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The Lost Art of Videogame Shops

Started by 4lorn, May 22, 2022, 08:03:54 PM

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It might be a surprise for someone who doesn't enjoy exploring the fringes of gaming as often as I do that there is actually a dearth of thematic cataloging of videogames. Certainly, a database like Mobygames is helpful in finding release dates or genres; and TVTropes has *some* uses beyond its short-term diversions, I guess. For more esoteric or specific analysis, however, supply is usually lacking, something made more puzzling by anyone's ability to create a Wiki from the ground up but instead just using these alternate repositories for copy-pasted data. It's easy to find games set within a single time period, but how about games taking place in a single location throughout their length? You can find a listing of every single character that's starred in the Super Smash Bros. series, but about some arena-based fighting arcade game geneology that manages to not skip out on the brilliant The Outfoxies?

To wit: I've always enjoyed videogame stores, and it has been with a decades-old sigh I've watched these become little more than windows into power gamers and statisticians' compulsive demeanor, with tabs upon tabs of hit rates, weapon decay, armor resistances, ammo trajectory and so on. It makes for a functional system within a system, sure, but it's charmless. What once felt rewarding after a long day of adventuring or a way to gauge a new town's economy (maybe even hear some rumors in there), now barely feels anything more than an item dump; especially since most ingame stores will behave the same because why wouldn't an alchemist buy 23 broken Claymores, anyway. But hey, as long as it's first-person, it's more immersive, right?

I feel that, at least for a while, Capcom was one of the studios that succeeded in endowing their ingame stores with a little charm, mystery, and even some humor, all the while using gorgeous art. By no means be-all-and-end-all examples, I really enjoy these shop scenes they crafted for some of their games.

Black Tiger (Arcade, 1987)

Simple, but nice layering effect from the curtains and the skull pedestals. They clearly went with sprite mirroring to save space and create a monolithic suggestion of space, and then broke the symmetry down with duplication of the mace sprite and repeating texture patterns on the wall.

Forgotten Worlds (1988)

The shop manifests during a level, taking players inside once they touch it. But while the outside has a rather dingy, industrial feel, the inside is very different.

Quite an intricate design for a good portion of the shop interface, and what a gorgeous color combo; it reminds me of some of Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance's more daring tonal clashes. The shading on the vendor's skin tones and blue dress is really nice, and that slightly dark red was a great choice for contrast. The whole thing has a kind of baroque aura. Of all the home conversions, the PC Engine CD remained pretty faithful here.

Willow (1989)

For a game with great pixel art all around, it might seem weird to single out the rather plain-looking shop, but it's interesting to note that once again it goes for the gold and dark red contrast; only this time, the red is slightly warmer and is clearly vertical, as opposed to Forgotten World's orientation. I dig the seller's expression and how most items have a chunky shading.

U.N. Squadron (1991)


Usually, most home conversions of arcade games weren't really on the same level as the original, with less competent GPUs and processors leading to frankly abysmal results - and U.N. Squadron is certainly one of the better examples of this (the ZX Spectrum conversion is actually unbearably slow). However, I've always felt the opposite regarding Capcom's take on Area 88, finding the SNES version the better experience. There are fewer frames on display, sure, but it's still a solid, fast-paced shooter experience, with detailed artwork, an interesting health system, and a throbbing soundtrack.

The arcade screenshot here is a bit misleading; the vacant space to the right will be occupied by Player 2. The arcade's art is obviously bigger, and bolder. McCoy is well drawn in both versions, so that's a tie. But while I like both... the colors on the SNES version give it a cleaner, smoother look. Also, the camouflage greens and cyan make for a better contrast than their darker counterparts.

Megaman VII (1995)

The end of an era, somewhat. With the exception of this, Rockman & Forte, and Megaman Legends, nearly every subsequent Megaman title decided to focus on character development with as much pathos as Shadow the Hedgehog; unsurprisingly, this brought much excitement to 12-year-olds around the world. Megaman Battle Network was an exception, but the concept was already spent by the 2nd episode. Megaman VII might not be as wonderfully expressive as Rockman & Forte - understandable, since that one was adapted from Megaman 8 - but is just brimming with color and detail.


What's there not to like here, really? Megaman VII's shop is bulky without feeling stuffy; the outside is tall and symmetrical without feeling too imposing thanks to great use of color to suggest volume and shape. The inside is a bit darker but still colorful. Notice how the shop's outline remains the same shape as the outside, being shown as a sort of cutaway. Not pictured: Auto will perform a little dance move after you bring him a Hyperbolt. MMVII has many little humorous touches strewn about, actually.

Demon's Crest/Demon's Blazon

Dark and brooding, Demon's Crest was never as lighthearted as Ghosts'n Goblins - but what a way to set up a mood!


There are actually 4 "stores" in the game, one being used for a headbutting minigame, and their layout is almost always the same - but notice the fine detailing. Notice the state of disrepair of the Talisman Sage's abode, in particular, the open books lying about as if cast aside once their knowledge had been consumed; this is clearly the home of someone too obsessed with knowledge to pay attention to mundane items (or cleaning!). The Wise Man spell shop is somewhat the opposite: its tomes are better organized and the seller is focusing on his crystal ball. The Potion Shop owner seems to beckon you to come forth, his wares - disgusting as some may seem - neatly placed. He has a shop to run, after all. Are those eyes behind the cage his pet guards - or is he simply keeping stock for his next potion batch? The pink demon guarding the minigame store simply awaits new customers. The way he pats his belly and the bulging gold coin pouches on his waist suggest he's quite well off.

Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom (1993)

This is what I'm talking about. An excellent side-scrolling beat'em up for up to 4 players, with great artwork, great pacing and scene-setting, a pretty competent D&D adventure that actually implements some well-known spells and creatures, and choices and consequences that actually impact your progress. Why did WoTC hire Bioware instead of Capcom?


After every stage, the story moves forward and players are presented with these. What are those books on the background about? What could be stored in those sacks? Why is that rapier not for sale? Is that sword and that shield reserved for a client? And that single chest on the top right corner... What could be inside it? It's the kind of store you feel like exploring, where even the most simple of items can leave you wondering. All in all, they're pretty good stores, and Capcom even went the extra mile, drawing a different vendor for each store and giving them different dialogue. Some will palette shift, even. I adore that uneven stonework in the background near the candle.

Arguably, the orange palette seems to subdue or drown out the composition. Regardless, I think the green and blue palettes complement the store better.

Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara (1996)


More characters, more adventuring, just more overall. You even have time to visit a Gnome village and are shrunken down just to fit in. I don't have many screenshots of this on my hard drive, but Capcom certainly improved the stores with more detailed texture work, lighting and variance - unlike the prequel, there are different backgrounds. There are vendors of different races: Human, Drow, Orc, and all with different animations. One of them is from the Gnome village, and he walks back and forth over the weapon counter.

Just great, really.

The Beaky Buccaneer

I wasn't sure from the title whether this would be about real-life video game stores (which I feel have also suffered over the same time-period, with a lot of interesting independent outlets the world over being pushed out by large conglomerates) or in-game ones, but what a treat it turned out to be!

Off of the top of my head I can only think of a couple of in-game stores from the pixel-art era to share here (and they're both from the same game; I'll come back if any others pop into my head*), but I just wanted to say what a fantastic read this was. I agree that Capcom seemed to be the best at imbuing their in-game shops with personality and charm, by the way!

*I'm assuming that more modern in-game stores, such as those of the Animal Crossing series, or those of the early polygonal era when a lot of genres got often-unnecessary in-game shops added just because of focus-groups or box-ticking, are a bit outside of the scope of this thread?

Anyway, for me, the first thing that sprang to mind was the shop from Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap for the Master System, manned by the now-iconic one-eyed smoking pig;

You actually first meet this guy giving out passwords in a village church, but the graphic used is the same, with the pig holding a cigarette in one trotter and leaning on the counter with his other arm, seemingly looking up from doing nothing in particular in order to stare at you (maybe he's annoyed that he has to keep running between the two places for the player's sake?). The shop is really just a simple menu, but the look of the shopkeeper always made me wonder what this guy's deal was - did he work his way up to where he was through hardships, was he in a war, or was he just a local dodgy-dealer whose store happened to be the only game in town? Though they don't show details like the wares surrounding the shopkeeper, the dark tiles behind him give the impression of a dimly-lit and grungy place, as does his smoking habit.

Growing up in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s, when there weren't yet any laws aimed at cutting down on second-hand smoke, this guy and his apparent glare always reminded me of pokey little independent shops that smelled of cigarettes all the time, whose proprietors inexplicably never seemed to be all that happy that customers wanted to shop at their establishments, so I always interpreted the pig as being a bit of a shifty or shady sort of character. :laugh:

The other "shop" was really the game's hospital;

It's more-or-less the same menu as the shop, but with only one option, and a "shopkeeper" graphic depicting a friendly nurse, instead. Again, no wares or implements to be seen apart from the partial outline of a door with an emergency light above it, but the clean, bright tiles behind her give the impression of this being a far more wholesome establishment than the smoking pig's place. It was neat how this use of colour and facial-expression allowed both shops to have a different tone, even though technically there's very little difference between them.

The nurse didn't really make too much of a long-term impact, but the one-eyed smoking pig ended up being well-remembered enough that he reprised his role for the hand-drawn remake of his original game (titled simply "Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap" this time around), and his likeness also appeared as one of the protagonist's transformations in the spiritual-sequel, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom.

Again, great thread - thanks so much for posting it! :thumbsup:


Hey, glad you enjoyed it! :thumbsup:

Oh, feel free to draw from whatever time period and platform you wish! My main point when starting this thread is that shops used to be these little unique partitions in a game world; this was more pronounced in some arcade games as they were totally separate from the "main" action, and some really gripped you with their detail and charm. I'm fine with modern ones though usually, they feel like functional, but sad little leftovers (but yes, there are exceptions!).

Oh, that smoking pig - love it :laugh:

Some other shops came to mind when reading your reply, though!

Shining in the Darkness (1991)

There's a lot that went wrong with Shining Force over the years, though the gradual departure from the original, endearing designs might have been one of the biggest blows. The original trilogy is still a great place to (re)visit that, but fans seem less interested in Shining in the Darkness. A pity, especially when the shopkeepers are as delightful as this:

Shops in SitD are fairly detailed; you'll never mistake the Armorer for the Alkemist, thanks to everything being nicely drawn and shaded. The shining, if you will, feature here is the shopkeepers' animations, from the friendly "hey there!" and "Have I got a deal for you!" to the awkward "whaaa?". It wasn't even necessary to include these quirky little expressions, but they're great. You can check out this YT video to see all of them. I could never tell if the Alkemist was just reacting to the barter interface just popping up all of a sudden.

Even the Tavern is a great place. While not technically a shop, it feels alive with its small cast of patrons, from the chill to the rowdy ones. Moving the screen to explore the surroundings at your own leisure was a great idea.

Landstalker (1992)

When it came to visual design, particularly in the 1990s, Camelot and Climax were some of the best studios in the industry. This is not nostalgia: their art is not only still immediately recognizable, but it's also much more enduring than game protagonists with their backs turned to the viewer, which somehow still seems to persist in videogame covers. You can name-drop Rückenfigur all you want; 157 covers later, it's just lousy and uninspired. And to the point, shops in Landstalker: The Treasure of King Nole:

From left to right, top: Mercator and Verla. From left to right, bottom: Massan and Gumi.

I'll defend isometric perspective any time, any place while wearing boxing gloves dipped in molasses and Smarties - but even then, one doesn't need to enjoy it to appreciate the composition. I think what makes this work is the really good interplay between solid color and dithering, giving each material its own kind of texture. The more primitive shops, from the villages, are perhaps my favorite. Note how, for instance, there are many pieces of decor vying for attention in the Gumi shop, but thanks to the use of texture and color, they do not dominantly read as dense or overpowering to the composition. The Gumi shop is actually part of a family's house if I remember correctly - a nice little detail of world-building right there.

One other thing I enjoy in these shops is the added detail of having to pick up the item you want, then drop it onto the counter to buy it (churches also work the same way for services like healing and saving). Link's Awakening would do the same one year later, and that shop is pretty sweet, too. I mean, being forever known as a THIEF for shoplifting? It's the kind of choice and consequence you'd only find in computer RPGs, but there it's totally turned on its head, and depending on how you approach the matter, you'll possibly have to live with it for the rest of your playthrough. Oh, brave THIEF, on your quest to wake the dreamer!

Light Crusader (1995)

Treasure's often misunderstood action-adventure has a lot going for it. There are similarities to Landstalker as well, but it manages to find its own groove and run with it, in part due to the presentation: catchy tunes, isometric perspective, the combo system that Treasure has loved since Gunstar Heroes, and some good puzzles.

You might be wondering why I like Light Crusader's shop. It doesn't have much going for it, does it? I mean, it is nice and layered, and the dithering's well done, but... Oh, wait. That's not the shop I like.

That's more like it! Behind one of those "Answer the Riddle!" rooms in the dungeons below, you'll find a lonely black cat in a room, surrounded by fishy treats. Those are just for show, however; the cat's purpose is to buy items from you, making this the only "shopkeeper" who will buy items that you cannot normally sell anywhere else. Finally, a Khajiit with good business sense! There's quite some silliness in the game already, especially when you can don a pink suit to talk to Orcs (and challenge them to matches), but in this case, it's also cute.


I wonder what inspired the tradition of having a great big department store in one town in the Pokemon games?
My blog: The Jaga's Nest


I am being too bone idle to make screenshots right now and it seems Shining in the Darkness was already taken.

To that end
Talespin (NES).
Skip to 2:45


The Messenger has one of the most well-integrated shops in any game I've ever seen. The shop is connected, via portal, to every level in the game. As you progress on your journey, the shopkeeper talks with you about what you've been through, and what's coming next. He tells you stories that become surprisingly engaging. The shopkeeper becomes your sole companion on what would otherwise be a lonely journey. The shop becomes such an integral part of the story that to talk any further about it would be massive spoilers. So we'll just stick with saying that every time you reach the shop, you are excited, even if you aren't planning to buy anything.