Monday, October 3, 2011

Seoul Searching: A 2 Hour Quest for Korea`s Retro Video Games

I just got back from a short trip to Seoul, Korea.

Well, `trip` probably isn`t the right word. I was there for a conference which had nothing to do with video games so I won`t dwell on it here, except to say that it regrettably took up almost my entire time there. I only had a couple of hours to actually explore a country of about 50 million people. If any of you are currently planning a trip to Korea, my advice is to give yourself more than a couple of hours to look around.

Anyway, a couple months ago when I decided to come to Korea, I thought it would be a great opportunity to check out the retro video game shops there and maybe pick up whatever the Korean version of the Famicom was (edit - the Hyundai Comboy).

I did some research online and was quite disappointed by what I found. Korea is quite similar to Japan in many ways and I had assumed that retro video game availability would be one of those similarities. It isn`t. Apparently Korea changed their entire electric power system back in the 1990s, which at a stroke rendered all electronics produced before then completely inoperable. So most of the 80s consoles and video games that I had hoped to find were scrapped years ago and are much more difficult to find than their counterparts in Japan. Even the Yongsan electronics market, I discovered, has virtually no retro games available.

I thus more or less gave up on looking for Korean retro games and reconciled myself to visiting some of Seoul`s more mainstream tourist attractions, like the Gyeongbokgung palace (pictured at the top of this post) which I highly recommend.

I also ventured into Insadong, a shopping district not far from the palace. It was while strolling its streets that I stumbled across the only vestiges of Korea`s video game past that I would discover on my brief trip.

Insadong is a really cool place. Lots of back alleys with trendy shops, restaurants and galleries. As I wandered the main street I noticed in the second floor of one building a number of what looked to be 1980s vintage toys in the window. It looked like it might be a small Korean version of Mandarake. There was a sign on the first floor that was entirely in Korean, which I can`t read, but the picture looked promising.So I ventured up the narrow staircase to the store above.

At the top of the stairs, hidden in a corner by the store`s front door a rotund, middle aged man in a collared yellow shirt sat behind a cramped desk piled high with a ton of junk. He was sleeping soundly as a Korean drama flickered on a TV set. Not another soul was in the shop. But the sight of what laid inside just amazed me:
The place was bursting to the rafters with old toys, piled up in massive quantities in every square inch of space. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. I could barely contain my enthusiasm as I walked past the store`s sleeping owner and began wandering the aisles.

As I wandered, I noticed something a bit strange. None of the merchandise had any price tags on them. This always annoys me when I see flea market vendors who do that. I just never buy anything from them. It was the first time I had ever seen a store like that though.

Then the owner stirred from his nap. `Hello Hello` he called to me `2,000 Won. Camera OK.`

At an instant, the lack of price tags, and other customers, was explained. This was not a store. It was a museum.

I thought about it for a second, then whipped out a pair of thousand Won notes and walked over to hand them to him. `OK, thank you` he said, and then turned his attention to the TV screen in front of him.

As a store, this place would have been awesome. As a museum that charged admission, it was laughably bad. It was just a big room where this guy dumped his lifetime accumulation of toys at random with little attempt at organization or proper presentation, as evidenced by this Last Action Hero Pinball machine buried in a mass of junk:
Yet this chaotic and indifferent approach to display made the place much more entertaining to explore than a professional museum would have been. I spent almost an hour wandering around just gawking at the stuff. Robots lined shelves:
As did chubby helicopters:
And TVs which would have been about Famicom vintage:And, most important for the purposes of this blog, I also found some vintage video game stuff scattered here and there throughout the mess.

Under one glass case was a random pile of old hand helds, including one called Pac Boy:
Another called Submarine Battle was lying on a shelf in some box:Star Force and Galaxy II could be found nestled behind some other retro treasures:As could this blue one, whose name I forgot to write down:The best piece though I found lying on top of one of the cases. A Samsung Gam Boy, which was a dead ringer for the Sega Master System:
It is kind of a testament to just how bad (in a good way) that this museum was that the owner couldnt even be bothered to take the tape holding the AC adaptor off before putting it out for display. It didn`t have any controllers either and the copy of Gallog that it had was in pretty rough shape:I`m not too sure how popular this thing was. Naturally I would have preferred to find the Korean version of a Famicom rather than its prime rival, but given the fact that I only had two hours to hunt for one, this was a pretty good consolation prize.Anyway, that was my trip. I highly recommend a trip to Seoul, it is a great city. I`m already planning a proper trip there someday where I`ll have more than a couple hours to explore!


  1. The NES/Famicom that was released in Korea is called the "Hyundai Comboy." A quick Google Image search will show you what it looks like. It's basically a NES with some black Korean writing on the front.

    Also, since I figured out that I love Famicom (or any commercials dealing with anything), I've started up a Famicom commercial blog. If you're interested check it out at

    There isn't much up now, but I try to add to it as I have the time.

  2. Yes, the Hyundai Comboy was the one I was looking for! Apparently they are way harder to find than the Famicom, I`m a little disappointed I didn`t find one.

    And I love the collection of Famicom cms! I am definitely putting a link to that up!

  3. hey man, I spent 3 months in Korea teaching English back in 2001 (strangely, I got off the plane Wednesday, September 9th 2001 at 9 PM but that is another story). And your right man, the only thing I could find was some old Digi-mon machines. luckily, they had a crap-load of Zoids near my apartment, and I loved em.

  4. Glad to hear they had something to your liking! It is a shame that there isn`t more of Korea`s retro game heritage out there in the shops though, it would have been so fun if there were!

  5. Awesome. Thanks for the link! I'll try to update it more.

  6. Yes, do update it! It is nice to have one location to see a good collection of Famicom commercials!

  7. Interesting. Strange. Weird. Amazing. All of those words came to mind as I read this post, Sean. I wonder how many people actually wander into that "museum" each day/week/month?

  8. Very apt description, Bryan!

    It was funny, actually. During the time I was in the Museum (less than an hour) several other people came in. All of them were foreign tourists who, like me, thought it was a store selling old toys.

    Unlike me, all of them immediately left the second the owner tried to get money out of them just to get into the place.

    I probably would have done the same, but I figured it was worth 2000 Won (about 2$) just to get some photos for this blog post!

  9. Haha, what a funny museum! :P So many familiar-looking things, all with different names and even different functions. Is that Samsung Gamboy their version of the MS or does it merely look like it? Nice post anyway, sounds like a very interesting country :)

  10. Thanks, Simon! I think the Gam Boy probably is the same as the Master System, they must have made it under license from Sega. I wish I could have brought one back with me! Mind you, the electrical system there is completely different from here, I couldnt even plug in my laptop while I was there, so I wouldnt have been able to use it anyway!