There’s a scene in the Kevin Smith film Clerks where Randal Graves, a clerk at a mom and pop video store, goes to a Blockbuster-esque video store called Big Choice video to rent a movie – there’s a reason, you just have to see the film if you haven’t. Upon seeing the sheer amount of movies they have, Randal drops to his knees.
That’s how I felt the first time I set foot in a Blockbuster video. We wouldn’t have anything even remotely resembling the once mighty rental titan around my home town until 2004, so the first time I was able to browse a Blockbuster, with no intention of renting anything mind you, I was completely overwhelmed. It was mind blowing just to see the sheer volume of movies and video games on the shelves, picking up and inspecting the backs of the boxes of titles I had only ever read about it magazines but always wanted to try.
My parents grew up in large families where they didn’t have much, but they were grateful for what they had, so when it came to raising my brother and I, they wanted to give us the life they never had. This was within reason though as we lived a humble life. Whether I realized it at the time or not, my parents weren’t rolling in money, but you wouldn’t know it based on how they treated us. We were never what you would call spoiled, but my parents would always be willing to make sacrifices just to make us happy. I recall a time in high school when my dad came into an extra fifty dollars somehow. He didn’t take the money for himself, but instead gave it to me so I could buy a copy of Mega Man X5 for the original PlayStation. Because of the environment I grew up in, it taught me to appreciate everything I had and to take care of it, especially the consoles and video games I was fortunate enough to own.
My brother and I had a very small library of NES games – I could easily recite them, perhaps even chronologically to when we got them to a point – but we rented far more than we owned because video games were expensive. One of the first times I remember renting a game wasn’t from a store, it was from someone’s house, and I know what you’re thinking, STRANGER DANGER, but unlike a big city, our small town was one of those ones you see on TV where everyone knew everyone, especially back then. The game I picked out was Ghostbusters from Activision because Ghostbusters was pretty much my favorite thing in the universe until a group of teenaged mutant turtles came around.
If you’re a fan of the popular YouTube series The Angry Video Game Nerd, you’ve probably seen the episode on Ghostbusters as it was one of the earliest episodes. Even as a kid who got excited playing any video game whatsoever, I knew it was bad, and related very much to the video that James Rolfe, the performer who plays the character, produced. In my mind, I pictured playing as any one of the Ghostbusters, using my Proton Pack to hunt ghosts, but what I got was a boring map that allowed me to drive the Ecto-1 around if you managed to hit something just right. Such was the dice you rolled when you played the renting game.
In Harbour Grace we had three primary places to rent video games: Dexter’s Video, which would eventually become First Stop and also very conveniently located across the street from where my grandparents lived; a Petro-Canada gas station, owned by a man named Dave Weeks, so it just become known as “Weeks” located on the main road, Harvey Street, and finally Williams, a small convenience store just down the road from the local ice rink and fire hall on Water Street. In 2019 as of this writing, Dexter’s is now an apartment building, Williams is now a bar called Easton 1602 and Weeks has been torn down for years, leaving nothing to indicate that something once stood there at all.
If you’ve seen any movie or TV show set in the ‘80’-s or early ‘90’-s that features a mom and pop video store, you’ve more or less seen what Dexter’s, and eventually First Stop, looked like. Stepping through the front door was like walking through a portal, transporting you to a world of nothing but walls decorated with movie posters and racks upon racks of VHS tapes and Nintendo games. I have a few, but fond memories of interacting with the owner, Dexter, who was a kind and pleasant silver-haired man. One time during the summer I was pretending to be Spider-Man, enhancing my imagination by wearing red winter gloves that had black grips on them. Dexter jokingly asked that I must be pretty cold if I was wearing gloves like that in the summer heat.
Dexter’s wouldn’t keep up with new video game releases as my other rental hot spots, that is until it changed ownership, but it couldn’t have had a better location. If my parents needed a babysitter, my grandparents would always be willing to look after us for the night. An easy way to keep up occupied would be to give us a few dollars and send us across the street to rent a movie or video game.
Weeks was much smaller than Dexter’s – it wasn’t a dedicated video store after all – but what it lacked in size, it made up in selection. The Nintendo games shared a wall with the VHS tapes which were directly in your face the second you walked in. When it came to getting new titles in, you had a much better chance at seeing something new at Weeks, and they were also the first place in our area that not only rented Super Nintendo games, but the console as well. One thing I remember is that the store front also had a spinner rack that had curious games that all had a white cover with a checkered pattern overlay. It wouldn’t be years later until I realized that these were titles for Sega’s precursor to their popular Genesis console, the Master System, that not a single one of mine or my brother’s friends owned.
Williams, like Weeks, rented movies and video games in addition to their primary function which was a convenience store. Upon entering, you would walk past the drinks, chips and chocolate bars to the back room where the video games were, and if I knew what going to the adult video selection of a rental store was back then, this would have been what I compared it to. All the junk food was nice and all, but what I wanted most was to scan my eyes row-by-row in the backroom to see if there was something I hadn’t played before.
As a kid obsessed with video games, renting games to me might as well have been a treasure hunting expedition. What you have to understand is that unlike a video store franchise, our stores only ever got one copy of a game, so in order to get that game you wanted, like say Ultra’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you had to be very lucky either to be there when someone was returning it, or manage to reserve it before someone else did. The best you could hope for was that one game would show up at multiple places, increasing your odds of getting it. Still, It wouldn’t be uncommon to walk into a store, see that game you desperately coveted but on the front was an orange tag with the word “rented” complete with a cartoon face mocking you with their stuck out tongue.
There was some disappointing weekends no doubt, but it was more than balanced with the thrill of discovery. Walking into a store at just the right time when that game you wanted got put back on the shelf, snagging it, bringing it up to the counter and then reciting your name and phone number to whomever was behind the register. What got you through the school week was counting down the hours until your parents brought you around to rent a game. When my parents finally deemed me old enough to go around town on my own, the summer months would be full of me sheepishly asking “can I have three dollars to go rent a game?” and if my wish was granted, I strapped a fanny pack to the frame of my bicycle, which was how I managed to steer and not drop my precious prize, and set forth to adventure!
Because there was no internet, you never knew what new releases were going to show up week after week too. You might catch whiff of an actual true rumor from your friend at school about a new game or read about it in a magazine if you were lucky, but for the most part all you had to go on was cover art and whatever you could get from the back of a package.
The absence of the internet meant that going into a store that rented video games was a thrilling surprise each week, but it also meant I had no way of knowing which games were good and what ones were terrible. Needless to say Ghostbusters wouldn’t be the last time I was suckered in by a property I was deeply passionate about. Licensed games have a stigma for being bad, especially those with the rainbow logo of a company known as LJN stamped on their box, but you still gave them a shot anyway because you adored movies like Home Alone and Back to the Future or comic book characters like The Uncanny X-Men, all very, very terrible games. You kept trying them though because while there were bad ones, you sometimes got quality titles like Batman: The Video Game, based off the 1989 film directed by Tim Burton, or any number of games based on Disney properties from publisher Capcom.
After a while, you would start to notice helpful hints to making sure you rented a good game based on the design of a box. Games with a silver trim for example were usually great as they came from Konami, a company that owns franchises like Castlevania, Contra, and made three mostly great Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games for the NES. Then there was the boxes that had a purple border around them which came from Capcom, a company that I became deeply in love with because of renting their games for the NES, in particular their unofficial mascot character: Mega Man.
I’ll never know exactly when my love for Mega Man started, whether it was because of just randomly getting attracted to the cover of Mega Man 2, still today one of my favorite games of all time, featuring an awkward man dressed in blue pointing a gun at a man with a boomerang on his forehead, all the while a scientist cowers behind someone with drills at the end of their arms instead of hands. Or, what more than likely happened, I fell in love with the character after watching the weekly 30-minute cartoon/commercial Captain N: The Game Master, about a guy name Kevin who gets sucked into a world where Nintendo characters like Mega Man were real people.
I’ve never been what you call a tough guy – you can find me watching Love, Actually each Holiday season – so I never took much stock in adhering to typical masculine roles. On Captain N though, Mega Man was the strong guy, so there most certainly was some of that young boy mentality of strong guy equals the best character. All these years later, I blame this cartoon for my not appreciating the Castlevania series as Simon Belmont – a regular character on the show and the star of the first and second Castlevania games – was portrayed as a cowardly narcissist.
However it happened, Mega Man titles became my favorite ones to rent, and fortunately for me, there was a lot of them. We wouldn’t see the last two NES games where I lived, but I had four to choose from and they were rented out with exceptional frequency. Recognizing the quality of Mega Man, this led me to trying other games from Capcom, especially their Disney titles, like DuckTales, The Little Mermaid, and a game I would eventually get to own, Chip N’Dale: Rescue Rangers. What was so great about Capcom’s library of Disney games is that they were titles I had a chance of seeing to the end. I loved Mega Man, but I could never finish any of them until I was a teenager. DuckTales on the other hand was a game I could complete on my own, without having to ask my brother, or the Game Genie, for help no less!
To my young and developing mind, I had carved out a large territory in which to further my ever evolving passion for video games, and one that I could navigate on my own no less. Not a ten-minute car ride from where I loved though was a new hunting ground to explore, rich in new places to rent and literature to educate me on the new games I could expect to start showing up on rental shelves. That place was the next town over from mine: Carbonear.