Renting video games every Saturday afternoon was a big part of my childhood. It’s a bygone era that I hold near and dear to my heart. As a kid growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, few things could match the sheer joy of watching Saturday morning cartoons before heading out to town with your old man to rent the latest video game. I have so many fond memories of this childhood weekend ritual. Sure, streaming and online content has made things faster and more accessible than they were 25, 30 years ago. But it comes at a price. Part of the fun of renting games and movies 20+ years ago was the actual time you spent riding around with your dad, being in awe of seeing all the games you wanted to rent, and eagerly anticipating the drive home to play the game of the week you had chosen after careful consideration. In my generation this sort of experience was, quite frankly, priceless.
So if you’re like me and fondly recall those halcyon days, well then my friend you’ve come to the right place. Kick your feet up, crack open a cold one, and join me for a sentimental stroll down memory lane. It’s a look back at a more innocent time in our lives. A golden time.
IT’S TIME TO (BE KIND AND) REWIND
My brother Kevin and I rented a TON of games in our day. Actually, I rented them. Kevin made me do his dirty work, as he was too lazy (and shy) to go rent games on his own accord. 90% of the time he had a specific game for me to get. If it was rented out, then I had freedom to choose. Sadly for me at least, most of the time his choice title was there. If not at the first store, then surely the fifth.
However, I secretly enjoyed doing the dirty work for him. I have very fond memories of renting. I loved all the little (and semi-lengthy) trips that my dad and I shared. Each Saturday afternoon we made the trek together. He was a busy man, but he always awarded me and Kevin with one rental each Saturday. Looking back, I think it was more than just simply renting video games but alas, I digress. I always looked forward to our weekend ritual, rain or shine.
From roughly 1987 to 1995, we must have rented 200 games between the Nintendo, Genesis and Super Nintendo. Years later, I rented some PS1 games for Kevin, but it was few and far. The renting bug eventually faded as my bro entered high school and gradually lost interest in gaming. It wasn’t much long before the renting bug died completely sometime circa 1998 or 1999.
From the mom and pops to the big boys, here are some memories and tales of my favorite childhood video stores.
I didn’t rent a ton from Blockbuster, as I found the alternatives much better, but my dad and I occasionally stopped by. They were a bit on the expensive side, $4 or $5 to rent a Super Nintendo game, but the plus side was you could keep your rentals for up to 5 days. That was their main selling point; it was rather enticing to think you could keep a game throughout an entire school week. But my mom didn’t like the idea of us gaming throughout a school week, so Blockbuster was seldom utilized in my renting rotation.
My best memory involving Blockbuster Video: it was my first job! A new one was being constructed just a 5 minute walk away from my house. I was a ripe 17 years old. It was October of 2000. I told my friends we should all apply and work there. My friend Eddie got the job one night. The next night I headed over while the store was still being worked on. The manager interviewed me on the spot and next thing I know he goes, “See you next Friday, kid.”
Working at Blockbuster was mostly a great experience. I was there for ten months before quitting in August of 2001. I was starting college later that month and I wanted to focus on that. Yup, just mere weeks before the 9/11 tragedy.
Eddie stayed on board until November 2001. He often told me it just wasn’t the same without me. We had a competition to see who could rack up more free rentals. We were able to get 5 free rentals a week, and we always had to max it out, even if we didn’t have time to watch the movies. In the end, the computer displayed a whopping 172 free rentals under my name! That’s roughly $775 in value.
I remember when Nikita and Judy joined the team. Oh man. I’ll never forget those two. They were from our same high school and let’s just say they had a reputation. And as I would find out, for DAMN good reason! Judy was very friendly, especially. The first day we worked together, I was putting a DVD on the top shelf. As I was doing this, she squeezed in to put a DVD on the bottom shelf, and… and…
*Cue NBA Jam announcer*
[What happened? -Ed.]
They say you never forget your first time, er, job. I believe that.
My first love. I can blame Evergreen Video and its owner, Tom, just a common man, working hard for the American dream, as the source that corrupted me. One day in the late 1980’s my dad was driving me and my brother Kevin around. We spotted Evergreen Video by chance. It began the whole renting craze for us.
I can still hear that little bell that rung each time the door opened. It was a small store with lots of family videos. Up front there was a wooden case full of NES goodness. The smell of the oak wood shelves permeates to this day. If there was ever a quintessential mom ‘n pop rental store, Evergreen Video was surely it.
Tom was a cool guy, and he became sort of like an uncle to me and Kevin. He owned the store and worked there every Saturday afternoon when we would visit. Back then, I even rented my fair share of games that I wanted. I basically picked the games with cool covers. I still remember some of my choice titles.
Tom was so good to us — he even held games for me and Kevin. My brother would call to ask for a game and Tom would hold it for us up to 24 hours. I remember him telling us once, with a big smile, “Only for you guys.”
One time we came in to pick up TMNT II: The Arcade Game. We met Tom’s son that day, and he was playing the game on the small TV they had. I still recall vividly to this day feeling bad that he had to turn off the game so we could rent it. He was on level 4 battling the wolf boss. Funny the little details you remember.
My brother and I were huge Double Dragon fans. We owned and played Double Dragon II to death. So when we found out part III was out, we figured it would be the Holy Grail. Besides, just look at that epic box art. We rented it from Evergreen Video, but it was disappointing for a number of reasons. One, the actual game itself wasn’t as good as we were hoping for. Two, after the first level the game crashed. We received a faulty copy. My dad drove us back to Evergreen, he explained the situation to Tom and Tom was more than happy to give us a no frills exchange.
But here’s the really cool thing. 3 weeks later, Tom told us he received a new copy of Double Dragon III, AND he was holding it, just for Kevin and me! Even though I was a little kid, I remember being blown away by his love and generosity. He really was like another uncle to us. This epitomized the kind of cat that Tom was.
When the Super Nintendo came to the US in late 1991, Tom bought some SNES games to keep up with the changing of the guard. I rented Ultraman: Towards The Future, and sadly, that would be the last game I ever rented from Evergreen Video.
In early 1992, my dad, Kevin and I made our usual Saturday afternoon trek to Evergreen Video. Two reasons we always left the house around noon:
- We couldn’t miss our Saturday morning cartoons
- The store didn’t open until noon
[Good reason -Ed.]
Unfortunately, that trip would prove to be our last. Tom told us he and the family were moving on. And of course, with my being so young at the time, I didn’t quite get it. I just assumed he would still be there next weekend, and the weekend after that, because it’s Tom. And that’s what Tom does. Your friendly neighborhood mom ‘n pop video store owner.
I didn’t understand the magnitude of his words until a short month or two later when my mom took me shopping. As we passed Evergreen Video, what was once a simple but lovely store, with so many good memories, I stole a glance inside. A part of me expected to still see the wooden shelves, and Tom’s friendly mug situated behind the register counter. Instead, I saw an empty store, torn down in shambles, the floor littered with debris. I felt like crying as I peered in. I lost a little bit of my innocence that day. From that moment on I forever realized that things don’t last forever, no matter how much you want them to.
The stuff dreams are made of. That describes the essence of Game Hunter in a nutshell. They exploded on the scene in 1992 and not before long, developed a cult-like following in my town. They catered to the diehard: NES, Genesis, Neo Geo, SNES, portables and every other system in-between.
Not only did Game Hunter have every system under the sun, they also carried a few arcade cabinets. It was here that I cut my teeth on World Heroes (my all-time favorite franchise from strictly a sentimental value). There was nothing better than scouring through the hundreds of games they carried, then plopping a quarter into one of their cabs while your dad went to check out. Gotta love the simple pleasures of life.
On top of all this, they also carried anime. I’ll never forget when my old best friend, Nelson, rented “Devil Hunter.” We watched it that evening in his room with our friends and Nelly’s little brother, Johnny. I was shocked at the amount of nudity! We tried our best to kick out Johnny, at least Nelson and I did, but we were outmatched by the fierce curiosity of a seven year old. We tried shielding his innocent eyes with Nelson’s pillows, but to no avail. It was sheer chaos as the other guys hooted and hollered at every nipple shot. Ah, to be 10 years old again.
However, the greatest thing about them were the import games they carried. It gave Game Hunter a truly special mystique. Seeing a wall covered with exotic Super Famicom boxes NEVER failed to amaze my little 10 year old eyes. Keep in mind this was back in the early ’90s when none of us had the internet, or a disposable income, or instant access to these titles that we enjoy today. It was truly mind-blowing to see so many imports in front of your face back in 1992.
The first import I ever played and rented was a little Kaneko fighting game by the name of Power Athlete (Power Moves). I rented quite a few imports courtesy of the almighty Game Hunter over the years. It was always a treat to see the Japanese version of a highly anticipated SNES game on the shelf MONTHS before the US version was due. I’ll never forget that fateful day in the summer of ’94 that Nelson and I saw the import versions of Fighter’s History, King of the Monsters 2 and Muscle Bomber (Saturday Night Slam Masters). But, that’s a story for another time. Game Hunter’s import selection was definitely what made them so legendary. Recall that back then, import did not mean just another version of a game but rather, they carried a strong mythical aura.
They also saved games by request. Unfortunately their service was questionable at times. Once I had them hold Fatal Fury for the Genesis. I rounded up my dad and when we got there, the worker said,“I thought you meant the Super Nintendo version. We don’t have the Genesis one.” He didn’t seem very apologetic, either.
My dad absolutely flipped out. And he rarely ever did. If anything he treated everyone with TOO MUCH respect (if that’s possible). But in this instance, the old man truly lost it. Game Hunter was a decent 20 minute drive away, so my dad went to town on the poor dude for wasting our time and gas. I think the term kids use today is, “Owned.”
Game Hunter ended up closing its doors in the late ’90s.
All in all though, I’ll always harbor very fond memories of Game Hunter. The buzz it created and generated within my gaming group was unmatched, and truly a sign of the times. Times that have long passed on…
A couple years ago I was browsing through a topic called “Stores That Don’t Exist Anymore.” When I saw this picture, I had to do a double take. Was it, could it be? Yes! It’s the actual Hollywood Video I frequented as a kid. Man, this picture brings back so many memories. The mountains in the back. How TARGET was right across the street and just to the right of the Target sign was a classic mom and pop rental shop VIDEO MART (which I’ll get to later below). One time my mom was shopping at Target and I decided to sit on the little lawn right there by the Target sign, reading Goosebumps book #26 “My Hairiest Adventure.” Man for some reason that’s a memory that vividly sticks out in my mind. The feeling of being free. Out on the lawn reading my favorite book on a crisp late afternoon in January. Cars zipping by with Hollywood Video as a pleasant backdrop to my reading. A cool little breeze in the air. My own slice of Heaven.
The Hollywood Video in my town opened in 1994 and was only a 5 minute walk away from my house. I made a beeline after school one day. It was the third rental store in a HALF MILE radius. It was the golden age of video stores. A big purple sign draped over the window proudly declared:
- FREE MEMBERSHIP! GRAND OPENING!
Like a miner rushing for gold, I made a beeline for the door. The SNES selection was enormous! I spotted Double Dragon V and Fighter’s History. I grabbed the former and bolted to the front of the line.
I had $5 cash on me, and Hollywood Video used the same type of renting procedure as did Blockbuster: 5 days roughly $5.
The lady looked at me with her eyebrow raised. It was my first trip to a rental store all by myself and I must have been a sight for sore eyes, standing there all giddy like I had just consumed a gallon of sugar.
“Um, does someone in your family have a membership?”
I replied innocently, “Naw, but your sign says I can get one for free.”
“You would need a driver’s license and credit card for that, though.”
Oh man, I felt like such a damn fool
I have so many fond memories of all those late school nights strolling up and down the horror section and perusing through their 16-bit titles while my dad bought groceries across the street. Of special note was how humongous this place was. At 8,500 glorious square feet, it was the damn biggest rental store I had ever seen.
I captured this shot of my childhood Hollywood Video on a rainy Monday night back in 2006. This location eventually folded in 2010. It was the last renting relic of my youth standing.
Much like Street Fighter II and Doom did, once a phenomenon sweeps a nation, out come the clones. It was no different for video rental stores in the early ’90s. Ultimate Video was perhaps the quintessential example of such. Opening in 1993, they had a mom ‘n pop feel but with the size to match any Blockbuster or Hollywood Video. I really loved the aesthetic of this store. It was also near my cousin’s house. Ultimate Video’s neon green sign lit up the night sky, dazzling you with its flash and glitz. It was the first thing you saw coming off the freeway, and it always drew me in like a moth to flame.
One vivid memory I have in particular of Ultimate Video was renting Halloween 4. As a kid that movie really creeped me out. It really nailed down the atmosphere of Halloween.
Ultimate Video quietly faded away in the late ’90s.
This mom ‘n pop was much larger than the average mom ‘n pop. It had a huge selection of movies, and a small, but memorable game section.
To this day, I remember the funky Sega Master System boxes, like Alex Kidd in Miracle World. U.S. Video was right next to the library, so it was quite convenient. Since my mom took me to the library weekly, I was always able to convince her to let me go to U.S. Video right across the street. Funny thing was, for as much as I frequented this store, rarely did I rent from them. Mostly, I walked the aisles staring at the horror movie boxes and thumbing through their tiny game selection.
OK, confession time. As a kid one of my favorite Genesis games was Fighting Masters. I played it years later in 2006. It was one of those experiences that leave you scratching your head. “Man, what was I thinking all those years ago?!”
The best thing about U.S. Video though were the two arcade cabs they had at opposite ends of their store. On one side you had the mega popular (and always crowded) Street Fighter II cab. On the other end you had a Neo Geo MVS that featured Fatal Fury, Sengoku, King of the Monsters and World Heroes. While I was first exposed to World Heroes at Game Hunter, it was U.S. Video where I played that game the most. The MVS cab was usually open as everyone was busy playing SF II at the other end of the store. Perfectly fine by me! I was content playing World Heroes hassle-free.
I remember fondly the times my mom would go grocery shopping, and luckily enough for me, U.S. Video was just across the street. As my mom bought apples, oranges and pears, I snapped bones and set human bodies on fire. Being on my own as a 9 year old kid, even if it was just for 20 minutes, gave me an incredible sense of freedom and adventure. It’s amazing what kids got away with 25 years ago compared to today. How times have changed.
One evening there was a tough shot 20 something year old playing World Heroes. He was using Janne. I challenged him, using Hanzo. There was a young female employee standing behind the counter, watching with great interest as this little 9 year old kid challenged this 20 something year old punk. He was extremely cocky. Two rounds later, I left him in a bloody and twisted heap. He quietly walked away with one massively bruised ego. I looked over my shoulder and saw that the girl watching had the fattest smile on her face. I still recall that vividly ^_^
And when I wasn’t playing World Heroes or checking out the back of game boxes, I wandered around the many towering wooden shelves of videos. Their horror section sticks out in memory, with the cover of Child’s Play 2 leaving a lasting impression [Gee, I can’t imagine why -Ed.]
U.S. Video shut down in the mid ’90s.
Perhaps the smallest video store I have ever seen. Like Evergreen, it was a family-owned gig, lots of wooden shelves and they would hold games and movies for you. Throughout the early-mid ’90s they held countless WWF new releases for me. SummerSlam ’92, Survivor Series ’93 and so on. Sometimes the waiting list was quite lengthy. Looking back, it was quite a unique system. They made house calls when your movie came in. I still remember the owner calling me one night. “Steve, Leprechaun 2 is back, waiting for you.”
Their small SNES section was not impressive, but it was cheap to rent and the store scored major gas points with my dad — it was only half a mile away from home.
The year was 1989. One night my crazy Uncle Jimmy took me to Video Mart to rent a movie. I saw the cover of Halloween and in my naive 6 year old mind, I thought “Halloween? Cool, I love trick-or-treating!” I begged my uncle to rent it, and he obliged. I spent most of the movie watching it from behind the sofa, and later that night I had a nightmare that Michael Myers was stalking me around the house. And I’ve been a fan ever since. Go figure.
After my family moved in early 1996, I returned to Video Mart one night in late 1996 to rent The Combatribes. Surprisingly, the owner remembered me, and he asked where I had been. You get that kind of connection at these mom and pops that you don’t quite get at the chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood. At any rate, I came back that night because I was homesick. My dad drove me back to my childhood town because he was awesome like that. The Combatribes was the second import game I ever rented and it was a game I rented like 7 times during a 6 year span at 5 different stores. My brother and I beat The Combatribes a couple times before my dad returned it the following night. It was just the nostalgic kick I needed to help me get over my new town blues, at least for one weekend, anyhow.
Video Mart ceased to exist, to my sorrow, for sentimental reasons y’see, in the late ’90s.
Back in the day it was a pretty happening place, and I rented a lot of games there. They had all the SNES games in thick transparent cases. Movies were encased in plastic cases where you had to squeeze and shake for the VHS to slide out.
If you recall from the beginning of this article, I did most of the renting for my brother. He was too shy and lazy to go rent games on his own accord, so he shipped his little bro.
And after years of doing anything constantly, you get to be a bit of a pro at it. A master, even. Kevin told me once, and I never forgot this: “Steve, you sure know how to rent the hell out of games.” It became a badge of honor. Although there were so many times where I saw games that I wanted to rent, I almost always came home with the title my brother requested. I had a 98% kill rate, and I know it sounds silly, but it was something I took pride in.
The summer of ’94 saw my greatest challenge: Super Street Fighter II. I raced to the SNES section madly thumbing through the thick glass display cases. There were a few other guys huddled around, and I knew they were after the same Holy Grail. Instinct took over and I sprinted to the counter. A pimple-faced male employee, who looked like he was 3 weeks fresh out of his senior prom, glanced down at me. Panting, I asked him if he had a copy of Super Street Fighter II safely tucked away back there. I figured it was so rare that maybe they keep it behind the counter in order to avoid the inevitable bloodshed that would occur in the aisle if not. His expression suddenly changed. Flashing me a clandestine smile, as if I’d just shared the secret password he was waiting desperately all day to hear, he reached down behind the counter in dramatic fashion. “Kid, it’s your lucky day. This here is the last one we have.” And right there, in that moment, my childhood was made.
I was absolutely blown away. Time froze. It was the longest 5 minute drive home ever. When Kevin opened the door, you could tell that he was expecting the worst. Even if I was the master of renting, renting Super Street Fighter II successfully on launch day was right next to building a rocketship in your garage. Knowing that, I had to mess with him a little bit, so I told him some BS story about how I was too late, etc. He nodded compliantly. “Well, you took your best shot,” he chirped. “YOU BET YOUR ASS I DID!” I eagerly revealed the prized trophy I had kept hidden behind my back.
The Wherehouse, sadly, died off along with the ’90s. But I’ll always have the memories.
Renting was just part of an innocent era that’s sadly gone by the wayside in today’s digital age. Technology has taken over, and simple innocent pleasures like video rental stores have long gone the way of the dinosaur. A relic of the past, I feel sad thinking about how my children will never get to experience this basic childhood joy. Wandering up and down countless aisles surrounded by hundreds of movies and games was blissful. It was like a museum of pure entertainment overload. Good innocent times from a bygone era. It’s really a shame kids these days only know of Redbox and NetFlix. I like those modern conveniences too, but damn if it’ll ever match the pure joy and wonder of visiting the local rental store on a Saturday afternoon. If you were a kid growing up in the early-mid 1990’s, it was a ritual and a way of life. There’s something incredibly sacred about those old video stores and memories.
The joy of renting, whether it was “OH MY GOD! IMPORT!”, connecting with your fellow man, watching your dad stick up for your pride and honor, or snagging the final copy of a popular new release – those were some badass, bitchin’ times.