“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.”
Irma passed near the island on September 7 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. It’s 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.
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 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.’”
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.
“As a child, one of my favorite 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.”