Earlier this month, the Blockbuster Video located in Morley, Australia announced that it was closing. It was the last Blockbuster on the continent, and the second to last Blockbuster in the world. Now, there is only one left.
The last Blockbuster Video on the planet sits in Bend, Oregon, a small town on the Dechutes River about 180 miles from the coast. It’s curious to think that there is only one left. As a kid who grew up in the 80s and 90s, they were an omnipresent reality. There were two in my hometown of Coppell, Texas, a suburb small enough that you could drive through it and never know you’d been somewhere.
I have distinct memories of wandering through the aisles and picking up random movies, studying the “Staff Picks”, and perusing their video game section. In fact, my most distinct Blockbuster memory involves video games.
It was 1995, and the company was hosting the second Blockbuster Video World Game Championship. The competition started at a local level. Winners moved on to regionals and so on. Winning was a longshot, but it wasn’t my only goal. You could earn free videogames rentals for a year if you reached certain benchmarks in the competition. I desperately wanted free videogames.
As I recall, there were two titles I had to play: Judge Dredd and Earthworm Jim. I’ll save you the suspense and say upfront that I did not progress past the local round. I didn’t even earn the free video game rentals. I was crushed.
It didn’t help that I wasn’t really familiar with either title at the time. Judge Dredd was a run and shoot game based on the Sylvester Stallone film. It wasn’t bad for what it was, but there’s nothing that really stands out in my memory about it.
Earthworm Jim is a different matter. It was quirky and funny and generally weird. Developed by Shiny Entertainment and the brainchild of animator and comic book artist Douglas TenNapel, the game was a side scrolling platformer that featured you as the titular Earthworm Jim, a worm who gains special powers after a super suit falls from the sky. You battled enemies with names like Queen Slug-For-A-Butt, Evil the Cat, Bob the Goldfish, and Major Mucus. You mission was to rescue Princess What’s-Her-Name who, spoiler alert, would be crushed by a cow at the end of the game. There were weird assignments, like the mission that required you to escort a puppy through a level without getting hurt. There was also “Andy’s Asteroids” , a racing mini-game that you had to complete between levels.
Though I didn’t necessarily get it at the time, the game was also a bit of a satire on the video game tropes of the day. The most notable example of this is the “damsel in distress” storyline found in games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, where the female characters were generally helpless lumps who were incapable of doing anything for themselves. Hence, Earthworm Jim’s imperiled princess wasn’t even given a name, she was just “Princess What’s-Her-Name.
The game was popular enough that an animated series was created featuring the characters. It ran for two seasons and featured the voice talents of cartoon industry legends like Dan Castelleneta and Jim Cummings. Twenty five years after its initial release, I still remember how entertaining the game and characters were, a testament to the creators’ wild vision.
When I think of Blockbuster Video today, I inevitably think of sitting on a beanbag chair in the corner of the store, clutching a Mega Drive controller and trying frantically to work my way through levels of Earthworm Jim. I also think of my crushing defeat and the sulking that followed, but I try not to dwell on that as much.