Video game rental

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A video game rental store in the mid-1990s.

Video game rental is a service where a customer can pay a small fee to rent a video game for a few days rather than have to buy it for full price. It was most popular in the late-1980s and through the 1990s, but dwindled in the 2000s and has since mostly disappeared, although there are still a few places that rent games. At its height of popularity, Blockbuster even created a store within its store just for video games.


After video rental stores won their lawsuits against video manufacturers and were allowed to rent VHS tapes, they expanded into the rental of video games. In the late 1980s, that almost exclusively meant Nintendo Entertainment System cartridges, as the NES was by far the most popular video game console, but it expanded with the Genesis and SNES in the early 1990s. Rental companies continued to expand as new platforms came out, typically focusing on Nintendo, Sega, and Sony, and finally Microsoft. As home video began transitioning to streaming services, many rental stores closed and took their video game rentals with them. Of course, the video game market was also switching to digital distribution so video game rentals probably would have died off significantly even if home video rental remained strong. The few rental stores that still exist in the 2020s have extremely reduced stock, or have been converted into an automated kiosk like Redbox.


Being such a huge fan of video games in the 1980s and 90s, I always loved to go through the aisles of rental stores and look at the games on display, even if I knew my parents wouldn't let me rent one (which was most of the time). Blockbuster was the most popular rental store, but my family usually went to slightly cheaper knock-offs. Either way, this was a much more educational experience than a toy store because, since they weren't behind a glass case, I could see the boxes up close and flip them over to see screenshots of the actual game. I would make mental notes about which games seemed the most interesting and, on the rare chanced that I could rent one, I would try to choose one that I had been poring over for awhile, but my older brother would usually succeed in getting his choice instead.

There were advantages to renting games. The most important was being able to try out a game for only a few dollars rather than buy if for its MSRP, which was often $40-$50. Typically, my friends and I would swap our cartridges when we got bored with them, so I played a lot of new games that way, but there were far more games than I had friends, so rentals were a must. Over the years, I had rented a large number of games that I thought looked great from the box, only to be hugely disappointed after playing. I was burned a number of times on games based on films, which has led to my now instinctual distrust of licensed games. Over the years of renting games, I found them mostly to be crap, but occasionally discovered a hidden gem. To this day, some of my favorite games were initially experienced as a rental including Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and Shadowgate, as well as a few other average titles that I still have nostalgia for to this day like The Goonies II, Ultima: Exodus, Times of Lore, and Ultima: Quest of the Avatar.

On a very rare ocassion, I would rent a game that was so easy I would beat it during the rental period of only a couple days. The only two games I remember doing this with is Chip 'N Dale: Rescue Rangers and Toki, although I got very close on a couple other games.

A second, far less tangible benefit of renting games was getting access to someone else's save slot, something that was common in RPGs and adventure games. I always preferred to start a game from the beginning, but, since it was unlikely I would be able to beat a long game in the few short days that I had access to it, I enjoyed being able to see further into the game by playing an existing save slot. I like to think of several kids, all strangers to each other, adding a little bit more to the game with each rental, and finally beating the game as a team. I also loved seeing the names other kids had chosen for their characters, which sometimes took the form of dirty words!

One other thing I liked about video game rental stores is they would sell off their old stock as new consoles were released. These games, although well-worn, were usually liquidated at a sizable discount. I only bought a handful of games this way, but, since I rarely had money as a child, I was glad to have them.

One major downside to renting a game was that you almost never had access to the manual which made some games very difficult, if not impossible, to beat.