes, WH Smith the stationers. For some reason, the one in Harlow town centre had loads of games (I think they still do in most places). And since there was always a reason to go into WH Smith I’d always manage to fit in a quick look-see. It was good mostly just to check out what new was out, rather than buying stuff. But still fun.
- Office World. Now overtaken by the more popular Staples, but Office World carried a decent selection of games too. I remember us getting our Windows 98 PC from there,
I know this is a really specific form of nostalgia, and it’s pretty self-indulgent for me to write about it. But this genuinely was a staple of my childhood and it’s something I’ve lost as an adult. I can just get whatever I want now that I have money. My enormous Steam backlog is a realisation of that bright-eyed kid’s dream of owning every game ever. But I’ll miss those times when this was all out of reach. The best games always live in our imagination.