I’ve been trying to quantify recently just what it is that makes me a “gamer” this late into my life (I’m only 33). Something has happened to me during quarantine…
I first was brought to my knees when I was 5… It was the summer of 1991 and shit was about to get real.
My next door neighbor had just ripped open a copy of SMB 3 for the NES and he had called me on our old landline phone (one of those with the notoriously long cords that my mom could take with her stretched out to any corner of the house). I knew he had been driven to go get a new game for his NES. I knew I didn’t have any video games of my own besides a hand-me-down Game and Watch from a cousin. I knew vicariously that this was a big summer for the two of us…
He was my best friend, we had negotiated countless 2 player games for his NES for him to pick out, pouring over countless magazines, debating by flashlight and weighing every angle of the decision carefully. With grave understanding of its importance in the future presence of this in our little lives- There was no internet, there were no countless YouTube videos of gameplay to zone out on. This wasn’t a fucking game… This was a NEW game we were talking about here.
This happened maybe once a year for us if we were lucky… A handful of us traded the same 4-5 game cartridges around the neighborhood, like forbidden parcel, they were passed hand to hand. Notepads scribbled with countless codes made of letters and numbers, locations of hidden keys marked on hand drawn maps of Hyrule. Warnings of boss fights and their horrors, rumors of what lay beyond levels we had yet to see were whispered and meditated upon. If there was anything more to life, it hadn’t bothered to find us yet.
This was a big decision for the group of kids in our circle. Games had a huge impact on us, this was a community changing event. And here I was, counsel to the most important kid on our block that week- Brendan was able to pick out a new game for the summer. I was his right hand in making a huge decision for our group of friends. We were parented by middle class, blue collar people. Good parents, not wealthy but good people. MY best friend was getting a new game.
We took opinions and held audience with other kids but this honestly was our choice to make. I was his best friend after all and he lived just two houses away from me, this was our block. I had been hand chosen by fate to quietly and with great gravity guide him through this very important decision. I imagine this was much the way the Cuban Missile Crisis went down, the way this week had weighed on our small shoulders. We needed this to go well, it wasn’t just our summer we were responsible for here…
We were inseparable and this was going to be our first summer worth celebrating. 1st grade was breathing down our necks in a few months. We had heard rumors that they forced you to ONLY write in cursive, and there was something called ‘homework’ that sounded absolutely like a fucked up thing to do to a kid. I mean… you had to not only go to school all day, but now you had to do ‘work’ at home too?!?!? Little did I know (I’m writing this while I’m in a ‘work-from-home’ job at this very moment, sweet irony) that we were all going to be growing up this summer- things were NOT going to be the same. Ever.
The committee had clawed and struggled down to the two best possible options… We were at a stalemate. Battletoads was sexy, it looked like TMNT. The literature all backed up the idea that this was a solid game. It also boasted the fact that two players could both play at once- something for us kings (me just a prince here, honestly) to consider. The peasants would come, they would lay their bikes down in the grass and come calling. There was no secret about this new game of Brendan’s and it’s arrival. We would be expected to share… This way we could play together while also being able to each individually play with another neighbor while one of us watched on responsibly.
Super Mario Brothers 3 was everything and more. Colorful, fast, challenging and decidedly huge. It would be an adventure anew, though we had beaten the label off of SMB/Duck Hunt, it had been played so much. This was the safe choice…Brendan had played it at the local Sears display, he had seen the face of this God and he had assured me that this was a kind,loving and providing God to put faith into. It was his game after all, and I was confident that if it came down to it our friendship wouldn’t be at stake. Even if we had to sit and take turns, he’d still remember me. Right…? We’d both get a lot out of it here- my position WAS a political one, after all. I had to make sure we both were looked out for with this new game of Brendan’s…
The phone rang and all I remember him saying was “It’s me, Brendan. You need to come over. Now.” He had come back from Caldor. I had somehow missed his mother’s grey station wagon on its slow noisy slide past my house. How could I have been so sloppy, I had been laying on my stomach peering anxiously out of the window for what seemed like most of my life that afternoon. Waiting. I was throwing my bike down on the sidewalk and bounding up the brick steps of his porch before the phone cord had rested, tangled and limp on our own kitchen floor. I knocked but it was mere ceremony as I opened his front door without any notice and ran to his living room.
He was on his knees, several feet from the glow with his mouth slightly open. I could see his hands, in them cradled and clicking sat the controller. I crossed the room with my feet barely touching carpet and just as I was preparing to ask him which he had chosen, I saw it. In all of its glory, these weren’t even real. This couldn’t be, the colors weren’t real. This didn’t make ANY sense…. This wasn’t Dragon Warrior, or Zelda. I had seen Tetris, I was educated, after all. And this certainly wasn’t Super MARIO brothers with it’s drab red blocks, muted skies and jagged ziggurats topped with flagpoles that needed jumping over. Nothing could have ever prepared me for what Brendan was already catatonically hooked to like an intravenous drip.
It was then that Nintendo took my legs from me… I was almost angry that Brendan wouldn’t tell me any more over the phone, that he wasn’t forthcoming or communicating. Which one had you picked?!?!?! I only got the word “Which…!” out before my soul left my body, my legs collapsed and I fell to my knees. The electric blocks of color, it wasn’t even real. It was better than real. Mario was flying, he had his fucking arms out and he was soaring! Each enemy looked horrifying, too real. The pipes were the darkest green and the sky a blue that never again have I looked up and seen. It was so fluid, so fast. He could disappear behind blocks, too. He bent down and he’d his knees, you could see them and his face- it was as if the Mario we had known was a gross bizarre shadow of what THIS was…
We had heard the phrase Warp Whistle, I had faith in Brendan’s memories of Sears and his time spent away from me and with the game display demo. But it wasn’t like this, he had never mentioned anything close to what this was to me. How could I have been so naive, so closed off to reason…This was electric candy pouring out and wrapping us in it’s sticky glaze, there was nothing else ever like this. I barely noticed what would later become huge news, his mother had gotten a check by mail, correspondence from his Grandparents- Brendan had done well his first year of kindergarten… So well in fact that Battletoads lay just ahead of me, leaned against the state-of-the-art grey and black super computer. Still in it’s plastic wrapping, waiting too to be discovered and loved. But for now, I couldn’t take my eyes off of where Mario was taking us next……..
I feel like that was the first, and possibly the last time I was truly happy. My sky broke open, and the real world eventually poured in through it… Those two kids are still there, kneeling on that shag carpet. Almost praying to that electric glowing magic…
We spent years together, after the NES playing through Eternal Champions and Golden Axe, Streets of Rage and the realest sports games we had ever imagined. Sonic the Hedgehog did what that middle aged plumber, his dopey thin brother and his band of jobless and enthusiastic groupies couldn’t. I transitioned into Sega Genesis, and then to Playstation and it’s rich lineage of offspring. It’s great grandson still sits on my shelf, dust beginning even now to gather on it’s PS4 logo.
I was “cool”. I enlisted after the Console Wars into the Sony brotherhood for its decidedly ‘Japanese’ titles and survival horror comings of age. Resident Evil and Silent Hill turned into importing games. The internet must have happened at some point here, because I stopped having to go to the library for Game Genie times and strategy guides…I played “rpg’s” before they were a thing. I was there for day zero of Final Fantasy 7 and launched myself head first into Shin Megami Tensei’s for god sakes (back in MY day, we didn’t have Persona). I was a chameleon, I played Madden in college with my roommates. I played NBA2k too much. I slowly become a philistine before I ultimately grew up all together and stopped gaming.
In January of this year, on an impulse I went and bought a Switch. I was working 60 hours a week and opening a brand new hotel, I didn’t even open the box… It sat their until March untouched. Then it began… I was furloughed and ultimately spent much too much time at home. There’s a pandemic putting masks on all of our faces. People are upset, people are dying. Black lives matter and the presidential situation is exhausting and disheartening. I may lose my job, I’m not sure and it has nothing to do with what I can control.
And then I get dropped into BOTW. You are given literally the endgame in your sight as the game begins. You have a bunch of pins and a huge map to fuck off into. For hours. And days. This sub has done enough pushing of BOTW for me to need to waste this effort. But the pins. This is important because at the heart of what Nintendo is doing is this approach. This concept, you don’t need those pins. No one does- but we as gamers never have needed pins more. We all know what we are doing, and where to go. Smartphones pull our egos and brains out through our nostrils. They don’t bring you to your knees in wonder. Being an adult is a fucking thing, it’s all good- the world is too big to feel this small and at our fingertips at all times.
I just peeked under the hood of what is apparently a “terrible” and controversial Pokémon Sw/Sh game… it’s still just a juggernaut of mathematical matrixes all wrapped up tightly into a rock/paper/scissor game boy game, one with obnoxiously adorable animals that force grown men and women to “camp” and to entertain literal monsters with a small cat toy complete with bell and feather- the game boy only dropped acid and turned into the third dimension.
There was a point in time I could recite proudly all 151, now I google every 10 minutes what the hell I’ve just knocked unconscious and enslaved in my box- and whether or not it evolves before I forget and have caught 2 more… But again, there are ‘markers’ you can slot to your monsters… In a different way, you’re supposed to induce yourself into an ADD/OCD fit in Pokémon, they know this. And they are there for you. For anyone depraved enough to find themselves in bad shape and addicted as an adult to something as sinful as ‘liking Pokémon’. I don’t just go around admitting I’ve recently spent time playing this. I wouldn’t dare, people know me in my community for God’s sake. I have a reputation….
But I am grateful. I am a thankful. I have been places, games have taken me there….The Switch at times can make me feel again, not much but just a small amount. .. I’ve been so lost in so many of these titles recently, it’s been great to check out and check into them. Games go places for people who can only medically or physically play Call or Duty or Madden too, I guess. Or those weird Japanese Catboy dating simulators that SOMEONE must be buying and playing.
Nintendo gets fairly judged for what they’ve done, both good and bad over the years. Honestly, they have sucked for a long time after the SNES passed away… But I feel like it’s finally all making sense, and Nintendo knows truly again what it’s doing. And it’s never been more relevant to me. My wife and I just had our first baby, at home because the hospitals were Covid stuffed. She’s beautiful, and amazing and so smart already it’s scary to see. I love her and my wife more than anything. I have a career that is too demanding specifically on my time, bills, my relatives are getting older and dying- life is happening every day. Not in a bad way, just in a way that life has to move on…
I needed to stop and be forced to put down life, to pick up the Switch- to figure out who the hell Ive been with games for the past 25 years….
The 2020 me needed this.
I’d like to think of myself now, as a grown man crossing that living room and looking on as two five year olds sit- mouths forgetting to close, wonder blacking out their eyes and wrapped in pure bliss and amazement. Staring at the scrolling rainbows of left to right life, popping blocks and avoiding aggressive plants shooting out of sewer pipes. I sit on the couch with my Switch in my hands. It’s undocked for all of the world to see. I need to get started, there’s too much to do- All this probably means I’m terrible at acclimating you real life, no? I have too many quests building up and a backlog of adventures to satisfy and obligations to many NPC’s withstanding. I smile at the back of their heads, content. I’m there knowing that they are going to be alright…
We all found the warp whistle.
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