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With Sears Heading Toward The Scrap Heap, Let's Remember Their Contributions To Gaming!

Ahh... Sears. It was the "" of the 20th Century, and an absolute retail juggernaut. Having offered both a substantial brick-and-mortar presence as well as a comprehensive mail-order catalog, they offered everything from bed linens to entire houses and just about everything in between. If you've been living under a rock since the early 90's and just emerged from your slumber, we're sorry to report that they have been going steadily downhill for the better part of two decades. That came to a head on October 15th, 2018, when they officially filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. While this is technically a step in reorganizing the company to forge a path back to profitability, most analysts and consumers are extremely skeptical that they will emerge, and it's likely the beginning of the end for the once-proud business. "Bbbbut... What does this have to do with video games, man?" I'm getting there, don't you worry. Since Sears sold basically everything under the sun, they also proudly sold video games! Since the dawn of gaming, they were there; selling the prehistoric stuff your parents were coveting as kids. They stuck with it until a few years ago, when they started pulling electronics from their stores. Let's take a look back in time, shall we?

Sears goes all the way back to the very beginning of home gaming. The Ralph Baer-designed Magnavox Odyssey was the first mass-marketed home console, and they happily sold them to consumers looking to get their technology on in the early 70’s. It was more or less a “Pong console”, or a console that played a variety of different Pong-style games. They used cartridges, but they were basically jumper packs that changed built-in system settings and held no ROM info. It also used overlays to add some “graphics” to the simple games. Also, on the opposite page, you’ll see a Pong clone marketed under the Sears Tele-Games banner. More on this in a few…

After a few more years, video games were becoming more commonplace on kids’ wish lists, and the Sears Tele-Games brand became strong enough for them to offer licensed clones of popular systems. When the Atari Video Computer System (later known as the Atari 2600) debuted in 1977, Sears was right there with the Sears Tele-Games Video Arcade. Not only did they have a distinct faux woodgrain, it also had a silver control panel and even the games had different names! Sears even got a few exclusives, including Stellar Track (a clone of the “Star Trek” game that was on many mainframe computers at the time) and Steeplechase (a port of an obscure Bronze Age Atari horse racing arcade game). Instead of Combat being packed in, you got Target Fun which was essentially Air-Sea Battle with a different name.

When Atari started redesigning the original VCS into various shapes and sizes, Sears-branded consoles received a few upgrades. While they did receive a four-switch version of the original Video Arcade, the coolest of the bunch was the sleek Video Arcade II. This was based on the overseas-only Atari 2800, and can be hard to find today. It looks similar to the later Atari 7800 Pro System, but is 100% 2600 under that cool shell.

Sears didn't just apply their Tele-Games label to Atari consoles. When Mattel came to market with their Intellivision, they were in on that too! The SUPER Video Arcade was their version of the Mattel console. While other brands, like Radio Shack’s Tandy Corp. got exclusive Intellivisions, none were as good looking as the exclusive white and woodgrain consoles sold at Sears. Along with the console, they had a line of Tele-Games branded cartridges to sell to video game hungry consumers.

By Christmas of 1983, the Sears Wishbook catalog joined just about every other major retailer in slashing prices on gaming items as a result of the Video Game Crash that you have probably heard about a million times by now. A lot of gaming stuff in the catalog that holiday season was slashed in half. Vectrexes and Colecovisions were particularly discounted, at $99 each. This was a great deal back then!

After the NES proved to be an unmitigated success, Sears made sure they had plenty of games to go around at their stores. Personally, my NES store of choice back in the day was Child World, but I remember begging my parents to let me take a look at the games every time I got dragged to the local Sears for clothes shopping. That Sears was smart; they put the video games right in the middle of the kids’ clothes section! What's that, Mario? Checkout the next page in the catalog for more games? Don't mind if I do!

My favorite part of the old Sears catalogs is looking through the games and seeing the screenshots. Sometimes, they will look nothing like the actual game (like Jaws) and sometimes, you are greeted with something that you don’t recognize. First game on the page… BLACK TIGER??? Apparently, Capcom told Sears that they were porting the side scrolling arcade game to the NES, and they even got a artist’s rendition of what it was supposed to look like, but the game never came out. These are always fun to find. Oh, and SORRY NOT AVAILABLE must be a cool game, because it’s on here twice! I kid… I kid… Gauntlet and Zelda II apparently got delayed after they paid for the artwork!

At some point, Sears decided to make another run at branding their video games selection as the Sears FunTronics department. This is how I remember the video games section of my local Sears. They had a big neon sign that I’d love to have hanging in my game room these days, and cases and kiosks of NES, SNES, Game Boy, TurboGrafx 16, and Genesis stuff. Again, it was planted right in the middle of the kids’ clothes, to the left of the Lee Dungarees. It’s seared into my brain forever. In the mall my local Sears was located, I usually walked right by this section and headed toward Child World, Software ETC, and/or Saturday Matinee because the prices were better.

Personally, I have a Sears heirloom to call my own in the form of a Tele-Games “Light-Sixer” and a handful of Sears-branded games. I picked mine up at a yard sale about 10 years ago in this sweet Atari hardshell travel suitcase. If Atari…err…Tele-Games need to be played, I can deploy this thing quicker than you can say Space Invaders! The thing is nearly 40 years old and works perfectly. Mutant roaches will be playing Breakaway IV hundreds of years from now after the end times come.

After the 16-bit era, the branding stopped, the exclusives went away, and the selection dwindled. It wasn't the same anymore. And sad to say, the same thing happened everywhere else in the store. A few years back, they just stopped selling games altogether. Hell, last time I went into that old store (which is still open somehow), they didn't even sell electronics at all. The TV's, cameras, and games were replaced with an endless sea of mattresses. How exciting.

So, let's remember Sears as it was. In its prime, it was a great place to grab games or even try something out on one of the kiosks. And as awesome as one-click buying on Amazon is, there's nothing like grabbing a hold of one of those giant Wishbooks and circling all the stuff you wanted for the holidays. Man, I will miss that forever.

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