It’s an inane question, but I expect it’ll come up more and more often as the decades lurch onward and turn us nostalgic about every microscopic detail we recall from our younger years, whether it’s the first Star Wars figure you got or the LeMenu microwave dinner plate that your family reused almost every night for fifteen years. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as you remember it.
In that light, it’s not hard to find some appeal for the early years of eBay. The website’s still around and will be as long as the Internet exists, but it was a different creature in the late 1990s, when just about everything online was more suspicious. Auctions didn’t need images, sellers and buyers were on largely even ground when it came to feedback, and PayPal was largely unknown. You might find yourself wondering if that Gundam model or old Arby’s kids-meal toy was really worth the trouble of getting a money order and mailing it off.
I first heard of eBay in 1998, but it was through a coworker who would interrupt conversations in the most awkward manner imaginable. He once accosted me in the store's video-game aisle just so he could point at Dead or Alive for the PlayStation and announce “this is the bounciest fighter.” When he mentioned eBay, I decided to stay away from it.
I didn’t stay away for long, and the next year I jumped into eBay. The first things I bought were not memorable: two Final Fantasy VII posters and an unopened Chun-Li figure from the G.I. Joe/Street Fighter cross-up of the early 1990s. The posters, which I now realize were bootlegs, stayed on my wall for only a month or so, and Chun-Li sat in a closet for a good decade until I sold her, still unopened, for about the same amount I’d paid.
My third purchase was the first important thing I bought on eBay: a TurboGrafx-16.
The TurboGrafx-16 was the sidelined loser in Sega and Nintendo’s slapfight of the 1990s, which meant that it was rare to notice the system in stores and even rarer to meet another kid who had one. Of course, I always wanted one, and it wasn’t long until I noticed an auction in my price range. It had a TurboGrafx-16 with all the basic hookups and Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, which was included with every console and swiftly forgotten. It was $25, the auction had a simple description with no photos, and the seller wanted ten bucks for shipping. I didn’t care. I sent off the money order, and I had my TurboGrafx-16 in a little over a week.
My first reaction upon opening the box? “This thing looks like someone puked on it.”
The system was in rough shape, as were its accessories. The seller hadn’t lied, but if the TurboGrafx-16 had been a stuffed animal, kindly relatives and teachers would call it “well-loved.” The RF adapter took some jiggling to work. The controller would detach from the port, leaving its multi-pronged connector stuck in the system. And then there was that curious stain across the left part of the console.
In those days eBay didn’t give buyers a panoply of options for returning purchases, and that didn’t even cross my mind. I had a TurboGrafx-16 at last, and no way in hell was I about to pack it back in the box.
To soften the disappointment, I gave the system a name: Pukey. I soon figured out that the stain was probably red paint (brighter residue can be seen on the power cord), but it was too late to rescind. The TurboGrafx-16 was Pukey.
Pukey still works today, even though his accessories didn’t last. I soon replaced the controller, and the RF cable gave out a few years ago (fortunately, you can swap in an NES cable). Even the included copy of Keith Courage in Alpha Zones eventually refused to start up and did not respond to any cleaning attempts. At least I can still play Alien Crush, with its Gigerian pinball tables and haunting bonus level music.
In the long run, though, Pukey was a good deal. Old video games are a collectible gold rush these days, and the slightly obscure TurboGrafx-16 and its library ballooned in value. I could easily get twice what I paid for Pukey.
But I couldn't sell Pukey. It isn't because I’m a huge TurboGrafx-16 fan. Nothing in its catalog ever appealed to me like my favorites on the Genesis and Super NES, after all. As it was during my childhood, the poor Turbo is a distant third in a three-way race.
No, it’s because I made the mistake of naming him. It’s a tradition in my family to name cars, computers, and other expensive merchandise, and it always makes us a little more attached. I won't say we treat an old Apple IIGS or video camera like a pet dog or cat or rabbit or guinea pig, but learning that my parents got rid of their old van was like finding out that the family’s 30-year-old goldfish had passed away.
I now avoid naming my electronics, and Pukey’s continued presence reminds me why. He also serves as a memento of a riskier age. The wild-west nature of late-1990s eBay made it much easier for some anonymous charlatan to rip you off, but that uncertainty made things more appealing. We didn’t trust the Internet so much, and we didn’t know if we’d get a strange game console or a box full of newspapers and house centipedes. And we’d be nostalgic for those centipedes fifteen years later.