Five hours after rush hour, an eerie silence envelopes the road as I cross it without waiting for the lights to change. The sodium-vapour glow of the streetlight overhead illuminates spiders cocooned around its bulb and picks out tiny sparkles of frost on the asphalt beneath my feet. Ah yes, my cold, hurried feet, which are pad-padding across said empty street at twenty minutes to midnight in the direction of town. It’s freakin’ freezing. And--I’ll admit it--I’m starting to question myself.
This is the dedicated gamer's midnight launch walk of shame. It could be any launch night, but this one in particular is Wii U’s midnight launch: November 29, 2012. I've got pictures in my work email archive from PRs that show fun-looking launch parties from London that same night (see below) but they're nothing like the reality that greets me as I arrive at the shop and stand in line waiting for someone to take pity on us and let us into the warmth. There aren't any giveaways, there aren't any costumes. Everyone's freezing. It's pretty miserable.
There's also the fact I’ve come on my own. My girlfriend had come with me for the 3DS’ midnight launch and we had huddled together in the queue outside HMV, excitedly carrying our prize back home to unbox it and marvel at its beauty. But this time, she’s asleep, safely back in a lovely warm bed. One that has covers and warmth. And warm covers. Did I mention them? They say 'KEEP COSY AND SNUGGLE UP'. Yes, they are pink, but I did not choose them. Not that I'd be complaining now. I can’t shake the nagging thought from my mind that maybe I’ve made a terrible mistake.
After all, we’re talking about midnight here. The part of night that no Brit should encounter first-hand in the plume-breath cold of November. The sort of night where anyone you see standing around in dimly-lit roads is probably up to no good, or drunk. Or both. Combine the thought of such lurkers with flimsily-wrapped, solitarily transported, brand-new electrical goods of high value and you’re basically walking around with a flashing neon sign above your head that says ‘mug me’. It’s unclear whether the recent stabbing of a man in London was directly related to his midnight launch purchase of GTA V, but let’s just say it almost certainly wouldn’t have happened if he had been at home asleep.
It’s the same reason the slow process of picking up my midnight launch Xbox 360 ended with both my parents showing up in their car. Admittedly, it probably didn’t help that I’d left my mobile phone in my own car a couple of streets away so they couldn’t contact me, but I wasn’t about to give up my place in the queue to go back for that. Ah, the folly of youth. Of course, they turned up to find me grinning from ear to ear with an Xbox 360 in my arms and copies of PGR3 and Perfect Dark Zero. Ah, the folly of youth.
The problem all stems from Dreamcast’s UK launch on October 10, 1999. Memorable enough that I can recall the date. The local game shop in my town (then called Electronics Boutique) put on the best midnight launch ever. There were Dreamcasts set up to play incredible showcase games like Power Stone, with competitions, prizes and generally a party atmosphere. I was there for a couple of hours because it had been advertised as being the ace event it actually turned out to be. Win.
But it isn’t like that any more. The shop staff are weary and security-conscious, the crowds are smaller… in fact, I look around me at the other people in the shop (all three of them. Literally) and start wondering if I really want to be associated with this event. Oh, good: an inner monologue. I am cooler than these people… right? Must be. Yes, definitely. At least, that’s what I tell myself as I purchase Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed (that I’ve already played on PS3) to ‘play’ on what is basically an expensive new toy that I just *had* to have at midnight. Twat.
I would feel embarrassed walking back home if I wasn’t so worried. With the lights of the game store now far behind, the empty shopping complex has become a level from Splinter Cell. There’s a loud group of drunk students somewhere. So I stealthily wait for them to turn either one way or the other, then sneak around the behind them, sticking to well-lit areas like Sam Fisher’s obstinate younger brother, in the hope there’s at least CCTV if I do get mugged.
And then, of course, when I eventually get in, it’s the usual story. A Day 1 patch that’s bricking consoles if you don’t let it run its inexorable course. Then the prospect of the Wii-to-Wii U Virtual Console transfer. I don’t feel well. Frankly, I’m exhausted. Slowly thawing out under an electric bulb while my new console updates itself, I finally get to test All-Star Racing and it works. Good. Now I can go to bed.
That one, perfect, life-affirming Dreamcast launch aside, it’s always been the same. Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS, Sony PSP, Xbox 360… I’ve been to the midnight launch of all of them and they’ve all disappointed. In fact, increasingly so as the systems themselves become more complex and initial setup is more complicated than 'plug in, switch on, have fun'. Maybe I should go to Oxford Street in London to really experience something.
In smaller, local shops, the event itself is just an exercise in getting people through the till as quickly as possible. But there’s never time to actually play the things after getting them home, yet the next day is inevitably spent too groggy to enjoy looking at a TV screen. I can’t understand why I keep putting myself through it. Nor why midnight launches have ‘become a thing’ in the industry. They’re pointless. Your pre-order will still be there for you at 9am the next day. Or even lunch time. Heck--how cool would you look waltzing in to pick up your PS4 a week later? You can imagine the assistants' amazement. Sure, I like to be able to say ‘I got mine at midnight’, but who cares really? Nobody.
So what will I be doing at PS4’s midnight launch? Come on now, have you not been reading everything above? The cold? The tiredness? The inner monologueing? Of course I’ll see you there. Dur!