The start of the affair: The local rental store

[Editor’s note: Ashley Davis tells us how her local rental store helped start, and continue, her affair with videogames. — CTZ]

Like most videogame enthusiasts my age, games have been a very important, sizable chunk of my life from nearly the very beginning. But unlike most enthusiasts my age, I have not compiled a huge collection of games over the course of all that time. If the degree of seriousness of gaming as a hobby were judged only by the amount of games one has ever owned, I would, sadly, rank extremely low.

As much as I came to love videogames as a youngster, strains on money have always seemed to keep me from owning more than four or five games per system. After the acquisition of each new console, games only trickled in one at a time for Christmases and birthdays. Because my appetite for gaming was growing rapidly, I was severely unsatisfied with these offerings. Sure, I got some great games as gifts that I still love and hold dear to this day (mostly Sonic the Hedgehog games), but after each one was played several times through, I desperately longed for something new. My growth as a gamer was set to a slow crawl for many years, and as a result, my interest wavered dangerously into nonexistence. Little did I know that my saving grace would appear in the form of a seemingly insignificant movie rental store.

In the small town in which I spent the better half of my childhood, there were no big chains of any sort of store for miles and miles. If a person desired to rent a movie, their only choice was a small building that connected through a large doorway that halved the produce section of the grocery store next door. I cannot even remember the name of the place, nor can my sisters or mother. But everything else about it — the aisles filled with boxes and cases, the way the tile floor squeaked beneath my sneakers, even the way the room smelled — I am able to imagine it clearly enough in my mind to create extremely vivid and happy memories of the time I spent there. This place, while just an ordinary store to everyone else, would come to be a very important part of my childhood, and the source of the fuel that kept my fiery passion for gaming roaring.

This is what my life looked like when I was small. So much more exciting than playing outside!

I participated in weekly visits to this particular rental store many years before I started to play videogames as a serious hobby. There was an ice cream shop on the other side of the movie checkout, which was my initial reason for excitement regarding these trips. My mother would pick out a movie or a couple of games, I would scarf down a cone of vanilla ice cream, and that was that. Once my interest in games had been sparked later on down the road, I began to look forward to going to the rental store for a little more than just a stomach full of frozen dairy product. I participated in helping my mother choose games to take home with us (Dr. Mario and Snake Rattle n’ Roll being two of the more colorful ones that grabbed my attention). Still, I did not catch the rental bug myself until about a year after first receiving my Super Nintendo. I had been in school for a little while and discovered that other children got a small amount of money every week. I decided to try my luck, as I did enough chores to warrant earning an allowance, and so I put my request down on the table. My demands were simple and easy enough to fulfill, I think; I did not want money directly, but instead asked for an allowance in the form of new videogames to play.

An agreement was reached. I would be allowed to rent one game every weekend to compensate for any housework done over the course of the week. I excitedly did my chores and waited for every Friday to arrive, when my sisters and I would accompany our mother to purchase groceries after school. I would immediately run through the connective hole in the wall of the grocery, in between piles of apples and heads of lettuce, and immediately find myself surrounded by possibilities. I would then stroll down the rows of colorful boxes and contemplate which one I would take home that day. For an establishment that was supposed to mainly feature movies, it boasted quite a huge selection of videogames, which is something I was and am very thankful for. At first, there was only one row of NES games, but it ran the entire length of the store. By the time I made my last few visits, videogames covered two of these rows and an entire wall.

Being shut out from any informative media that existed at the time (I did not have access to Nintendo Power or Electronic Gaming Monthly), I did not have anything to go by other than a game’s packaging. Picking out a videogame was a big game of chance, and I learned that lesson after the first few rentals I made. I did not mind, though, even if I had the misfortune of choosing a less-than-stellar game; the gamble that was involved became one of the most fun aspects of game rental. Considering the quality of American box art for games made during the late 80s and early 90s, there were, of course, many horrible games chosen. Sadly, there were also many classic games that I passed up for the same reason. But if I had the good fortune to choose something that turned out to be a very enjoyable game, which happened often enough, considering the circumstances, I would rent it repeatedly and love every moment I got to spend playing it. These were the games that expanded my knowledge, made my hobby turn into love, and then into obsession.

As a child, I somewhat resented the fact that things such as menus and storyline could possibly appeal to me.

For example, I did not even know what a role-playing game was prior to picking up Final Fantasy II one Friday afternoon. To this day, I can not imagine what prompted me to choose that game in particular, because its minimalistic box art could not have possibly caught my eye. But chance brought us together, and I fell head over heels in love with everything about the game. I had never seen any sort of character development or followed an in-depth story during gameplay before discovering FFII, and it drove me to my first sleepless nights spent gaming by the light of the television. Once I figured out that there were a whole slew of games that played the same way, I became thrilled by the prospects of playing another and began to actually read the backs of boxes to see if I could spot the term “RPG” anywhere in its description. This is how I found my way to other amazing games such as Final Fantasy III, Super Mario RPG, and Chrono Trigger. After this introduction to the RPG, I began to feel that whenever I played any game, I was not just controlling a character’s actions, but I was that character. This mindset would stick with me from that point on (which is why I name every main character Ashley, and why I draw them to resemble myself).

Another game that I found through the old rental place did not blow my tiny little mind for being something completely different than anything I had ever experienced, but for giving me an enhanced version of something I already loved. Kirby Super Star originally enticed me because Kirby was a character that I was all too familiar with; Kirby’s Dream Land had been permanently stuck in my brickish Game Boy ever since the first day I received the two together. Super Star would become the single most played Super Nintendo game for me, even beating out all of the games that I actually owned. While I basically just enjoyed the hell out of the gameplay, what really appealed to me about Super Star was the fact that it was many different games for the price of one. I was only allowed one game per week, but with this game I could sort of cheat the system. Dynablade, The Great Cave Offensive, and Milky Way Wishes were where most of my time was spent.

Even my deep appreciation for the shoot-em-up originated from a chance rental. I did not ever pick up a Gradius or R-Type game; I would not play games like these until a much later point in my life. It makes me sad to think of how I passed up the more serious games of the genre just because of box art that was found unappealing to a strange young girl such as myself. Fortunately, they had just the game to bypass my picky girliness: Stinger, otherwise known as the second game of the cute-em-up Twinbee series. It just so happened that attaching limbs to ships was something that captured my attention more so than ones that had no hands or feet. It may not be the best game of the series, but I had no way of knowing that at the time. All I knew was that I adored flying around, blowing things up, and eating bells to get power ups. Stinger was my gateway drug to Galaga, and Galaga was the entrance into the rest of the genre. If I were never supplied with this game, I could have possibly never discovered what would turn out to be one of my favorite genres.

What a waste of two dollars.

There were so many other games that I took home with me, and I appreciate every single rental I ever made. Even the ones that still stand out to me as being some of the worst I’ve ever experienced, for they too helped shape the way I game today. We moved away from there when I was about thirteen years old, and I have not returned since. I do not know if that old place is still around, though I am fairly certain it is not; I hear that that little town has since grown up, and I fear a store like that could not have possibly survived. But I rented games religiously from that same store well into the 64-bit era. After the move, I searched desperately for a similar place to go, but to no avail. I was saddened, but after all those years, I was ready and willing to take the next step: saving up my allowance to research and purchase games that I knew I would love.

If I were never introduced to game rental, I would have never had the opportunity to play many of the games that our culture holds in high regard. I would have remained uninformed about anything outside of what had Mario or Sonic in them, and been completely in the dark about genres outside of platformers. But most importantly, I would not have developed a deep passion for playing games. It is true that it began when I shot ducks with a light gun at a very young age, but it all could have just been confined to a phase, and I would not be where I am today. I owe all of this to the nameless rental shop, where I first laid eyes on the world of videogames in its entirety, and where I picked up all my greatest childhood memories for two dollars a piece.

Ashley Davis