How Rental Stores Became Gaming’s Grindhouse

The rise and fall of the rental store and the lost art of discovery.

This article was originally published in the Den of Geek SDCC Special Edition Magazine. Click here to view the full issue!

The spirit of grindhouse cinema isn’t based on aesthetics; it’s about discovery. Theater owners who opened their doors during the Hollywood Golden Age found themselves in an unstable market by the time the ‘60s and ‘70s rolled around. Instead of closing up shop, they began screening the kinds of films “legitimate” theaters wanted nothing to do with. These venues helped movies like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, blaxploitation touchstone The Mack, and revenge film Thriller: A Cruel Picture become classics.

With their dingy atmospheres and relatively cheap entertainment, arcades were sometimes referred to as gaming grindhouses, but in reality the average arcade was closer to a megaplex. The high cost of arcade manufacturing and distribution ensured that most early games came from major companies, such as Atari and Namco, instead of independent developers. This exclusivity helped ensure that arcades became the one place people would go for video game entertainment outside of their own homes.

In contrast, video stores offered the game industry a true grindhouse venue to call its own. Your standard rental franchise, like Blockbuster or Hollywood Video, needed to fill a lot of shelf space with various options. More often than not, these selections were presented to branch owners through a catalog containing all the latest hits and a variety of relatively obscure games and movies at discount prices. Store owners had little to lose by using cheap titles to fill gaps in their inventory. The same principle often applied to mom-and-pop operations that needed to make a little extra income by offering rentals through their business. However, some small-time outlets were much more selective about which titles they stocked.

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“At that time, the owner of the store simply kept his eye on games news websites and predicted demand for the more popular games,” says Lyle Shaw, who worked from 2001 to 2006 in a now-defunct video store in Toronto known as Avanti Video Ltd. “He would order through a distributor and specify one or two games each week that he thought would rent.”

Stores like Avanti couldn’t always afford to take the risk of stocking a game that wasn’t going to rent, but sometimes the store’s owner would overestimate the popularity of a game or take a chance on a title that ultimately didn’t catch the attention of casual renters. Nevertheless, Shaw remembers that the store’s regular customers ultimately defaulted to these titles at some point.

“Regulars might run out of choices in our store and would branch out to whatever was novel,” Shaw says. “If I was passionate about a title, I could usually get renters to try it by striking up a conversation while they were browsing.”

Much like grindhouse films, the more offbeat games featured at rental stores were typically exploitative in some way. Many of them tried to capitalize on the popularity of a more established title and others promised an experience that mainstream titles would never deliver. More often than not, this subculture of exploitation resulted in such forgettable titles as the unfathomably bad Super Mario clone, Normy’s Beach Babe-O-Rama; Max Payne wannabe Drake of the 99 Dragons; and the shockingly violent Contra rip-off known as Doom Troopers.

But occasionally, a true gem emerged from the drek of the unknown. Run-and-gun cult darling Vectorman; the 20-years-ahead-of-its-time masterpiece, Earthbound; and even the Troma Films-inspired gross-out game, Boogerman: A Pick and Flick Adventure, found their way into the hands of many gamers by virtue of being the last titles available on a Friday night.

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More importantly, the rental store offered a safe space from the fears that once crippled the industry during the great video game crash of 1983, which was caused by a flood of subpar titles from companies looking to make a quick buck. At a time when video games were still thought of as a fad, major companies ranging from Atari to Fairchild Semiconductors designed their own consoles and games in the hopes of getting in before the bubble burst. Mainstream retail outlets were corrupted by a complete lack of quality control. Eventually, people treated purchasing games as a risk they couldn’t afford to take.

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The most a gamer had to lose by taking a chance on a rental was $5 and a few hours. Like the grindhouse patrons of old, gamers who walked into a rental store often did so unburdened by worries of quality. They were looking for cheap entertainment. Anything surprisingly great they stumbled upon was a bonus.

Years before he became a video game journalist, Leif Johnson was a young gamer looking for a new medieval adventure. He remembers the thrill of being surprised by the unknown and recalls the two games he decided to take a chance on based solely on the appeal of their box art. The first was an ultimately forgettable adventure, Astyanax. The other?

“It was Final Fantasy,” Johnson says. “I didn’t know anything about the game. I just liked its medieval fantasy cover.”

Johnson was one of many gamers who took a chance on Final Fantasy based on the experience promised on the box rather than any actual knowledge of what was inside. At this time, the job of video game box art was to capture the spirit of an experience and help it stand out rather than relay its actual visuals. This technique was popularized by grindhouse film directors who knew that a movie’s poster had to promise sex, violence, and the movie they wish they could have made with a larger budget. While this practice sometimes led to deception, it also encouraged early adopters to turn titles like Final Fantasy into video game dynasties.

Yet those same gamers who helped turn the unknowns into cult classics have grown into crafty consumers who rarely make blind purchases.

Recently, Johnson wanted to play a game featuring martial arts combat. Any game would do. He eventually found a game called Kung Fu Strike: The Warrior’s Rise. He recalls feeling the need to perform light research on the game before downloading it. It’s an instinct he admits extends to even simple purchases.

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“The other day, I spent time looking up reviews for a new pair of shoelaces,” Johnson says. “I wanted to make sure that I got the pair that had the most five-star reviews. For shoelaces.”

In the age of Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, and other review aggregators, numbers are king. What should just be a general indication of merit has kickstarted a new era of selectiveness. For many, even a score in the 70 to 80 percent range can represent an inferior product. Remarkably, this caution seems to have bred fear rather than curb it.

YouTubers John Bain (who goes by TotalBiscuit) and Jim Sterling recently took a trip to the office of game developer, publisher, and distributor Valve to talk about the upcoming changes to the Steam digital video game marketplace. Among the topics discussed was the difficulty of game discovery.

Steam may offer more games than your local Blockbuster could have ever hoped to stock, but some argue that it is the root of the platform’s problems. Blizzard art director Samwise Didier recently commented on how the limited resources he had to work with while developing StarCraft inspired him to be creative. He likened it to making the best out of a box of broken restaurant crayons. That analogy certainly applies to the rental store where broken crayons were always in stock. Steam, however, is more like a 200 ct. box of Crayolas with detailed instructions on why Mango Tango is the optimal shade of orange. There may be more options, but there is less incentive to stray.

Valve has stated that they intend to place a greater emphasis on their curator system—which is made up of both tastemakers specifically chosen for Steam and volunteer users—in an effort to stop the influx of barely playable titles made to look like hidden gems. They’ve even promised to openly display the details behind why Steam is recommending a certain game to you. You’d almost think they’re trying to recreate the role of the video store clerk.

In a way, Valve is chasing the days when the thing guiding you toward new entertainment wasn’t an algorithm that gamers are supposed to believe is infallibly scientific. The kids at the video store weren’t a perfect resource, but they recommended games because it was their job and because they had an interest in not seeing people rent the same titles every day. They knew the people they recommended games to were going to be back. There was a measure of accountability and enthusiasm that an algorithm cannot offer.

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Despite the fact that several reputable gaming outlets and critics have curator profiles on Steam, there are still those who use this status for things other than helping gamers. Some online curators troll fellow players, some don’t update their selections for months at a time, and some even promote their own games. For many, there’s just no incentive to maintain a curator profile. Even if there was, Valve still struggles to help the right curators find the right gamers.

At the moment, and the Humble Store, two of Steam’s main competitors, boast more selective libraries. GOG, for example, has a specific process for choosing what games will be featured on the platform.

“The whole process of choosing games starts with our business development team, who reaches out to game creators and decides if a game is something that our users would like,” says Lukasz Kukawski, Senior PR Manager at GOG. “Then the game goes to our review department—where the most dedicated gamers from work. And these guys and gals, with all their gaming knowledge, play all titles from start to finish and review them for us. Based on those reviews and our own feelings about every game, we decide if it’s a good fit for our catalog or not.”

In theory, this process is helpful to consumers. By curating games that aren’t simple cash grabs, GOG is ensuring that gamers get titles that are worthwhile. This curation system certainly counteracts many of Steam’s big flaws, but it also means that there’s a gatekeeper and that something like Boogerman still might not make the cut.

“Of course if a game is not available on, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Let’s put it in a different way: we make sure that if you come to and pick any game from the catalog, we know it is well worth your time.”

The efforts of companies like GOG may indeed be the light at the end of the tunnel, but there is still a very real fear that invention has starved necessity and that the days of necessary exploration are firmly behind gaming culture.

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“There was something exciting about being able to hold a game in your hands. It felt like you were about to go on an adventure,” Johnson says of times gone by. “I don’t know if those days are coming back. I sometimes worry we’re heading towards another crash. People say they want new things, but there are so many options out there that they sometimes just fall back on what they know.”

Johnson speculates that a streaming service might help alleviate this fear of discovery. Subscription services like PlayStation Now and Xbox Game Pass allow you to access a large library of titles for a monthly fee. They allow gamers to taste test different experiences. Programs like Humble Monthly offer a random assortment of monthly titles at a highly discounted price. GameFly and Redbox are keeping rentals alive.

These services are designed to encourage exploration but each is hampered by doubt. GameFly and Redbox are struggling to combat the convenience of digital purchases. Streaming and subscription services are battling against the fear of something new. It remains to be seen whether they will be successful.

So long as there are gamers who are willing to forsake money and safety for the thrill of being surprised, the rest of the world will continue to benefit from their discoveries. Unfortunately, surprise is quickly becoming a luxury that many forgo in favor of what they have been told is a sure bet.

But there are no sure bets, and that’s why discovery matters. The eclectic selections that dominated grindhouses and rental stores served as reminders that your comfort zone isn’t the world. Perhaps these places no longer have a role in society, but the ideas they represented are more valuable than ever because they too are ceasing to exist.

Read and download the full Den of Geek SDCC Special Edition magazine here!

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