As Kingdom Hearts leads me back to San Francisco

I sat there, along with millions of others, watching Sony’s E3 press conference with an air of anticipation. Reveal after reveal, the excitement heightened. We finally got a look at the magical, angular box and the conference continued.  I perked up once the Square Enix’s Tetsuya Nomura hit the screen. “New Final Fantasy?” my husband quipped. “Must be,” I responded. Sure enough, as the sequence ran, we were treated to the newest entry in the Final Fantasy series, and it certainly looked pretty.  But Nomura wasn’t through – he had one more surprise to share.

Kingdom Hearts 3. Exclusive to the PS4.

(source)
(source)

Well, just….I….I –

I gasped a little. “This is gonna make a lot of people very happy,” is what I said out loud. Meanwhile, my brain was abuzz, rambling, cursing, and incoherently shouting for joy in tongues. Just when I thought I might have been getting too old and cynical for all this next gen shit, that vision of Sora and his keyblade reeled me right back in.

After that, I didn’t really need to see anything else. I knew that the PS4 would own the holidays.

As I floated off to sleep that night,  I simply couldn’t stop thinking about Kingdom Hearts. But not just Kingdom Hearts. I started thinking, dreaming, about the first time I ever played Kingdom Hearts — at San Fransisco’s Metreon.

I’ve already written about the original Kingdom Hearts and my first experience at Metreon. But the place itself was something special. And frankly, we were lucky (relatively speaking) to be among those who visited the place during its short lifespan.

Very pretty, even with cable car wires in view. (source)
Very pretty, especially with cable car wires in view. (source)

Metreon was Sony in retail form. This mallurban entertainment destination” in San Francisco was meant to be something of a flagship for other Metreons across the world; and it was an experiment.  Could branded shopping, dining, gaming, sightseeing, movies, and music all peacefully coexist under one roof? The SF store opened in 1999, and for awhile, the answer to that question was “yes…mostly.” I didn’t arrive in the area until a few years later, but even then, the Metreon was still the (touristy) place to visit for games and fun. On the downside, the place was constantly crowded, and lots of things came with extra fees, kinda like special exhibitions in museums today. You wanna see that latest, greatest, multimedia 3D presentation? Well, ya gotta cough up another $10 to get in that door! But on the upside, the Metreon contained the Playstation store, the only one of its kind to ever exist.

Like leading a baby to candy...sweet gaming candy (source)
Like leading a baby to candy…sweet gaming candy. (source)

It was in that store that I first played Kingdom Hearts; and it was at that store that I made Kingdom Hearts mine. That store was a brilliant hub packed to the brim with everything for Sony gamers, from the latest console to all the games to the best accessories. It was a place to connect with other gamers, most of whom, granted, wore Sony’s banner. Every time we visited the Playstation store, the air was electric with talk of what was new on the Playstation. Though, there was also an overriding sense of exclusivity. As a not-quite-gamer, I always felt just a little uncomfortable there rubbing shoulders with those who had the PS specs tattooed on their brains. But the staff was nice and knowledgeable. The feeling there was more welcoming than a corporate big box store, but maybe a little less welcoming than your local game store. But really, there was nothing to which to compare the Playstation store. It predated the Apple store, and there simply weren’t many branded technology-based, video game-focused stores in existence. It was, as I said before, an experiment.

And the experiment ultimately failed. In 2006, Metreon was sold to a mall developer. In 2009, the Playstation store closed its doors for good. So what happened? Looking through old articles on the subject, what seemed rather elusive then looks pretty obvious now. Sony was not, nor ever has been, a real estate mogul. The technology, entertainment, and gaming company went in with a grand idea of a way to bring their products to consumers, but they came out realizing (or maybe knowing all along) that they didn’t really want to put their money into the singularity of brick-and-mortar development.  Add to that the rapid rise of online shipping over the course of the 2000s that has since changed the way we consumed. I don’t think I ever once saw a “sale” at the Playstation store, and I don’t recall them dealing in used or traded games. So why spend $60 on some game when it could be purchased for a lot less on this new site called Amazon?

Yes, it's still a river, but it's also a "store," just without the walls and stuff. (source)
Yes, it’s still a river, but it’s also a “store,” just without the walls and stuff. (source)

Metreon also rose and fell during a time of transition. Perhaps not too coincidentally, the Metreon was sold just months before the release of the Playstation 3. So Sony had good reason to get out of the store development business. The Playstation 3 changed many a gamer’s relationship with games and consoles, from how they were used to how they were delivered. And there was little if any reason for a Sony gamer to go to a standing, retail Playstation store to get what they needed. Yes, the Playstation store plodded along in the Metreon-turned-real-mall for another three years, so not everyone forgot it existed. Only eventually, one day, they did.

It makes me infinitely sad knowing that Metreon is now nothing more than a place to buy cheap shoes and pretzels. Though, it might have been destiny. During our time in the bay, the local color surrounding the Metreon evolved, or devolved, a little. Though the hustle and bustle of the daytime hours stood fast, it became a place you didn’t want to be at night. The last time we stepped into the building and the Playstation store was early 2005. It late afternoon on a Saturday (or maybe a Sunday) just before dinner.  As we walked into the lobby, we noticed that a Jelly Belly store had replaced the exhibits area next to the Playstation store. The place was overrun with loud children and tired parents. We had to push aside all the hyperactivity to get to the PS store. Once there, the place was oddly quiet despite being crowded. Most patrons were enjoying the game stations – very few people were actually buying games. We walked around the stacks for a few minutes, and then a game station opened up. I thought for a moment about Kingdom Hearts. Wouldn’t it be funny if they still had it available to play? But the thought trailed off, and we had to get to dinner.

Kingdom Hearts cover art © Disney, Square, etc. (source)
Kingdom Hearts cover art © Disney, Square, etc. (source)

It was wonderful re-feeling all those happy thoughts of seeing Sora and his Disney gang for the first time amid all the E3 visuals. Though  I still have to play KH2 (and ALL the other KH games) someday (eep!), I’m sure the third time will be nothing less than a purely delightful and long-time-coming charm.

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