Gaming Memories: Fleeting Fantasies (My Life in Rentals)

I stood there, fidgeting but transfixed, staring at the black plastic case. It was not your typical Super Nintendo case, which traditionally are made of thin cardboard. It was a thick, hard, black plastic, molded to look like some sort of industrial, heavy duty crate. The title of the game, Robocop Versus The Terminator, was stamped into the face of the case, and in 1993, cross-overs of this nature were still virtually unheard of outside of comics. There had, in fact, been this exact cross-over published by Dark Horse Comics just a year prior, and I’d read and loved that series. Two icons of my youth in the same universe? Fighting to the death? And here they were, now, in digital form, ready for me to take part in the action.

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I had just turned 11 years old in the above scene, and I was standing in one of the gaming aisles of the local Blockbuster Video. It was 1993 and the Terminator was still hugely popular. Robocop’s star had faded since the 80s, but there were plenty of nerds like me who liked him more than the T800. New game releases typically flew off the shelf at Blockbuster. Unless a game was a surefire hit, each store would usually only get one or maybe two copies, and they would get snapped up fast. This Blockbuster had a copy of the newly released Robocop Versus The Terminator, so why the hesitation on my part? As soon as I saw the case, with its unique design and promise of an epic clash between two titanium titans, I was excited. So why did I pace the aisles, flipping over other game cases, returning to the alluring black case to stare at it some more, then repeat the cycle, occasionally reassuring my waiting mom that I was “almost ready,” when in reality I was agonizing over whether or not I should rent this damned game?

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Rental places like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video were a huge part of my childhood and scenes like the one I describe above were not uncommon. Snippets of memories of looking for or at the box art of specific movies and games litter my brain. With the rapid rise and oversaturation of streaming services, these memories seem quaint and far away, and I imagine to some my agony over making the “right” choice might seem odd. Now, of course, there is so little at stake if you start watching a bad movie or playing a terrible video game on Xbox Game Pass or PlayStation Now. Just stop playing it. Move on to the next. With rentals, though, a trip to the local Blockbuster might be your only shot at a new, fun gaming experience for weeks.

The feeling of the stakes being so high was exacerbated by the fact that my family was not exactly flush with spending money. We weren’t poor but we were pretty firmly lower middle class. Sometimes my parents would be willing/able to take us to a rental place, sometimes they wouldn’t. Even if we went, sometimes they’d allow me to get a video game in addition to the movie we were getting for family movie time, sometimes they wouldn’t. So having the opportunity to pick out a game made me feel lucky, but also sometimes made my choice feel incredibly weighted. I might not have the chance to pick out a new game for weeks, and when you’re 11, that’s essentially equivalent to several lifetimes. If I knew what game I wanted and it was on the shelf, it was an easy choice. If I wasn’t sure what I wanted to play, I might be stuck wandering between the two dedicated video game aisles, flipping cases and scrunching my little 11 year old brow in frustrated indecision.

Another element that contributed to this reluctance to “just pick a damned game” was a history of disappointments. In the flotilla of random rental shop memories in my mind, I can distinctly remember a number of game covers that lured me in with promise of epic adventure or incredible graphics, only to deliver a blocky, sloppy mess of confusion. The Internet was not yet ubiquitous and I had only intermittent access to gaming magazines, so I rarely had a sense of what a game was about other than what was conveyed by the front and/or back cover (sometimes the back cover was blocked by an external cover so you had to rely purely on the front cover art). One clear memory of this was Final Fantasy (1990), for the NES. I had played Faxanadu (1989) and really liked it, so when I saw the cover of Final Fantasy I was titillated by the lure of a new, beautiful adventure game.

The sword and axe sold the medieval combat aspect, and the crystal ball set between them showed a huge kingdom floating in the sky. How could I go wrong? What fantastical adventures awaited me in that mystical city in the sky? When I got home and popped the cartridge in my system, I was welcomed by something like this:

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Of course it became something of a joke, the disparity between early video game covers and the games’ actual visuals and content, but when you’re just a kid with a vivid imagination and desire for cool graphics that transport you to another realm, it was a problem. You never knew if what you rented would be what you got. Another example of this was Sid Meier’s Pirates!, also for the NES. What I saw on the shelf was:

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Spooky, bearded pirate skull! Swashbuckling! Treasure! My fertile young imagination went wild imagining the incredible adventures I was going to get into on the high seas. I got home and excitedly shoved the cart in the NES and saw:

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Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time with the game. I remember looking for it again later and being disappointed to find that the store no longer carried it. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t supremely let down by how drastically different the game looked from its cover art. The same goes for the SNES game Rise of the Robots, a game that was released the same month as the original PlayStation. The marketing for the game heavily tapped into the recent excitement over new 3D graphics in games, like those in the Killer Instinct arcade game, released just two months prior. Advertisements for the game promised “ground breaking” 3D graphics that were “to die for.”

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And here is a shot of the game in action:

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With every one of these disappointments, I became increasingly wary about what I was renting. Was this really even an adventure game, or will it turn out to be a puzzle game that just has fantasy art on the cover? Did this licensed game look anything like the source material, or was it a pale imitation? Did the in-game graphics bear any resemblance to the marketing art? I walked away with a very specific kind of trust issue.

That aside, I had plenty of fun, positive experiences at rental places. There was a specific kind of youthful excitement generated by the seemingly vast variety of choice offered to a family on a budget. Sometimes we’d go weeks or maybe even a month or two without a trip to Blockbuster, and those return trips were especially exciting. What new games would they have in stock? Would my parents let me get two, if I couldn’t decide? New releases were typically more costly to rent than older games, so sometimes I’d be allowed to get one new and one old game, and this allowed me to experiment with less popular titles. Sometimes these experiments paid off and I’d end up liking or even loving the games. Maniac Mansion (NES), Jaws (NES), Friday the 13th (NES), Earthworm Jim (SNES), Aero the Acrobat (SNES), Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing (SNES), and Triple Play 2000 (N64) all fall under this category.

When I was a bit older and living in the suburbs, there was a tiny independent rental place around the corner from me, and I remember being very excited to get a membership of my own when I was just 16. It made me feel oddly mature and responsible (never mind the fact that after a couple of years of responsible renting, I would allow my late fees for a game to get to around $30 and then never return there after dropping the game off. I still feel weirdly guilty about that. If you’re reading this, dude with a gray ponytail always pulled back with a rubber band: I’m sorry! I have your $30 now and I’m sorry you went out of business. Was it my fault? Are you mad at me? :*( ). Their rentals were cheaper than the big chains and they stocked more obscure, niche titles, so it was there that I was introduced to both the Suikoden and Tales games. The cover art for Suikoden II was gorgeous, and the gameplay screenshots on the back reminded me enough of the Golden Age SNES RPGs that I took a chance on it, and I am so glad that I did. It ended up being one of my favorite games of all time and I don’t at all regret running out and buying a brand new copy for myself.

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I do, however, very much regret not doing the same for Tales of Destiny. I rented it on a whim and loved it so much that I rented it several more times so I could beat it. During one of my later session with it, I decided to… uh… “borrow” the game registration card from the case, since this shop actually gave you the original game case and everything when you rented it. I sent the card in and Namco sent me a big, cool poster for free. I was so weirdly thrilled by it, and it made me only that much more excited to play Tales of Destiny 2 when it came out. The reason I regret not buying the first game after I’d played it is because a complete copy of the game, case, and manual goes for around $200 now. Sigh.

My experience standing in front of the cool case for Robocop Versus The Terminator in Blockbuster encapsulates many of these experiences. I was drawn in by the unconventional packaging but cautious at the prospect of being burned with terrible gameplay that didn’t do the characters justice. I didn’t want to waste my one rental on a bad game, but what other choices did I have? Street Fighter II: The Movie? Shaq Fu? So, after many laps around the gaming section, I did end up picking the game up and handing it to my mom. On the drive home, I convinced myself it was a good choice. Even if it wasn’t amazing, it was still Robocop and the Terminator. You can’t get much cooler than that (in 11 year-old Joey’s mind, anyway). You could, however, make a better game. Just five minutes after starting the game I was angry. There I was, clomping along as Robocop in my heavy, titanium suit, when… I died? From a few bullets? Shot by regular-ass enemies? Where was the Terminator? Ugh. Disappointed again.

As I grew older and began to buy my own games, my appreciation of rental places dwindled. They began charging more for rentals, their selection shrank as they dedicated more and more shelf space to just one or two big releases, and they even began to lessen rental times to just one or two days for new games. How were you supposed to play much of a game in that time? You weren’t. You were supposed to go back and rent it again. The popularity of streaming services has all but eliminated rental shops, but they were the source of so many magical memories from my youth. The ability to rent a game for two or three bucks meant that I (and many other kids from families who couldn’t afford to buy very many new games) still had the ability to play the newest games and experiment with potentially hidden gems. I spent hours circling racks of video game box art, can trace some of my favorite games back to rental places, and even took part in the Blockbuster World Video Game Championship II (a topic for its own post, I think).

I’m not exactly calling for a return to the era of rentals, as in our current age of hyper-capitalism, I’m sure it would be a nightmare of a consumer market. But can you imagine a small shop in a small town, with shelves of video games old and new, charging just a few bucks a pop to take them home and try them out? Behind the counter is a young college kid with a Pokémon shirt on, tapping away at a laptop. Or maybe a middle-aged woman who you would come to know by name and would one day surprise you with the revelation that she’d programmed one of the arcade games you plugged countless quarters in as a kid. Classic gaming posters would line the walls, a few arcade cabinets would buzz away in a cozy corner, framed by some well-worn armchairs and stacks of old copies of Nintendo Power and Electronic Gaming Monthly. Maybe that’s a silly fantasy to conjure up. Maybe we’ve outgrown any need for such a shop. But I can’t deny that the fuzzy nostalgia and warm memories associated with rental shops tint a dream like that in bittersweet sadness for me.

Cover image from Charlie on Pinterest