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Featured Article

Timewarp: Blockbuster Video 1996

Ahhh, welcome back to the land of the living, Retro-Adventurer.  I trust you slept well on the waterbed in the guest quarters of the T.M.R. (Time Machine Refrigerator). Grab yourself a bowl of Nerds, Fruity Marshmallow Krispies or Ice Cream Cones cereal and let me tell you about our next destination. Yes, of course I already fished out the glow-in-the-dark dinosaur stickers and gumballs from the boxes. What, do you think I’m some kind of saint? Now, back to our rapidly approaching point of arrival.

Long before to the days where you could simply tap some words on a keyboard and make a movie appear, people had to leave the comfort of their homes and physically browse for a video with which to entertain themselves for an evening. Though many charming mom & pop stores attempted to get their piece of the pie, the true victor of this “Rental Revolution” was Blockbuster Video. We are about to drop into one of their stores circa 1996 when Blockbuster's dominance was at its zenith. Prepare for landing.

Here we are. Kind of hard to miss, eh? That yellow on blue color scheme really grabs your attention and the iconic torn ticket stub sign let you know that something fun would soon be inserted into your VCR. What’s that? Yes, I suppose the colors are very reminiscent of the uniforms worn by the X-Men in the 90’s. How very astute of you. Now before we enter, allow me to show you the wonders of the QuikDrop video return drawer.

Much like a library, each of the VHS tapes rented from this entertainment lender had a return date. Usually around 10pm on a Sunday night people would realize they hadn’t yet returned their copy of Last Action Hero and to avoid late fees, would race their tape over and drop it in the slot that was not unlike a mailbox. It also worked well for parents who didn’t want to enter the store with their children and be talked into renting Bebe’s Kids for the 20th time.

As we enter you’ll notice the flurry of activity taking place as people wander through the many aisles. You see, with no touch screen kiosk to tell you what was available to rent, you had to burn calories by walking the entire store until you saw something of interest. Whether you were in the mood for action, comedy or something for the kids, you just had to peruse the shelves until an image got your attention. In these days video box art had to be something special, no simple photoshop collage would do.

New Releases could be found along the outer walls and usually ended up being the busiest section on a Friday night. Often you had to wait for 5 minutes to get to your selection, while a couple argued over whether to rent True Lies or Four Weddings and A Funeral. Do you see how the empty video box is placed in front of the hard shell plastic case? This way they could put 2 copies behind a single box to save valuable shelf space.

Just look at those plastic cases and their non-descript design. If the display box featuring actual graphics went missing, you can bet that tape would sit gathering dust for months until a devoted Ally Sheedy fan hunted down that forgotten copy of “Maid To Order”. Speaking of VHS box art, without a doubt the most exhilarating aisle for any child to walk down was the Horror section. Oh look, a child who idolizes mass murderer, Jason Voorhees is there right now with his friend, little Vic Timm. Let’s see what videos they are being thrilled by today.

The gruesome gal on the cover of Night of the Demons appears to have gotten their attention with her undead, vampire Prom Queen look. The ominous design of the Monkey Shines VHS is surely the stuff of elementary school nightmares, but even the biggest “fraidy cat” couldn’t resist the urge to flip over the box and find out the plot. I guess suspense thrillers about helper Monkeys gone bad isn’t their style, so it looks like they’ve settled on Ghoulies. Oh, how disappointed they’ll be when they experience the total absence of toilet monsters in this tale of witchcraft. Let’s watch as they attempt to rent the R-rated selection.


There’s the hand off of the membership card, most likely belonging to the young man’s parents. The Blockbuster employee is now shooting “Jason” a look as if to say “nice try” and suggesting that he choose something more age appropriate. “Maybe something starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas”, she says. Ooh, that was uncalled for. Yes, employees sometimes had to play the part of the "Morality Police", especially when young teenage boys tried to rent something from the Special Interest section. But there’s more than one way to get your fill of violence for the weekend.

Just as I predicted, the boys have now found their way to the Video Games section. While 90 minutes may be long enough to take in a movie, it’s certainly not long enough to win an electronic fighting tournament or blow-up an alien mothership. After these gamers have picked their 16 or 32-bit poison, they’re sure to be up all night trying to conquer the latest end boss between sips of Mountain Dew. Renting video game consoles packed in a case you could carry home was a convenient way to try out the latest systems without breaking the bank. But they don’t seem to be perusing the Super Nintendo or Playstation games, they’re going right for the…(GASP!)

Virtual Boy! Oh, I’m getting a headache just thinking about the pain these little rascals will endure at the hands of this red-tinted terror. With its flagship title being Wario Land starring the villainous plumber, it’s no wonder this console ended up being so bad. What’s that you say? You’ve never heard the legend of the infamous Virtual Boy?

It was Nintendo’s way of cashing in on the Virtual Reality fad of the time, which basically equated to putting 2 video screens right next your eyes in a pair of goggles. But the garish red tint led to serious eye strain and with other titles featuring such "exciting" adventures as Tennis, Golf and Waterworld, the pain was definitely not worth enduring. Thank goodness, they decided to grab Maximum Carnage for the Super NES instead.

With that crisis averted, I believe it’s time for us to make our exit. If you feel you need a snack for our journey back into the timestream, Blockbuster Video always had plenty of concessions on hand. Raisinettes, Goobers, Red Vines! The choices were meant to mimic what you could find at your local movie theater for inflated prices. They were also always very well stocked with microwave popcorn, you’ve probably noticed the smell since our arrival here. Uh-oh, I just made eye contact with the employee behind the counter and I think she recognizes me.

You see rental prices at Blockbuster Video would range from $1.50-$5.50 depending on the amount of time the renter planned to keep it and whether or not it was a new release. If you didn’t return the tape in the specified timeframe you incurred late penalties, which could prove rather costly. I happened to rent Chairman of the Board starring prop-comic Carrot Top on a lonely night about 6 months ago, but got caught up in one of my time experiments and accidentally sent the tape to 1982 through the Chronal Crisper drawer.

I think this is the young lady who has been leaving increasingly frustrated voice mail messages on my answering machine trying to get it back, as I owe about $3,000 in late fees. Why don’t you casually get the T.M.R. started while I use my charms to distract this Video Vixen. I say dear lady, a beauty like yours surely belongs on the big screen. Have I not seen you on the video box for Fried Green Tomatoes?


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Vaporman87 Posted on Oct 14, 2015 at 09:54 AM

@Exhume: At least some Mom and Pop stores are keeping the experience alive, at least to a certain extent.

ExhumeOurIdols Posted on Oct 14, 2015 at 02:35 AM

When I was younger, my mom used to take me there to Blockbuster when the store was still open and it was a much more fun experience just getting to see those movies. Sadly online took over, but thankfully, there is still a video store I recently went to that had tons of movies, especially on VHS. Just have to keep digging for the gold.

EISXUOIS Posted on Apr 11, 2015 at 05:49 PM

I remember the Virtual Boy being a flop and Blockbuster had them for sale for like $30. I should've gotten one Doh! Great trip back to Blockbuster past!

Benjanime Posted on Oct 08, 2014 at 04:58 AM

i remember the virtual boy and n64 being on display like it was yesterday. though at the time of going in to see both, my parents were already getting a few hints from the other customers about the virtual boy's eye strain/headache warnings, so my mom just let me check out the nintendo 64 instead when they had super mario 64 playing in a kiosk

Vaporman87 Posted on Oct 03, 2014 at 12:25 AM


I think your old man and my old man were cut from the same mold (though he has dramatically mellowed out with age and Effexor.

I never really had to deal with a really bad situation at a rental store. Later on, when Movie Gallery showed up nearby, a friend of mine got a job there and we scored some good deals (and some late fee removal) several times.

NLogan Posted on Oct 02, 2014 at 10:33 PM

Hoju, good read. Got the old memory burners started. I never ever bought the overpriced candy at the check out desk.
I had forgotten you could rent a system in a suitcase. I never did. We stuck with Nintendo we had and occasionally rented games. Incidentally in 1989 Nintendo sued Blockbuster to prevent them from renting out the games instead of people having to purchase them to play (first sale doctrine exception to copyright act). They had done the same thing in Japan and won and were trying to block game rentals in the U.S. too. Another reason was Nintendo didn't want the competition to be able to demo their games and pirate them which was unlikely at best. They brought the suit under the guise of their trademarked instruction manuals being copied and distributed with the game rentals. Nintendo lost and Blockbuster continued to rent out their games paving the way for all future game rentals and future used game buybacks and sales with Nintendo seeing nary a penny. Nintendo did get the consolation prize however that Blockbuster could not photocopy the game manuals to include with the rentals as they were doing because the manuals were under copyright for purchase only and could not be redistributed, so the main thrust of their suit was successful even if they couldn't prevent rentals outright.

I seem to remember some contest in the early 90s maybe 1990, 1991, or 1992 where you got a redemption code various ways on different products like under the caps of soda pop bottles or candy bar wrappers etc. You took the code to a scanner at the blockbuster video and did an in store redemption for free rentals, free Coca Colas, candy, shirts, hats, mugs, water bottles, etc.

The adult (wasn't a kid) started yelling at my dad first, but all I remember was standing there wishing that awkward moment would pass. My dad's temper was legendary. They were both in the wrong he easily could have sorted it out without yelling and acting like kids. My dad received a bill in the mail for it and came unglued. He promptly went down to have it out with the manager. He was pissed that he was being charged late fees when he had in fact turned it in but their employee had not entered it. The actual cost of the video had been subtracted because they had "found it". When the manager looked up his rental history they tried to win him back by dropping all the fees and giving him free rentals but my dad is a principal of the thing kind of guy and we rented from various other places before Hollywood video opened up a store near us. My mom and dad were divorced and we stayed with him every other weekend it was standard operating procedure, go food shopping, rent videos, get dinner somewhere, rinse , repeat. Or as my dad would always say, "Let's go rent a pizza, and buy a couple of movies." Purposely said that way to annoy me. They lost out on a ton of money from my old man.

Vaporman87 Posted on Oct 02, 2014 at 08:36 PM

I rented tapes and games almost exclusively under the assumption that it would be returned late, and it usually was. Then on my next trip to the rental shop, I paid last times fees and repeated the process. I was better at getting them back on time to the mom and pop shops, because I knew the people there better and didn't want to do them wrong.

Great trip Dr Timewarp! Thanks for getting us back in one piece.

vkimo Posted on Oct 02, 2014 at 08:15 PM

My brother and I had a strict rule where we took turns renting games. And on the car ride home whoever got to the TV first and turned on the TV had control of the game. I wish I could remember the last game we ever rented. It was definitely for the N64 though.

My dad was a simple man when it came to movie rentals. It had to have fire on the cover. He usually picked out Steven Segals latest flick. My mom trying to instill culture into her heathenish offspring would get obscure documentaries or Oscar ladden titles that usually ended up with everyone asleep, her included.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Oct 02, 2014 at 08:14 PM

@NLogan That is an awesome story. I assume the clerk was being a punk to your Dad? If not, I feel bad for the kid that was just reporting what the computer said. Either way he learned a lesson in "common sense" that day.

NLogan Posted on Oct 02, 2014 at 07:21 PM

Watching an episode of the Goldbergs a little bit ago I laughed as Adam and his dad had a run in with the proprietor of the video store. It was like he had stolen a page out of my life. Except instead of being banned for life because of the missing tape my dad banned himself but not before he got vindicated. We were told we owed nearly $300 bucks for a missing tape and late fees. My dad said he would just buy another copy at another store for $20 but they could not accept a non store copy. My dad blew up at the guy and demanded to know how many copies were in their inventory. "One", the clerk timidly replied. My dad then went to the shelves and found it on the rack and threw it at him. "If I never returned it then what the hell is that?" After that we always rented from the mom and pop stores and other seedy little dives with bead curtains and sun faded pictures on the rental tapes.

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