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How I’ll remember Blockbuster, as both a gamer and a former employee

Today Blockbuster Video’s current owner, Dish Network, announced plans to close the remaining 300 Blockbuster stores in the US, something most people assumed happened years ago anyway. Blockbuster Video was the undeniable monolith of home entertainment when I grew up, and now its fossils litter empty strip malls all over the nation. In my life as a customer and later as an employee, I both loved and hated Blockbuster. Now I just pity the former titan for being unable to adapt to the changing world, a fate I hope other companies related to games will learn from.

As a child in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, our local Blockbuster was part of a Friday night ritual for my family. I’d go with my mom and younger brother to pick up pizza, then head to the Blockbuster down the street to rent a couple movies or a game. In a time when owning a game was restricted to birthdays and Christmas, renting an NES or Genesis title from Blockbuster was the only way to broaden my then-limited gaming horizons. It was through Blockbuster where I first experienced Chrono Trigger, Donkey Kong Country, Mega Man 2, and dozens of other games.

As I grew, so too did Blockbuster’s selection of games, and my local outlet even started renting consoles. I remember the Thanksgiving break of 1995--shit, was that seriously 18 years ago?--when we rented a brand-new PlayStation, along with Ridge Racer and Tekken. I got my first look at the “next generation” because of Blockbuster, and I did it again with the N64, Xbox, PS2, and GameCube. There was even a monthly “Game Pass” that allowed you to trade out games as many times as you wanted. I’ve had so many experiences via those plastic blue and yellow boxes, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Of course, Blockbuster had become my only home for game renting because it had so ruthlessly stamped out all the competition in my town. Blockbuster was so skilled at being a monopoly that most people my age knew Blockbuster as their only option within miles. They’d seen promising new video stores close under the power of Blockbuster’s cutthroat business tactics, like bringing down prices to beat the competition, then raising them back up once the other store closed. Despite my eventual distaste for those practices, I still worked retail at Blockbuster for over two years in my early 20s. It was hard to resist the free rentals employees were entitled to, especially when that included the store's deep library of games.

As a movie snob, I wasn’t all that useful to folks renting Good Luck Chuck or The Hot Chick, but I like to think I handled the gaming audience well. I’d pontificate about the awesomeness of Resident Evil 4 and Metroid Prime 2, I warned customers they were missing out on Stars Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and I explained that Metal Gear Solid 3 was more than a little better than The Guy Game. I was unknowingly honing the skills that I’d use in my current career, so I suppose I owe Blockbuster some thanks for that too.

I was there for so many major moments. I remember studiously reorganizing the games’ section to make room for the just-launched 360. I was there the day when the Hot Coffee hack of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas got re-rated AO by the ESRB, meaning every copy had to be temporarily taken off the shelves. And I recall all the desperate Christmas Day phone calls from parents looking to rent the game they failed to get their kid as a gift. (Yes, unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, Blockbuster made its employees work on Christmas.)

My job also gave me the chance to watch Blockbuster take on the wounds that would eventually bleed it to death. Online renting was so clearly the future, but unlike its brick-and-mortar competition, Blockbuster let online challengers Netflix and GameFly grow instead of crushing them as swiftly and brutally as possible. I worked there long enough to see the beginning of the end, and left as Blockbuster introduced quick fixes that only underlined how far behind they’d gotten.

So many stores had closed over the last few years that today’s announcement is merely the final letter being etched into Blockbuster’s tombstone. At this point, with so many online options available, going to a store to rent media feels musty and grey, like the old man talking about how he used to sit in front of the radio every night to hear President Roosevelt speak. On the bright side, the end of Blockbuster allows you to marvel at just how fast technology has grown over the last decade.

As we enter another console generation, I hope that Blockbuster’s sad fate will be a lesson to many gaming companies looking forward to the future. Blockbuster is proof that even the most powerful companies can be ruined by failing to recognize its consumers evolving. You have to change quickly when the next Netflix or Redbox shows up, or you’ll be the next history lesson at business school.

Blockbuster is a chilling tale for financial analysts, but for me it’ll be the home of enough important memories that I’ll look back on it fondly, even for all the long nights I spent taking inventory or yelling at shoplifters. An entire generation’s games were found within Blockbuster’s plastic cases, and that’s worth memorializing--no matter how undeniably better our current digital landscape is.

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26 comments

  • TurkeyOnRye - November 8, 2013 2:24 p.m.

    This makes me feel so old because... Blockbuster was in the later part of my renting days. I remember way back in the mid-to-late 80's, we had a little rental store in town. The had a slowly expanding, but nice selection of NES games and we'd go every Friday night to rent a game we had to return on Sunday. Then from there we started going to Movies Galore, and then to Phar-Mor ($0.89 two-day rentals? Hell yes!). That's where we spent most of the 90's... until Blockbuster came to town. I didn't rent there until PSX/N64 days. We rented a couple of times from there is college... some PS2 games... but by then used games were so cheap, buying games were better options. We had some Movie Gallerys in my home town for a while, but those dried up to. It was still neat to scour the shelves though. So weird those games are just... gone.
  • Meleedragon27 - November 7, 2013 3:27 p.m.

    Quite a few memories about BlockBuster from back in the late 90's/early 00's. Got my first taste of a lot of N64 games from that place (especially Paper Mario -man, I loved that game so much...). That was also where I was first exposed to the GTA series. Fun times... Sad to see it go, but... I don't need them anymore, and it looks like nobody else in the US does, either.
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - November 7, 2013 1:12 p.m.

    I never had a Blockbuster nearby, but I have a very similar sentiment toward some family owned video stores. I got to experience so many more games because of them than I would have otherwise. But back then, video game sales were pretty much unheard of, and F2P didn't exist. I think those are the things that will replace the video rental stores of old.
  • Eightboll812 - November 7, 2013 11:51 a.m.

    I actually remember the ORIGINAL Blockbuster here in town. It's long since closed as the shopping center became a poor location for retail and newer stores had popped up nearby. I also remember the day when you had to go to a mall (indoor mall) to find a video store that rented media, and you would marvel at the Laserdisk players (the large ones) and other cool gizmos half of which never took off. That was sort of the golden age before even the VHS/Beta war was settled, where there were lots of innovative technologies and the market hadn't consolidated. Fun times.
  • Eightboll812 - November 7, 2013 11:52 a.m.

    By original, I mean the first Blockbuster that ever existed before it became a monstrous chain.
  • Rhymenocerous - November 7, 2013 11:13 a.m.

    Where will all the kids go now... Pretty sad really. Digital Distribution is killing the adventure of it all.
  • Tranquilbez34 - November 7, 2013 1:16 a.m.

    Great Article Henry, We have Blockbuster here too in Australia but it's still going strong (since we sadly don't have Netflix and Gamefly here)
  • Eyebrows - November 6, 2013 8:47 p.m.

    Every time I had friends staying over as a kid in the early 00s we'd hit Blockbusters to get one of the James Bond games and play multiplayer all night. Sad to see the state of Blockbusters these days. The stores are still open in the UK for now but I rarely see anybody go in them. They're the ghosts of the high-street.
  • rzn6jw - November 6, 2013 7:14 p.m.

    First paragraph: '......now it's fossils.....' Should be 'its' - it's means it is, its is possessive.
  • JMarsella09 - November 6, 2013 6:20 p.m.

    I still have some games with Blockbuster cases.
  • Lurkero - November 6, 2013 6:17 p.m.

    All the good things about Blockbuster still exist in the form of other companies and services so its tough to care about the franchise ceasing to exist when it failed to innovate.
  • GOD - November 6, 2013 6:10 p.m.

    Gamestop in less than 10 years. Calling it right now. Once MS and Sony have built stronger online stores and start to incentivize digital purchases over physical ones the game only stores like Gamestop will be unable to thrive. Yes they gain a large deal off of used sales but once digital sales increase on consoles and they offer better prices because you're buying digital Gamestop will have nothing left to turn to. Anyone looking for physical copies will have to rely on larger stores like Best Buy that sell large amounts of physical media that cannot be phased out for digital.
  • CurryIsGood - November 6, 2013 9:44 p.m.

    Although I'm not sure I would miss GameStop. As a child I sold all my GameCube games without knowing how ridiculous it was to sell 6 old games for one new one. I wonder how many dumb kids made the same mistake.
  • RayPaw - November 7, 2013 11:26 a.m.

    I think you're right about GameStop but I'll go one step farther: no physical media in 10 years.
  • jedisamurai - November 6, 2013 5:24 p.m.

    Wait....our digital landscape is better? I'll say that when everyone has a store like Steam and the digital store will talk to me like the computer in Star Trek. "Digital Store...find me a game I will like." "Please specify genre." "Adventure-RPG." "Mass Effect 7 is currently on sale, would you like to purchase?" "Yes, and open it for me." "Downloading....done. Opening game." "Woohoo!"
  • LordZarlon - November 6, 2013 5:03 p.m.

    This takes me back to about ten years ago. I used to embark on a personal ritual when I wasn't busy with my friends. Every now and then I would spend a Saturday by myself and would journey to my favorite stores. I'd hit the FYE at the mall, which was an hour away, and also the Gamestop. Mind you they had different names but that's what they eventually became so there you go. On the trip home I would stop by Borders and Circuit City and peruse their shelves for a hidden gem. Then I'd get dinner and stop by Carvel and on the way home I would hit Blockbuster to see what used games and movies they had that I might want. I only did this every few months, fortunately I was busy with my friends the rest of the time, but it was something that I enjoyed and was like a form of therapy. Just browsing and buying a few things. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon. I wouldn't want to go back to that but it reminds me that kids today will have no idea why I enjoyed doing something like that. Good article Henry.
  • RayPaw - November 6, 2013 4:43 p.m.

    I also worked at the Blockety-B in high school and college. Probably the worst retail job anyone could have. The pay was low, the hours were horrible, customers would get violent if you told them they returned a movie late, and you always had to work on holidays. It was miserable. The only reason any of us could stand it was because we loved movies and games and loved being around other people who loved them too. Getting to occasionally turn someone on to a forgotten classic or obscure title was icing on the cake. #RIP
  • Brett35 - November 6, 2013 4:31 p.m.

    Any time I went to my grandmas house meant a trip to blockbuster meant to get an n64 game to play with my uncles. Those were good times and I was lucky enough to be one of the people that was at a Hollywood video store in its final few days... So many movies for so little money I kinda felt bad.
  • Krazee - November 6, 2013 4:24 p.m.

    I wasn't allowed to rent games from blockbuster very frequently as a kid because I would usually spend all my time trying to beat the game before I had to send it back.
  • J-Fid - November 6, 2013 4:08 p.m.

    Not too long ago, during a return trip home from college, I was with my dad while we were food shopping. As I looked to left, I noticed something different. Then it hit me, Blockbuster was gone! Replaced by a Martial Arts place. Crazy how times change, I'm sure more things like that will happen as I get older. Blockbuster and Hollywood Video (anybody remember them?). Those were some fun places to go as a little kid.

Showing 1-20 of 26 comments

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