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A Tribute to the Game that Got Video Store Clerks Through Their Days in the ‘90s

A Tribute to the Game that Got Video Store Clerks Through Their Days in the ‘90s:

Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.


Video Connection was a successful rental store chain in the 1980s and ‘90s spread between Ohio and Michigan, say 15-20 stores. They were the only place I wanted to work as I turned 16.

I liked video games; they had video games. Growing up, rental stores fed me an IV drip of weekend entertainment. Working at Video Connection was an easy transition from childhood. Being paid to be in a video store for $5.15 an hour was luxury.

Most locations had a small arcade. Ours had three: a Neo Geo machine, Cruisin’ the World, and importantly, Killer Instinct 2, the latter recently re-released on Xbox One in a packaged bundle with Microsoft’s much more recent reboot of the series, which was simply titled Killer Instinct.

During the mid to late ‘90s wacky fighting games were a genre unto themselves. Killer Instinct blossomed from their existence. Descending into absurdity, the nobility of Street Fighter and shrewd violence of Mortal Kombat turned into all-out extremism. The genre underwent a cultural transformation.

Such schlock birthed Shadow: War of Succession on 3DO, where a Jane Fonda workout model battled shotgun-toting mobsters. Kasumi Ninja had a Scotsman shooting fireballs from under his kilt. In Tattoo Assassins a parody of disgraced Olympic skater Tonya Harding killed people with a zamboni.

These games found their master in Killer Instinct 2. It was brawny, bold, brash, and many other b-led adjectives—“bodacious” in ‘90s lingo. Killer Instinct’s team at UK studio Rare brought a violent, cheapo drugstore action figure line to life.

Abstract and weird, Killer Instinct 2 owned the space around itself. You didn’t release an arcade game in the era without something to test the limits of its subwoofer. KI2 had beats. Camera angles and background action mirrored the audio bombast. Twisty camera work mirrored that of TV commercials. Blinding colors were highlighted with sparks. A location with Killer Instinct 2 didn’t need lights, only an arcade cabinet cycling gameplay, a perfect decoration in the corner of a rental joint like Video Connection.

PLAY TIME

Our district manager Larry had keys to most of the arcade game cabinets, save one: Killer Instinct 2’s. That key was in our possession. Keys meant access to the coin slot. Access to the coin slot meant free plays. Shifts became less about paying attention to customers than they were about competing in hours-long KI2 tournaments.

What we didn’t know at the outset was arcade games track each play via special hidden menus. Every time a credit was given or a game played, Killer Instinct 2 knew. Hours and hours, hundreds of games played. Killer Instinct 2 knew our secret. Soon, so would Larry.

On a routine visit, Larry checked the plays. He was stumped—400 plus matches on Killer Instinct 2, only a buck and quarter in the coin drawer. Oops. Immediate panic turned into a flimsy excuse. “I don’t what happened, Larry. Stupid thing must be glitched.”

Larry was a good guy. He could have fired me a few times, but confrontation wasn’t his thing. To this day, I don’t know if he believed the glitch story or not. It’s doubtful. The other arcade games were never so skewed.

Either way, Larry should have left us in charge of all the keys. When the arcade games were eventually sold off, someone came to pick up their newly prized Cruisin’ the World cabinet. No one emptied the coin slot beforehand. No keys, and Larry hadn’t counted the change in ages. According to his estimation, those quarters amounted to some $200—less than what the buyer paid for the entire cabinet. Sorry Larry, we didn’t have the key, but if we had, we would have played a lot more Cruisin’.

ON PORN AND POP CULTURE

Orchid’s breasts were basically triangles. She stood as Killer Instinct 2’s lead female character, suffocated by implausibly tight, green and yellow leather. Low processing power made it necessary (ask Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft).

Orchid’s win screen begins by panning upward from her reflective boots, slowing as it nears her chest. She spins to further accentuate her impossible breasts. All the while, she sensually moans. Her stage music features bass-dropping techno, questioning the manhood of its players. “Be a boy or man. It’s up to you.”

KI2 didn’t care. There was a market, and developer Rare wanted their share. One of KI2’s other females (of three), the Amazonian Maya, wears stick-on fur. It’s the first of many Killer Instinct 2 references to film, in this case Raquel Welch’s shapely figure from 1966’s One Million Years B.C. Many boys discovered things because of Welch’s skimpy fur outfit.

Orchid and Maya were proper playmates for Video Connection. Each store had a lucrative adult room, and their designs pandered to the same fantasy as the porn boxes lining the walls. For a 16-year-old new to the workforce, this was odd.

Realizations about porn set in rapidly. First, people didn’t like anyone to know they were renting porn. They’d slip Tatayana’s Big Titty Bonanza between a Barney the Dinosaur tape for their kids and Lethal Weapon 3. The larger problem was that porn came back quickly. Video Connection offered discounts if you rented a tape in the morning and returned it by five. Mornings were a rush of people checking out porn, six, seven, eight tapes at once. They were all back before the clock turned to 5:01. Tapes were visibly stopped, roughly 10-15 minutes in. Suddenly, handling and interacting with porn turns from odd to, “Where are the gloves again?”

A lot of Killer Instinct seems to have come from design meetings with people fanatical about pop culture before pop culture became what pop culture is today—BFP, or “Before Funko Pop.” These were knowledgeable people. Spinal, a living skeleton with sword and shield, has history dating back to the 1960s and Jason & the Argonauts.

The movie’s famed final scene depicts undead skeletons rising to fight Jason and company. Ray Harryhausen animated seven skeleton models at once, frame by frame, and matched it to the live action footage. It’s exhilarating action.

Spinal captures a fragment of Harryhausen’s talents, impressive considering the raucous stupidity that almost entirely envelopes KI2. Developer Rare’s penchant for stop motion doesn’t stop there either. Final boss Gargos has the style and mannerisms of the work of Jim Danforth, another stop motion animator, prolific in the 1970s and '80s.

Killer Instinct 2 was an overgrowth of new ‘90s pop culture too. Alicia Silverstone was an “it” girl. TLC was the bomb. Then came, “Show me the money.”

Jerry Maguire was the first major movie of my clerk-ing career, the type that commanded an entire wall. In this case, Oscar-nominated Maguire cast a repetitive image of smiling Tom Cruises along the back wall. It was the image you’d see all shift.

You could do a lot of things at the end of a shift to clear your head. In our case, it was usually midnight rounds of Killer Instinct 2. If not, we were probably idiots. In the backroom, our manager kept a standup of Tom Cruise in his Maguire form. Cardboard Cruise was a sacred ornament for the predominantly female staff.

After a long Saturday evening, the group of guys who worked the night—myself included—decided to maul poor Maguire. Maybe it was the agitation from staring at his face all day; the reasons are lost. Regardless, Maguire was decapitated, ruthlessly and with conviction.

One guy took the fall. He was fired, let go at a store meeting instead of privately. Unwilling to go out with dignity, the guilty party left the store, dropped trow, spread his cheeks, and puckered the all-glass front door. He showed us way more than the money. It was funny until we realized someone had to clean the glass.

CLOSING TIME

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It took some 20 years for Killer Instinct 2 to find a spot on a home console. (Anyone pointing to Killer Instinct Gold on the N64 is directing people toward an imitation.) The Xbox One port is perfect.

KI2’s proper dwelling is an arcade room where the glow of a CRT screen and a thundering speaker can make a statement. It belongs among the movies it draws from and the other video games it yells over. In the most special of circumstances, KI2 proved capable enough to bear witness to the delirium of a video store and provide employees an escape into fantasy.

In its own way Killer Instinct was clever. It bonded the things kids or teens of the era would find attractive, a smorgasbord approach that never conclusively makes sense. Then it sexualized the whole thing and plopped itself onto a marketplace dripping with copies.

Killer Instinct 2’s bravado and might stood distinctive, a fireworks show to leverage the might of arcades. A few years later, arcades were as obsolete as video stores. Both businesses share the same fate—they exist, but as specialties. In Video Connection’s case, they were bought by Movie Gallery who then bought rival Hollywood Video. Then Netflix happened.

I was fired in 2002. There was a heated conflict over inventory systems and hours. Larry would have let it go, but he left the year before. Movie Gallery corporate had taken over. Things weren’t the same. The job wasn’t much of a loss and besides, Killer Instinct 2 was no longer part of the video store ecosystem. Why bother working when they didn’t offer free plays as an incentive? Plus, with the game now on Xbox One, those memories can be recalled at will.


Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 15 years. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.


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