Returning to his classic video game shop Neo Japan Games in the weeks after Hurricane Maria, Jerry Robles thought business would be quiet. But he opened his doors just south of San Juan to find more customers than usual crowding around to look at old game cartridges and classic consoles.
“The day we reopened at 11am we had people in line waiting,” said Robles. “As crazy as it sounds, because gaming is not a necessity like buying water or food, for those people (myself included) it’s a way of coping with the situation.” He still remembers the first thing that was sold after the hurricane: a copy of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and a Game Boy Advance charging adapter.
Robles opened Neo Japan Games in 2000. Most small businesses don’t last a year, let alone 16. But selling and repairing used games and consoles in Bayamón, the country’s second largest municipality in the southern part of greater metropolitan San Juan, has worked out well for Robles so far. Neo Japan Games became so popular that in late 2016 he decided to open a second, larger store just down the road. Less than a year later, the 10th biggest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic hit Puerto Rico.
Irma passed near the island on 7 September leaving 1 million people without electricity by the time all was said and done. Less than two weeks later, with 60,000 residents still powerless, Maria hit. This time though the hurricane made direct landfall. Its 150 mph winds ravaged the island and devastated its infrastructure. In an interview with Vox, meteorologist Jeff Weber likened it to a giant “buzz saw” whipping across the island.
Seven weeks later, the majority of Puerto Ricans still don’t have electricity and access to food and clean water remain a discouraging struggle, especially inland where transportation to and from affected areas is more of a challenge. When Hurricane Katrina shattered its levies, New Orleans’ population was just south of 500,000. When Harvey floated overhead of Dallas for days on end late in the summer, about 1.3 million people called the city home. Puerto Rico has a population of over 3.4 million, and the scale of the on-going humanitarian crisis there reflects that.
Neo Japan Games' second, larger location which opened in 2016.
“The situation at this moment is improving very slowly,” Robles said over instant message in late October. Cell phone signals were and remain a luxury, so we spoke using Facebook messaging. “More than 80% of the island is lacking electricity, and about 30% of the island is still lacking running water utility,” he said at the time. “There are towns that have lost the main roads or bridges and getting food and water there is still difficult.”
On top of that, the resulting financial situation is not very encouraging either. “The economy has been hit hard, many stores and gas stations are still closed so many people have lost their jobs,” said Robles. “If current conditions persist we might have to consider if we keep operating our smaller store or not.”
After the shock and horror over the devastation and the US government’s response to it, led by a bumbling and uninterested President Trump, have long since faded from the nightly news on the mainland, life goes on for those who live there. “We don’t know for real what’s going on,” singer-songwriter Alfonso “Tito” Auger told CNN’s Parts Unknown recently. It’s a sentiment that creeps up again and again throughout stories about the new reality on the island. Grief followed by confusion. The slow drip of relief supplies followed by a bidding process over rebuilding contracts that’s rife with corruption has engendered disbelief, distrust, and frustration.
As a result, many Puerto Ricans have no one to help them pick up the pieces but themselves. In the face of a power grid that could take more than a year to fully restore, the island’s individual residents have found innovative ways to generate their own power, taking advantage of solar-powered lights and the power converters in their cars to stay charged.
In part, Neo Japan Games has become a mini-power plant. A generator which Robles has been running daily since re-opening the store 14 days after the storm makes it an oasis of sorts.
The store updates its Facebook page regularly with its latest retro finds and repairs.
“We are letting customers charge their portables and mobile phones, although nothing that draws too much power,” he said. The store also plans to open up its Wi-Fi hotspot to them as well once the internet’s been restored. “Most of us have water back, but still no power. We all charge our portable systems at the store so we can play at night,” he said. “That’s the norm now until the power comes back.”
But no one knows exactly when that will be. The uncertainty of Puerto Rico’s future is perhaps best symbolised by the $300 million (£228 million) deal with the energy provider Whitefish that was recently cancelled due to language it contained which would have blocked oversight of costs and profits and the fact that it employed only two people. In this context, Neo Japan Games also serves as a refuge from the slow grind of the rebuilding process.
“The games are a big distraction,” said Jose Saavedra, a singer and performer who lives in the area and corresponded with me through Facebook voice recordings. “In my case personally, I disconnect myself from the reality while playing. That’s why I love playing.” When he saw Neo Japan Games’ Facebook page, and the Nintendo fan in him couldn’t resist giving it a look. “I saw they had a lot of stuff from Nintendo like amiibos, Switch, all the way down to Super Nintendo, and I said, ‘Whoa, that’s a really cool store, I have to go over there.’”
While Saavedra was not harmed in the hurricane, he knows others who weren’t as fortunate. “In my case I lost nothing thanks to God but I know people that lost their house, they lost everything,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do, just pray to God it will get better.” And so he escapes into the world of Mario Odyssey, and goes rummaging through the bins at Neo Japan Games for something to play after he’s done with Samus Returns.
The store after hurricane Maria hit in September.
Robles and his wife Teresita Hernandez, who manages their original store, were lucky. Despite some broken signs, shattered glass, and a busted AC unit, the stores and their collections were both intact inside and unflooded because of their high elevation. Some of Neo Japan Games’ employees did see flooding at their homes, and all of them lost power. They too ended up relying on the store to charge their portable consoles so they could play at night when they were back at home.
The store has also taken on greater significance ever since GameStop officially pulled out of the island last year. People can still buy new games from big box retailers like Toys “R” Us and Best Buy, as well as order them by mail, but places like Neo Japan are some of the few dedicated gaming spaces left in Puerto Rico.
“You could imagine the chaos of Christmas 2016 when people realised all the new games and consoles were sold out” at stores like Walmart, said Robles. Best Buy has yet to reopen its Puerto Rico locations since Maria hit, leaving many wondering if that retailer is preparing to leave permanently as well. Stores like Neo Japan are trying to fill the void, but razor-thin margins make it difficult and the recent natural disaster coupled with an ongoing debt crisis don’t help. Puerto Rico has been in a recession for 11 years now, all while hedge funds in New York City and elsewhere look to carve up the island’s real estate market and profit off of the ongoing economic turmoil.
For Robles’ economic situation, however, it’s as simple as hoping the store can start getting electricity again soon so he can stop spending an extra several hundred dollars per week on fuel for the generator. “If current conditions persist we might have to consider if we keep operating our smaller store or not,” he said. Either way, Robles says he intends on investing in solar power so that the store can continue regardless of the government’s ability to keep the lights on.
Jerry Robles at the counter in front of the store’s impressive library of classic games.
The ever-present question of when the power will be back has also transformed the island’s broader gaming scene. “We have shifted our attention to handheld consoles since most of the island is still without electricity,” said Víctor Aviles, one of the store’s employees.
“Repair requests at the store have grown lately since people are getting their consoles damaged by electrical surges from inverters and electrical generators and many had their houses flooded,” he said. “But getting them to work again has been almost impossible since ordering parts have become tedious because after the hurricane the USPS is very very slow and packages are getting lost, damaged or stolen.”
While plenty of used game stores have popped up across Puerto Rico in recent years, it’s rarer to find a place like Neo Japan that also repairs games and consoles. Aviles loves that aspect of the store, because it helps him share the games that transformed him growing up with the community’s younger generation, while also being able to fix whatever problem might arise in their new Switch or 2DS.
“As a child, one of my favourite hobbies was powering on my Nintendo and being lost for hours playing Final Fantasy, Metroid and two player games like TMNT,” he said. “I took that knowledge and I applied it to this industry of fixing and restoring retro games and next generation consoles to keep the old generation and new generation of gamers happy. That’s what I like most about this job, to see a new generation get amazed when Mario grabs a leaf and soars through the air like a raccoon in Super Mario 3 and hear their parents revive their childhood through that.”
That’s what he thinks is the draw of the store, even in the current crisis. “Just for a few hours they can be an intergalactic bounty hunter, a Pokemon trainer or a legendary hero,” he said. “People need that, they need to hope that this situation is going to get better.”