Growing up, I had always been a few years behind on getting a new console. We didn’t get our NES until 1988, so I don’t blame my parents for not immediately upgrading to one of the 16-bit systems a year or two later. Likewise, since it was 1992 by the time we got a Genesis, having a PlayStation or Saturn just three years later wasn’t in the cards. Well, after getting a PlayStation for Christmas in 1997, I was 16 years old and knew that was probably going to be the last console my parents were ever going to buy for me. Unfortunately, I was still in high school (and not working) when the Dreamcast launched, and even though I finally had a job and some disposable income the summer that I graduated, I was already riding the PlayStation 2 hype train hard. So I decided that the first console I ever bought for myself was going to be the PS2, and moreover, I was finally going to have a brand new console on launch day.
I don’t remember why neither Steve nor myself bothered trying to preorder a PS2. It was obvious that the PS2 launch was going to be a pretty big deal, and even though nobody could’ve predicted the launch shortages and the months and months it would take for the system to be readily available, we must have known that getting one on launch day wasn’t going to be a sure thing. Whatever the reason, we forwent the whole preorder process entirely and decided that it might be fun to just camp out at one of the stores that didn’t take preorders and hope for the best. If nothing else, it would be a fun experience, we figured.
We assumed that Best Buys were going to be the preferred option for most campers, so we decided that we’d find a Target – a place that maybe slightly less people would think of – and set up shop there. Coincidentally, the Target we ended up scoping out was one that was adjoined to a Best Buy, but that didn’t seem to make a difference either way. And at this point we were just feeling places out anyway. After walking around that Target for a bit around 9pm, we were feeling like this might be a good one to pick – it wasn’t in Chicago but was in a close enough, big enough suburb that they should still get a fair number of systems. On our way out, we saw that two people had already set up folding chairs, and when we asked them the basically rhetorical question of whether or not they were there for PS2, they confirmed that they were. So then we panicked: Oh my god, if people are already setting up here, and the store isn’t even closed yet, what is it going to look like in a few hours? We had been figuring that we’d casually roll up to Target around 3 or 4 in the morning and that that would suffice, but it was obvious that we were foolishly mistaken. So we rushed to Steve’s house, grabbed a couple of chairs and heavier coats – it was late October in the Midwest, after all – and flew back to the store, securing our places as the 3rd and 4th people in line. As other people came and went from the store in that final 15 minutes or so before it closed at 10, we watched as other people experienced the same panic upon seeing us as we had when we saw numbers 1 and 2 in line, and we could read their minds as they hatched the same plan that we had. We glanced over at Best Buy, which had already been closed for 45 minutes, and it too already had a handful of people lined up. PS2 launch madness had officially begun, as did a very long, very cold night.
The people that we were in line with were all pretty cool. When you’re surrounded by like-minded people who share your passion for a specific thing, it can be a great bonding experience. It only took an hour or so before we were all talking and laughing like old friend, admittedly very little of it actually about video games. Most of that was gotten out of the way early on. At around 2am, punchiness began to set it, and that’s when the semi-playful heckling began between our line and Best Buy’s. The Best Buy line felt smug about their chosen store, and were certain that they were more likely to get a system than we were. Not literally Steve and I, as there was no doubt that the store was going to get at least four consoles, but the latter half of the line, which had swelled to about 20 people at that point. Buzz spread through the group that some guy in the Best Buy line was actually camped out not for a PS2, but to be able to get Majora’s Mask first thing the next morning, which probably not coincidentally was releasing on the same day. There was very little that could make a dent in the massive excitement for the PS2, but Nintendo figured that releasing a brand new Zelda game was one of the only things that would even have a shot at it. We still don’t know for sure if there even was a guy there camped out just for Majora – it seemed unlikely – but it didn’t stop us from adding that ridiculousness to our Best Buy line heckling.
One of the cool things about the Target that we chose is that the store had a security guard out there keeping an eye on the line all night, making sure things stayed safe and organized. He was actually really cool, joking with us, chatting about the system, and making sure that people got their original spot back if they left to go get coffee or use the bathroom. He also knew exactly how many consoles the store was getting – or already had, he was vague about that fact, probably intentionally so – and cut off the line once every system was spoken for. This meant that everyone in the line was guaranteed a system; no random unfair lotteries, nobody waiting in vain for hours only to find out they are 31st in line and the store only got 30. It was a really fair, really efficient way of doing things.
I don’t remember exactly what time it was when Steve and I finally decided to take advantage of the guard’s monitoring of everybody’s spots and wondered off to find a bathroom, but it finally had to be done. The closest thing in walking distance was a grocery store, and many grocery stores are open for 24 hours so we thought that was out best bet. This one wasn’t. So as we were heading back, we decided to just take advantage of one of the best things about being a guy and take a leak outside. On the other side of the street of the grocery store was a big empty field, just off of the main road. Sure enough, as we stepped over the guard rail and began scoping out a place to go, the very next car that came into view was a police car, and the flashing lights went on immediately as it pulled over next to us. The passenger side window came down, and the female police officer inside asked us what we were doing. A fair question: It was the middle of the night, and here were two young men wandering around in a dark, empty field. Luckily, we hadn’t actually started relieving ourselves yet – and therefore hadn’t exposed any illegal-to-expose parts of our bodies – so I wasn’t terribly worried that we’d be in any trouble. That is, until Steve opened his mouth.
“We were going to take a piss,” Steve replied. In those exact words. To a female police officer. In the middle of the night. I thought for sure we were about to spend the night in a police station instead of outside a Target.
The officer was visibly taken aback by Steve’s brashness, and snapped back, “Well you know you can be arrested for that, right? What are you guys doing out here to begin with?”
We explained ourselves, and pointed to the nearby Target, knowing that her driving by there and seeing the two lines would corroborate our story. “Okay, get back over there then,” she instructed, and I apologized and thanked her and off we went. As we walked back, I berated Steve for almost getting us arrested. He chuckled, seemingly nonplussed by the whole thing. Such was our typical dynamic: me being nervous and worried about everything, and him being completely un-phased by anything.
Back in line, it wasn’t long before traces of sunlight began to peek over the horizon. By now, our silliness had reached ridiculous proportions, to the point that when a feeble old man got out of his car and made his way to the store via walker, our reply (to each other, not actually loud enough for him to hear) was: “Psh, whatever, you aren’t getting a spot in line. Nice try though.” Again, we were 19 and 20, so keep that in mind before judging our meanness too harshly.
Store management decided they were going to let us in a half hour early so they could get us rang up and out of the way before the store opened. Just before that, two guys dressed in expensive suits came walking up and offered $300 each to whoever would give up their spots in line. Mind you, this was $600 just for the two physical places in line – they’d still have to pay that for the system itself. They went up the line, starting from the beginning, and the first 6 or 7 off us passed, trying to look as disgusted and judgemental as we could (as if they gave a damn). Sure enough, they found two guys – a middle-aged man and his early-20’s son – to take the money and run. I don’t completely blame the guys who took the cash; $600 just to stand in a line for 5 or 6 hours is nothing to sneeze at. But these two yuppie a-holes had left a bad taste in our mouths, and we grumbled and glared at them as we went into the store. However, all of that was quickly dashed as we realized how cool it was to have full access to the electronics section of Target before the store opened, as we were allowed to shop for whatever additional games and accessories we wanted. I had already stocked up on games, a memory card, and an extra controller in the weeks prior, as much of that had gone on sale in advance of the launch. And I already had my first three DVDs all ready to watch: a Toy Story 1&2 double pack and, um, Shanghai Knights starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. So all I bought that day was my system. I wrote my personal check for $323 and change (damn sales tax) and hoped they weren’t going to process the check on the spot as I didn’t actually have the money in my account yet to clear the check in that moment (damn fast food salary). But they accepted my bounce-worthy check, and I walked out with my brand new system.
Although the launch lineup was widely considered to be underwhelming, SSX and especially Timesplitters were enough for me to justify my purchase and keep me busy for awhile, even as that second round of noteworthy titles took just a little too long to hit the following spring. I’d also be lying if I said there wasn’t a certain smugness to reading about the launch shortages and how many people wanted a system but couldn’t get one for the next 6 months or so. It was cool to feel like I was part of a select, elite club who had this cutting-edge system that millions wanted but couldn’t have. Sure, it would’ve been a lot easier to just preorder one and be able to casually stroll into a store that morning and grab one. And I doubt I’d ever camp out for anything ever again (a few hours early for a Black Friday sale is probably the most I’ll do). But that was a really fun and memorable experience that I’m glad I did at least once, and it has made the 15 years I’ve spent playing that amazing system – and yes, I still have my same launch day system, and it still works – just that much sweeter.