“I saw an internet article on the 10 most valuable games in the world. Mine was on it, and it was a prototype!”
Shortly after making that realization, Greg Pabich contacted me at VideoGameMuseum.com and several other forums. The man was on a mission. He wanted to figure out what he had and what he should do with it. Not only was Greg able to confirm that he had a unique prototype, but upon testing it, he also realize that he had an entirely different Cheetahmen game from that which was released on the normal version of the Action 52. He’d discovered the long lost Action Gamer.
While he first contemplated auctioning it off, “The more I became involved in it, the more I learned about the fact that it could be duplicated.” It wasn’t long before Pabich’s entrepreneurial imagination took off. He loved the reaction people were giving Cheetahmen on the internet. “What gets me is that people either hate the game or go peeing-your-pants crazy about it!”
“All I’ve done is taken a game that everyone loves to hate and that isn’t very playable by today’s standards, and I’ve tried to create value and added value. I’ve done everything to make it a full-scale professional game: a nice box, high-end t-shirts, CDs with cheetah music, posters, hologram label, etc. I’ve been working on an entertaining website. I’m trying to tell the story, to convey history, and to entertain people.”
So what exactly has Greg Pabich been working on? Well first off, not everything is finalized. However, he’s put together two purchasable “Cheetahmen: The Creation” packages: a Special Collector’s Edition and a Regular Edition.
Cheetahmen: The Creation Special Collector’s Edition includes the following:
- Factory-sealed game (clear cartridge) and box
- Unsealed game (green cartridge) and box
- Classic Cheetahmen: The Creation Comic (reproduction)
- “Cheetahmix” Music CD
- “Audacious” Cheetahmen T-Shirt (Sizes Large or X-Large)
- Cheetahmen Poster (Size: 15” x 9″, which will be folded in half to fit in the box)
This Collector’s Edition will be limited to a run of 500 sets. Greg explains that the game cartridges, sealed-game box, and outer collector’s box will all have matching hologram serial numbers ranging from 1 to 500.
Cheetahmen: The Creation Regular Edition includes the following:
Pabich explains that this edition of the game will be limited to 1000 games. These will also be hologram-numbered and will follow the sequence of 501 to 1500.
Perhaps you’ve already preordered one of these sets. But all this begs for a few questions to be answered: Who on earth is Greg Pabich? And what could inspire a person to wrap up his time, energy, and finances in such a project? Is this what Cheetahmen fever looks like?
7-Eleven Game Rooms
I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Pabich last week. Greg explains that he was the marketing manager for 7-Eleven in South Texas during the late ’70s and early ’80s. He helped to develop and market 7-Eleven’s line of popular breakfast burritos. “It had to be something a person could eat with one hand while driving.” It wasn’t long before Pabich made the leap from microwave food to gaming. If you played an arcade machine at a South Texas 7-Eleven, chances are, Pabich helped to put it there. He worked to develop game rooms in his stores. Originally 7-Eleven stores had pinball machines but no dedicated space for them.
“The idea was to get game machines out of the storefront area. We needed a dedicated space for pinball; electronic video games were just coming out. Those were going gangbusters! I added mirrors to rooms, changed lighting, added ash trays, and held game tournaments, which were tied into a Muscular Dystrophy Association. That must have been about 1986 at its peak.”
Pabich’s original training wasn’t in electronics, computers, or anything gaming related. “Before 7-Eleven, I got a degree as an accountant and did that for a few years, but I really didn’t like it. As a creative entrepreneur, I wanted to do something more.” Pabich did just that. He purchased a convenience store and built a dozen more. “I was reading an article in Time magazine on Pong, and I was fascinated by it. Atari was out of Los Gatos, CA in 1974 if I remember correctly. There wasn’t any internet or Google. I had to track down someone who knew about it.” Once Pabich got a hold of Atari, he ordered a machine for one of his stores. “The response was weak. People weren’t as enamored with it as I was. I was 10 years too early.” Eventually Pabich pulled the machine from his store and put it in his living room. Sometime after that, he donated it to a school for the deaf. “That was the beginning. Looking back, I wish I’d held onto that arcade.”
Placing Arcades in Theaters
Pabich sold his convenience stores and was hired by a gas station company to convert gas stations into convenience stores. Following that job, he was hired by 7-Eleven as previously mentioned. Pabich was having enough success with the game rooms at 7-Eleven that he started a side business. Pabich got a contract to do the same sort of thing for a theater chain in the Houston, TX area and put games like Defender in the lobby. These were immensely popularly. “Games cost about $2,100, which was a lot of money. But we could generally pay for a good game in about 17 days!” Pabich went on to explain the monetization process. “My company would have a key to open and service the machine. The theater manager would have a key to the coin box, and there was a coin counter inside. That kept everyone honest.” He chuckled as he recounted, “There was one machine that wouldn’t play after a couple days, and the business owner called me complaining. I came over to service it and found out it wasn’t working because it was packed full of quarters. Apparently the same thing was happening all over the place. These were so profitable that Texas limited our payout of machines to business owners to 50%.”
With 7-Eleven’s game rooms taking off as well, the 7-Eleven sold their gaming and equipment portion of the stores to a third-party business who offered to run it. Pabich recounted that the business paid something in the millions-of-dollars range and went under about six month later. No longer managing the gaming rooms, Pabich went back to focusing on his duties as marketing manager. At about that same time, Pabich sold his theater arcade game business.
The Advent of VHS
“We was transferred to Austin in about 1982. My daughter was about seven years old and was having a slumber party. I tried to rent a VCR and a video and it was impossible to do. You had to pay $100 to become a member, $4.95 to rent the movie, $9.95 to rent a VCR, and no one had any of them available. Those were the early days of VHS.” Pabich explained, “If you can’t get anything for love or money and there’s that much demand, then there’s money to be made.”
Pabich found a guy who wanted to place videos in 7-Elevens. “We tried this in two stores. There weren’t many new releases at this time compared to today where new movies come out on video every day. Within a year, there were video stores popping up everywhere.” He kept feeding the idea to corporate. It cost $20,000 to outfit a 7-Eleven to rent movies. Movies had to be purchased new at a cost of $70-90, and “We didn’t have good tracking systems at this time, since there weren’t computer systems or anything for that. Our test stores were doing well. People were renting a movie, buying things, bringing it back, and buying things again: beer, chips, soda, etc. However, at $20,000 times 7,000 stores nationwide (900 in Texas), it was too much money even for 7-Eleven.
Resigning from his job at 7-Eleven with the agreement that he could get a contract for 7-Elevens in Texas, Pabich raised money and found a distributor for used movies out of Portland, Oregon. His new company V.D.O. installed video rental in 200 stores. At the same time, Pabich helped a friend Jerry Welch get a job as president of a similar company Stars to Go Inc. Pabich eventually took a job working as the VP of Development of that company. “We immediately moved the corporate headquarters to Los Angeles.” He signed contracts for 35,000 convenience stores throughout the US: Circle K, Wawa food stores, some 7-Elevens, etc. “The contract required a minimum monthly payment by the stores. We took that to the bank and financed the contract.” Things were doing well until Black Thursday in 1986 when the stock market dropped. “Our stock dropped from $27 to 13 cents, and Blockbuster went public. I was out of a job in 1987.”
Rags to Riches
Being unemployed, Pabich saw a magazine ad for a guy buying used movies. “I called the guy and asked what he was looking for. I knew used movies were worth about $25 each. Then I contacted a friend who was still at Stars to Go. He said he’d send me a couple pallets of used VHS tapes and that I could pay him once I sold them. Next thing I knew, there were 8,000 VHS tapes delivered on my driveway. They filled the garage. I had no idea what I had, so my family and I manually created lists, collated the lists by hand, and then I called this guy. I Xeroxed my handwritten list and FedEx’d it to him. He wanted to buy them all at $11.25 each! I shipped them all UPS COD and got paid with a cashier’s check. I made $65,000 on the first deal.” In that move his new business Movies & Games 4 Sale was launched!
Pabich must have an understanding wife, because he explained that his next order of VHS tapes filled not only the garage but also his living room. According to Pabich, he then rented a warehouse, which led to a $25,000,000/year business with 127 people on payroll, and a 30,000 square foot warehouse. “Blockbuster was killing mom and pop’s stores. We would buy out inventory from closing stores and resell it to new Blockbusters. Then people started asking for games. I had trouble finding anyone who had a lot of games since that was just getting started.” Pabich approached Babbage’s and encourage them to buy used games. “I felt that people would only buy a car if they could trade in an old one.” They merged with Software Etc which became NeoStar Retail. “I handled their trade-in program, and I was the largest creditor as NeoStar declared bankruptcy. There were bids for who would buy, and I got to put in my preference for Barnes & Noble. They paid me $1.3 million.” Eventually, Barnes & Noble would create the gaming giant GameStop. According to Pabich, they did so by adopting his model of buying used games. He notes that he also had a buyback program with Toys R Us. “I was the only guy back then who could handle the quantity.”
From Prototype to Collector’s Edition
As perhaps any retro gaming geek would be, I’ve been intrigued by this game, its story, and Pabich’s process of bringing Cheetahmen: The Creation to the light of day. In putting all this together, Pabich explains, “I’ve met a lot of interesting people. The guy who did the commercial did a great job. I have a friend who did the artwork, who did a fantastic job. Most have been quite helpful and positive. Uncle Tusk has handled boxes, comics, posters, box label printing, and game label printing and has done a fantastic job! I was amazed at the quality of his work. RetroZone has handled the cartridges.”
Hearing Pabich’s story, it’s no wonder to me that he managed to meet the infamous Vince Perri and to obtain the earliest known Action 52 prototype. As a reminder, his prototype contains a unique early version of Cheetahmen called Action Gamer. “This game seems to be the turning point at which Vince put real time into the game, developed an idea of franchising a character, comic, and cartoon. I’m trying to capture that.”
Pabich’s history is full of his taking ideas and opportunities and running with them. As I try to put my finger on his motivations for turning his prototype into playable NES cartridges, it seems clear. Pabich is an entrepreneur. He’s a risk taker who isn’t afraid to invest his own money, time, and pride into something as crazy as releasing a new playable Cheetahmen cartridge. Will he sell his 1,500 Cheetahmen: The Creation sets? Are there enough hardcore collectors out there to buy these? Will there be a new surge of Cheetahmen fever?
As a retro gamer and collector, I’m excited to see anything new land itself in a playable 8-bit NES form. Overall, I’m personally fascinated by all of this and am intrigued to see how it all unfolds. For those of you following this as well, it gets better. Pabich is working on more Cheetahmen projects as I write this. Yup, that’s true Cheetahmen fever!
7-Eleven Photo: Image via Flickr: jacob botter
Plotkin, Hal. “A Blockbuster Video Idea.” Inc. Magazine 15 October 1997. http://www.inc.com/magazine/19971015/1482.html 20 October 2011.
“Space-Age Pinball.” Time Magazine 1 April 1974. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,904070,00.html 20 October 2011.
VHS Pile Photo: Photo via MakeLessNoise
Weber, Mark. “NES Action 52 Prototype Cart?” VideoGameMuseum.com 3 June 2010. http://www.videogamemuseum.com/2010/06/03/nes-action-52-prototype-carts/
Weber, Mark. ” What’s Rarer: A Prototype Action 52 Cart or a Person Who’s Met Vince Perri?” VideoGameMuseum.com 24 June 2010. http://www.videogamemuseum.com/2010/06/17/whats-rarer-a-prototype-action-52-cart-or-a-person-who-met-vince-perri/
Weber, Mark. ” The Evolution of the Action 52.” VideoGameMuseum.com 3 June 2010. http://www.videogamemuseum.com/2010/06/24/the-evolution-of-the-action-52/