Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

 

 


 

Rental Stores

 

I'm going to take a break from being game-specific and talk about a broader nostalgic sentiment of gaming's past. Renting video games.

Of course, renting is still around. You can drop by a Redbox kiosk or subscribe to Gamefly and rent games. Hell, there's still a few Blockbusters in a few neighborhoods, I'm sure. But I'm looking at it from a different perspective. Before you go to those kiosks or click "rent" or even "buy" at a website, you most likely have done a little 
research on what it is you're about to jump in to. What are the reviews? What are people on the almighty internet saying about this game? Is it a "must play?" Is it even the type of game you'll like? How are the visuals? The audio? How does it control? Is it going to change your life? All those yearning questions are answered at the click of a mouse. An article, a message board discussion and a video later, you know all those answers and can feel confident about what you're about to dedicate your time to.

Now imagine that you didn't have any of those questioned answered. In fact, all you have to go on is a box on a shelf, title and artwork, and a few pint-sized screenshots on the back of it. Imagine you didn't have the internet at your disposal. Scary thought, isn't it?

Welcome to renting videogames in the 1980s through about 1996 or so. It was the height of gaming's still-not-quite-mainstream lifespan where the quality, quantity and pop-culture saturation were immense and overall knowledge and awareness by its users and consumers still at a low. For my generation, we don't have to imagine going into something blind, we just have to remember.

Growing up, ignorance wasn't necessarily bliss…but discovery was. Discovery was a result of that ignorance, though. Kind of a Catch-22, I suppose, yet its one of the strongest and most significant memory of my generation's gaming history. It's not exclusive to me, it is a blanket across anyone that grew up with an NES or Sega Genesis or the like from the 1980s to early 90s world of videogame consoles and wandered into their local video store in search of something to play. We had no preconceptions, nothing to really anticipate. Only a line of colorful boxes we would flip over, look at some screenshots (because who really read the back of those boxes? you went straight for the pictures) and made a judgement call right then and there. Then, it was a crapshoot. Sometimes you'll get a surprise, then other times you'll get this:

  

But it's based on a movie! It has to be good, right? Just look at those awesome graphics!

 

Yeah, one of the things that really suckered in kids (especially during the NES era) were games based on movies. There were a ton of them, and most were just awful, horrible games. But that was renting games during this time. For every good game, for every wonderful little discovery you made and you'd likely end up renting again and again, you'll probably play through a dozen awful games in the process.

I remember quite a few discoveries during this time. One time I walked into a video store and, along its wall of rentable NES titles, saw a strange little silver box with a castle, a giant vampire and a guy with a whip in front of it all. Castlevania quickly became one of my favorite games, if anything because of the horror theme of it all. Another one, also horror themed now that I think about it, was Splatterhouse for the Sega Genesis. I want to say the second one, but I can't recall for sure. I can only recall the sensation of going into another video store, seeing a box that was full of gore and blood (this was a time when parents were up in arms about violence in games) and taking it to his house and getting an absolute kick out of hitting grotesque monsters with a two-by-four and splattering their bodies against a wall."Ah, 'SPLATTERhouse'" I thought. "I get it now."

In a less-gory story, and I think I've told this one before in a previous blog here, I was on the prowl for a "Legend of Zelda"-like game. I went to a video store, turned over box after box to look at screenshots and soon found myself face-to-face with Secret of Mana. I knew nothing about it, the developer or what I was in for, but it changed my entire genre-preference from that day forward.

  

Sometimes, you might get a nice present when you rent the game: past renters writing down passwords and codes in the manual. Thanks guys, especially with Mega Man!

 

Going into an actual store with only a wad of cash from an allowance and just no plan of action or expectation was one of the greatest things about being a child and teenager. It was the same case every weekend. Buy some snacks at the convenience store, a one-liter of Dr. Pepper and Cheetos were my bad-health-choice of choice, then head on in to that little mom and pop store for a good half-hour of browsing/picking up and carrying around so nobody else grabs it/debate with friends over what to get/renting time.

In my hometown, there weren't a lot of choices when growing up. The big chains of Hollywood Video and Blockbuster hadn't yet reached that part of the country, I suppose. In fact, Hollywood Video would be the first, and it wouldn't arrive until well into the late 90s. A local chain, Hastings which is pretty big in the mid-west now, opened up sometime at the tail-end of the 16-bit gaming era. 

Odd, I can determine the time by eras of gaming and not by the decade itself. Funny...but for those who may not know it was probably around 1995 or 1996.

For the years from 1987, the year I got my Nintendo Entertainment System, through that mid-90s estimation, the only choices were those little shops in strip malls. You know the kind: sun-bleached posters of b-movies, lines of shelves with the game or movie behind an empty box (or even just another empty box behind that empty box because places would have all the movies and games behind the counter) and, sometimes, that secret "back room" that said "Adults Only" above it and was separated with a curtain.

 

Oh 80s and 90s small rental stores. I miss you.

 

In many of these, and I only went regularly to two of them which were named Express Video and Video Express which was the cause of much confusion at times when renting from both at the same time, you had the choice of three-day rentals. For a kid, that was perfect and in hindsight was smart business on behalf of those small local stores. They knew their customers: kids and teens. A three-day rental over a weekend, renting them after school as soon and returning them late Sunday night before Monday, was a brilliant model. It was an adventure. To many, going to rent a videogame was as much fun as playing the game itself. It was another activity. What better way to find something new, something "totally rad" and then have so many choices of what to play and what to do. New games were always coming in. Some were actually old, but like I said: no internet. We didn't know, and gaming magazines weren't nearly as organized or as big as they would become by the late 90s to help keep track of it all. 

While it was often the weekends where renting games became our childhood forms of escapism from chores and school, the summer months were when it became a lifestyle. Summers, despite our fondness of being out of school, could often get boring. Sure, we all played outside, stayed over at friends houses in the middle of the week and often got into trouble with no adult supervision, but in reality there wasn't a whole lot to do. You usually could only stay in your neighborhood, maybe walk to the local convenience store for a soda or get a car ride to the mall or arcade if you're lucky and maybe go to a movie, but usually it was the same thing every day. You're a at home and bored out of your mind thanks to daytime television being awful and only reruns of All in the Family or Law and Order really to pass the time and maybe a VHS tape to watch if you have some rented out.

Videogames went from being a weekend thing of finding something to do Friday night, Saturday and Sunday to an everyday thing and constant cycle of three-day rentals and scheduling what you would play as the weeks went on.  Allowances were saved, plans were executed and games became the sole form of entertainment for my entire generation. You would get up early, watch a few cartoons, play for a few hours, watch some afternoon cartoons, then play until you were told to stop, eat dinner and go to bed. Of course we would never do that. It's eat dinner, eat candy for a sugar-high then stay up until midnight trying to beat Bebop and Rocksteady in a two-player Ninja Turtles boss bout. Right stereotypical late 80s/early 90s kid?

 

You know if you saw this image when you were a kid, you would be incredibly envious.

 

It was something completely exclusive to kids. Now the age of the average gamer is well into their 30s, mostly because those kids that played these games in the 80s and 90s never stopped playing, but during the time of Mario at the highest of his popularity, The Wizard a shockingly popular film and the Sega Genesis bursting on to the scene, it was entirely focused on kids my age: your nine to fifteen year-olds that had a weekly allowance and nothing to spend it on other than to save up to rent games. Your parents didn't quite understand it, I'm betting, and today's kids have no idea what  rental store is and certainly don't get that knee-jerk "click" where they felt that had to rent the game at any cost.

Then again, in a broader sense, the brick-and-mortar stores of old are exclusive to a particular generation as a whole. "Going out" to renting things, whether it be a VHS or Beta tape or the latest Playstation release (or renting a VHS machine or console), is well dead and gone now. It has been for quite a few years despite the Hollywood Videos and Blockbusters, the big chain stores, trying their best to hold on. I used to enjoy simply going to the stores on a weekend or during the summer and just hanging out. Looking at movies, looking at games. Small stores, like that Video Express, or larger stores like a Hastings were just fun to go to and "suck in" all the things that are around you. There's no longer a store out there to really do that, especially small, locally owned stores where you could buy things, much less actually rent. But that sensation, that ambiguous "click" you got when you were a child and rummaging through aisles of games isn't around either, and today's kids have no idea what that really is.



Despite what this ad might suggest, NOBODY played Nintendo like that, especially a family all together watching their kids play a one-player game with two controllers at the same time.

 

Like Saturday morning cartoons, that sensation and experience is lost to today's generation of gamers. It's the over-exposure and constant stream of entertainment that  ten or eleven year-old today has that's overly convenient and  luxurious. They don't have to wait for a cartoon to come on or pop in a VHS tape of a Ducktales recorded after school, they can just turn to a channel. They don't have to plan out renting games, walk to the corner video store in the dead-heat of summer and browse the aisles as your Circle-K slushee melted away, flipping over box after box under cheaply printed signs indicating game systems and movie genres for something that looked like it might be fun. Now they can click a link and download a game, or go to a website and have them shipped to them. No wonder kids are fat today - those blocks of walking in the middle of a sticky-July-summer was good exercise.  

Yet, I don't envy them at all. I love the memories of those little discoveries. Of looking through shelf after shelf of Nintendo, Genesis, Super Nintendo and even Atari games in search of that special moment. You spotted that one game, then get that "click" where you just automatically knew you had to play it.

Sure, it might just end up a Hudson Hawk or a, ungh...Shaq-Fu, but that was the fun of it. Even when it is something that bad, you still play it. Still hope it'll turn around. Usually it wouldn't. Sometimes you'd even play to the point where you convince yourself it's actually a good game, but you know deep down it's awful. I'd take the experience of that discovery, no matter how awful the game might end up being, over internet-investigation any day.

Now I'm too old and too much of a cynical internet blogger to do that. I suppose you have to be in that realm of early pre-teen existence where everything was a discovery to really latch on to it. Today's gaming generation that's in that realm will never understand that. But I'm glad...because that's our memory. Our nostalgia. Our sensation. And, I'm sorry, that's a far better memory than marking release dates, tracking reviews and yelling at each other on the internet. The "click" moment where everything around you would become faint and you saw your game of choice and knew, without hesitation and without any prior knowledge, that it was something you must play is long gone. Never to return for you or for any new generation of gamer. 

That "click" gnawed at you. You couldn't explain it. It was instinctual and you couldn't realize at the time that it was right then, at that moment, you had those instincts. You eventually grew out of it and lost them completely. No more knee-jerk trigger pulling. Getting older meant more thought, more dissecting options; debating choices and the pros and cons before making a final decision. The time of "I gotta have it" became a faint memory. Then the next thing you know you're in your 30s and you come to realization on how much you miss those easy instinctual choices and, thus, how much you miss the simplicity of your forgotten youth.


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