Remember Blockbuster? I do. I remember it as a haven and a source of new and thrilling delights. This was in the early ‘90s, before my family knew about the locally owned movie store, before adolescence made it cool to scoff at popular things, and back when I lived so far beyond the city limits that a trip into town took begging, pleading, and cajoling the likes of which my parents loathed nearly as much as the commute.
This year, the last few remaining Blockbuster video stores will be wiped from the face of the earth. It’s easy now, in our sci-fi present, to wave a sarcastic hand in the air at the news. I mean, who’s even been to Blockbuster in a decade?
But it’s hard to remember how imprisoned a pre-teen or a child is to their parents’ tastes and whims. The vast majority of what you get to read is what they leave lying around or are willing to buy for you. What you get to see is largely dictated by what they allow. A one-television household is something that I can remember quite vividly. The only region where I had some measure of autonomy was videogames. Despite parental disapproval leveled against the medium writ large, my folks didn’t actively forbid any specific game. They believed the whole tawdry affair was a waste of time, but within that overall distaste for my noisy, button-mashing obsession I had free rein to choose.
Even then, I couldn’t afford to buy any for myself. Games were expensive. They cost pretty much the same dollar amount that they do now, except in Nineteen Nineties Dollars. Super Street Fighter II was some ungodly price, like, ten more dollars than the standard sixty. What’s more, living in Canada, with delightful tariffs and taxes, meant that, even if I wasn’t a skinflint eleven-year-old, there’s just no way I could purchase a library. If I wanted a new experience without waiting for Christmas, the only option was renting.
Nowhere did this play out more frequently or with more loot than at Blockbuster. They just had so many videogames. As a child riddled with an incapacity to choose, I would pore over the back covers of the display boxes, gorging myself on the screenshots and product descriptions , all in the hopes that I would find a game that clicked like the lid of a well made box.
Here was a collection of more games than I could ever play, in one place, and they even had one in my small town. Blockbuster became a totem, this physical space where I felt connected to the world of videogames, because that was where the actual games came from. As odd as it may sound, Blockbuster was where I learned to think critically about how art, choice, and skill intersect in the act of connoisseurship.
The place made me a better gamer.
All of this came to a head in the summer months of 1994, with the Blockbuster World Video Game Championship. Every Blockbuster around the world had a tournament over three weeks, with employees tallying the scores of people playing three games for a set three minutes. The top player from each store would move on to the regionals, and from there go to Ft. Lauderdale, FL for a shot at the big time. When I found out about this I vibrated with glee. It didn’t matter that I was only eleven; this was an arena I could compete in. My dad said that he would sign me up, but only if I agreed to the earliest time slot on each weekend to guarantee that we would be able to get back home as early as possible. I agreed to anything. Ruefully, my father said that the competition was a pretty good trick to get parents to rent the three games in the tournament.
He was right. I practiced incessantly. The three games were NBA Jam, Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and Virtua Racing. I owned the first, had heard about the second, and was ignorant of the third. Scoring was simple: the amount of points you got in NBA Jam, the amount of rings you could collect in Sonic, and the lowest time in Virtua Racing.
The first weekend of the tournament was perfunctory. I’d played NBA Jam until my eyes bled. With Scottie Pippen and the Chicago Bulls, I was unstoppable. Dunk after merciless dunk rained down upon my computer opponents. Soon, the basketball was a glowing ember, the chiptune announcer wailing, “He’s on fire!” I shattered the backboard, but the dunks didn’t stop there. The computer never had a chance; I intercepted every pass and leaped to the heavens. Nothing but net. “Is it the shoes?!” The manager tallied my score, and the next contender (a guy who looked 45 to me, but was likely in his twenties) told me that I should go for three-pointers since they were worth more points, and he correspondingly went with the Charlotte Hornets. I lingered a bit to watch the guy’s score. It was close to mine, but without any of the domination. My dad and I drove home.
Next week, we arrived a bit too early. The store wasn’t even open yet. We lingered out front. I’d been playing Sonic strategically, finding all of the bonus rooms in the first level. That’s where all the rings were hidden. By the time the manager opened up the door, there was a bit of a crowd. For some reason the consoles weren’t set up yet, so, in the entrance to Blockbuster, the manager started plugging everything in. More and more people kept showing up. We were a good fifteen minutes late before things got rolling. During the week I had been calling in to ask the manager what the scores were. I was ranked third.
The manager, finally finished, called out my name, mispronouncing it “See-Yann.” I sat down in the fabric-lined metal chair. He asked me if I was ready. I nodded. He turned on the console.
The SEGA logo materialized, sky blue in a dark black space. The game started. The hedgehog took off under my command. I was in a groove. Every ring slipped into my possession. I activated the secret room and began my conquest. See, the bonus room had the vast majority of the rings, but the only way to collect them all within the timeframe was to perfectly trace the circumference of each batch of rings. This would nab the entire set. It also demanded perfect timing; if you slipped off course then you would miss the whole batch and have to collect them row-by-row. Like I said, I was in the zone. I got every ring. Then I nipped out of the bonus room and dashed towards the other, collecting every ring along the way. The score just sky-rocketed.
Meanwhile, my dad was lingering in the ever-growing crowd of competitors and hangers-on. I finished, just shy of panting. During our walk to the car, I was flushed with my flawless execution. My dad placed his large hand on my puny shoulder. “You did great, Kee,” he said.
“Really?” I asked, always uncertain.
“Guys were coming in, looking at you play, and then quitting the competition. One turned to his buddy and said, ‘Look at this kid. There’s no point in playing.’ A few crossed their names off the list. Others just turned around and went home.” My father was grinning.
My vague recollection of the crowd was of teenagers and men. I was shocked. Something new erupted in my chest. It was pride.
I wish the story ended there, but the next week, Virtua Racing saw me clinging to the #2 spot. I just wasn’t good at racing games. Still, even though second meant that I wouldn’t move on to the regionals, I would get a free copy of one of the games. Then, on the penultimate day of the competition, it was announced that someone who had missed the first round was able to re-play NBA Jam, and I was shunted back down to third. My prize, along with ten other local finalists, was a creepy pin with a disembodied eye floating above the tournament’s title.
Blockbuster provided a space for otherwise culturally disconnected podunks like me to feel connected to the wider world of gaming. As a successful business and a communal meeting place, a landmark in the middle of town with its towering ticket-stub logo, it helped physically legitimize the pastime. Moreover, the cyclopean grandeur inside a Blockbuster store imbued it with the sense and awe of a basilica intermingled with business and security. It was a fascinating, weird space of intersecting feelings and functions. Bold yellow and blue intermixed with institutional cream and off-white. Heavy security at the door, passing the tapes and cartridges over the counter, walking through the shrill sensors — it was like a prison-church for multimedia, and we were letting them out on a day pass. For all its obvious flaws, Blockbuster was a place devoted to film and videogames. In towns where it was the sole aperture for video delights, that was special, despite being an odd and sometimes draconian corporate behemoth.
For a time I loved the function it served. And now it’s gone.
Thank you, Blockbuster. I’m sorry I haven’t been around lately.