Ah rental stores, they feel like such a distant memory now. In the days of Netflix, Disney+ and Game Pass, they seem like such a strange concept and yet there was a time when they were the best way to access new games and films. Growing up, there were two rental stores near where I lived, Xtra-vision and Empire. Xtra-vision was the Irish equivalent of Blockbuster and would eventually be bought out by the American giant. They had stores everywhere and had a huge collection to choose from. I remember they had massive shelves full of VHS boxes. The one where I grew up required a membership card, which we lost and as a result, we stopped going there. Xtra-vision would eventually go the way of Blockbuster and would close down.
The other rental store, Empire, is still around. It’s no longer a rental store but offers an odd mix of different services. I suppose its difficult for rental stores to survive in the digital age. This was the store I have the most memories from. They required a membership but weren’t as strict on the card. As a result, we would go here all the time for films and games. Similar to Xtra-vision, they had VHS tapes on the walls, with stands in the middle housing older movies and children’s videos. They had a glass cabinet that had some items for sale such as games, movies and electronics. I remember getting Final Fantasy VIII here. On the wall, they had nooks that jutted out. This is where they had their games for rent. Each nook would house a different console’s games and these would change as each generation was released. They wouldn’t always have every console in each generation or would have a very reduced section for others. I don’t remember a Saturn or GameCube section but I do remember an original Xbox section with very few games.
Their selection of games was small, especially compared to Xtra-vision, but I always found something. As games were expensive at the time (they still are, I just have disposable income now), this would be how I’d experience them. You would find the odd smaller title every now and again but the majority of the games were bigger releases, such as Metal Gear Solid, Mortal Kombat or Mario Kart 64. They also offered a console renting service. I would rent the PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast on a regular basis. It was much cheaper than buying the actual console. They would give you one or two controllers but no memory cards. As a result, I had to restart Sonic Adventure so many times. I didn’t mind as it was the only way I could play that game for a long time until I got the Sonic Adventure DX version on my GameCube and eventually the original when I got a Dreamcast for my 30th.
With such a limited selection also comes a limited perspective. For a long time, they wouldn’t really stock the same game on two different consoles. For example, they would have Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles: Hyperstone Heist on the Sega Mega Drive but not Turtles In Time on the SNES. I know they’re two different games but are from the same genre. Instead, they had Tournament Fighters. This led me for a long time to believe that the SNES never had a TMNT beat’em up game and that Tournament Fighters was a SNES exclusive. They did the same for Aladdin, only stocking the SNES version. It seems odd to think that looking back now but I didn’t really have any gaming magazines growing up to inform me otherwise. The other issue was that even though they had the bigger games, they only had a small number of them. I remember Mario Kart 64 having two copies available and I waited for hours for one to be returned because I loved that game so much. There were big titles that they didn’t have. I don’t ever recall seeing Super Mario World, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or Banjo-Kazooie but they did have Holy Magic Century (Quest 64 outside of Europe), so that’s something…
Looking back, I didn’t own a lot of games for each system. I can’t remember owning more than five games for the Master System, six for the SNES and one for the Mega Drive (it was Sonic the Hedgehog so it’s all good). Games were expensive and often hard to come by where I lived. It wasn’t until late in the PlayStation days that a dedicated gaming store opened up near where I lived and I don’t recall ever seeing Saturn games in that shop. Rental stores, and Empire in particular, helped to plug that gap. They allowed me to play Super Mario Kart with my friend, gave me the chance to smash through Streets of Rage II and gave me a glimpse of the power of the Sega Dreamcast. They also allowed me to experiment with games I’d never have thought of buying like Chase the Express, C-12: Final Resistance and Twisted Metal: World Tour. I have some happy memories of sitting with friends having rented a Nintendo 64 and just playing Diddy Kong Racing and Mario Kart 64 all weekend.
What memories do you have from rental stores? Did your local store have a big selection? Were you a try before you buy type of renter or was it the main way you experienced games?