Saturday, January 7, 2012

Poor Boy's Complaint — a video game memoir [Vol. 1]


So imbedded in my consciousness were those jaw-dropping images from the television commercial that when I secretly heard the news of how my older sister—and I, by extension—was to receive an honest-to-God Mouse Trap game for her eighth birthday, I literally lay awake at night in anticipation. My imagination gave way to our soon-to-be-shared adventures of being transported to that insane alternate reality, where boulder-sized marbles chased us down slippery red chutes and giant cages fell down to entrap us. It wasn't so far-fetched of an assumption, was it? I'd been to those McDonald's playgrounds and slid down their yellow plastic slides four times my toddler height. And yet when the birthday party came and my eyes actually beheld that medium-size cardboard box, I think my skepticism immediately set in. (Can we really call it skepticism? I suppose not. Skepticism is the inheritance I received as a result of that tragic episode, the unshakeable fetter I drag locked around my ankle to this very day—skepticism the bitter outcome of that disappointment and that which has never allowed me to embrace high hopes for anything truly spectacular in my life ever again!) It was simply a matter of drawing from my limited knowledge and perceptions of space and dimensions that caused me to mentally puzzle over how such a tiny box could physically contain the necessary components to the set piece I imagined from watching that dazzling commercial.

Well, doctor, you can bet my sister tore open that box, and after studying the plastic pieces and rules sheet the two of us ended up playing what ended up being a rather crappy board game. The makeshift mouse trap might have been amusing, I suppose, had it actually functioned successfully more than one out of ten times. It had some neat little moving parts, but nothing that spawned the same level of tension and excitement that would have resulted from shrinking to the size of a game mouse and trying to actually outrun or otherwise physically participate in that nefarious contraption.

It was my first encounter with false advertising, and I had been had. I knew from then on that the world was cruel, its promises empty. But there was another realization—a proto-realization, perhaps, which was this: The fantastical representations achieved through video special effects could be infinitely more fascinating than the world of reality. In other words, give me video or give me death!


I can't say for certain what was the first video game I ever played. Maybe it was the Atari 2600 Frogger, or the arcade Pac-Man. I know that—miracle of miracles!—my parents actually had a four-player PONG system they would alternately conjure forth for our familial pleasure and whisk away to some dark nether place known as “storage” once it had served its purpose.

I think it's safe to assume, however, that upon laying my eyes for the first time on Nintendo's magical Mushroom Kingdom, I was obsessed with video games for life. Oh, Mario! Luigi! You ridiculous little men with your incessant running and superhuman jumping! Your Alice-in-Wonderland mushrooms and your totally non-hippy flower power! Secret plumbing passageways and warp zones galore. Your magnificent leaps over hellish pits of fire. And that music! No one who listened to those siren songs would ever be able to purge them from memory.

At some point during those waning years I remember going to other people's houses where these machines called Nintendos took their places at the right hand of television sets. Why these Nintendos were not constantly in use by their owners, I could not fathom. In fact, most people who kept these machines seemed extraordinarily stingy with them. I think my uncle had one. Was I ever offered the chance to play? No. There was even a Nintendo at my in-house day care (Curses, that place was terrifying, what with the caretaker's son constantly threatening to piss on me for no apparent reason, and the overweight caretaker in her commanding baritone threatening to take away my treats for the day for any potential bad behavior—except that I never received any treats to speak of regardless!). The caretaker's husband, who looked like a mean version of Shaggy from Scooby Doo, would on random days be at home, and on these days he would sometimes be playing what I later came to learn was The Legend of Zelda. I was supposed to be taking a nap in the living room, but how could I with that epic video journey being played on the television screen a mere ten feet away? At any rate, I never played that Nintendo either.

Was I too young to be entrusted with such things? Was I supposed to ask someone? Heavens, no! I was raised to be the politest, most submissive little boy imaginable. And was I polite! You couldn't put a piece of mud in my tiny little hand without me giving you a deserved “Thank you” in return. I couldn't ask you to desist from punching me in the face without including a token “please, sir.” I remember one day after my parents had hosted a large church party, my dad pulled me aside behind the house and told me he had something to say to me. Good lord in heaven, what had I done? “I just wanted you to know how proud I was of you today,” he told me. “All of your 'pleases,' and 'thank yous,' and your 'you're welcomes.'” Boy was I proud! Is that the kind of boy who goes to other people's living rooms asking if he can play their Nintendo? I think not!

The first time I was offered the chance to play was at the house of my parents' friends from church (hell, all of their friends were from church!). These people were awesome. There I sat with the controller in my little hands. World 1-1. Okay. This black pad moves me around. There's one of those little angry Goomba dudes. I've seen other people do this before a hundred times. Push this button to jump and … what? I died? Within the first five seconds? How humiliating! But wait. I get to try again? I think by the end of that night my sister and I learned how to get through those first few levels pretty well. There was always that nagging decision to be made regarding whether to skip the bulk of that first level altogether by going down that second or third pipe or to stay above ground and try to collect that hidden 1-up mushroom before the first bottomless pit.

Remember, these people were cool, and they left me alone to play, even if I completely sucked. And I did. They were adults who understood they could play Nintendo to their heart's content just as soon as we left for the evening. They were not the spoiled, adolescent assholes who let you go into their bedroom (seriously, what kid was so lucky to be allowed to have their own Nintendo in their bedroom?) to play Super Mario Bros. with them—but only on two-player. This was the biggest scam of a multiplayer mode ever invented, a trick for bratty rich boys who had Nintendos to play on the visiting poor boys who did not. Invariably, this punk kid (he doesn't deserve for me to remember his name, and I don't) and later others would say something like, “Hey, why don't you go first?” Snicker, snicker, snicker! I would launch from the starting gates of World 1-1 and—being totally out of practice since my last time playing—die at the non-hands of the first Goomba. Oh yeah, laugh it up, buddy! Laugh at the poor boy's expense. Player 2 is next, and—guess what?—this piece of shit has to plow through the whole game in one life while I get to sit and watch. And you know what? I was so starved for Nintendo since my last meal I would do it almost gladly!

Oh, father, do you realize what this punk kid is probably doing today? He's probably a coked-out corporate executive somewhere, trying to decide whether to spend his holiday bonus on a jet-ski or a 72-inch plasma TV. And what am I doing now, father, your polite little boy? I'm reminiscing with the good doctor here, maintaining a pathetic blog and wondering where it all went wrong. So thank you, father! Thank you, mother! Thank you and you're welcome!


  1. I feel you man. The only reason I remember anything cool is because some other kid had it. Forest had Castle Grayskull, Mike had Optimus Prime, Jason had a Nintendo, with at least five games, my cousin Ben had a Sega. I had a couple of Gobots my grandma gave me and two He-man characters from the clearance rack - seriously, Skunkor? His power was smelling bad?

    The other day my son was whining because I haven't let him buy a new video game for a couple of months. I lost my shit and told him he was one of those jerkoff rich kids I hated when I was his age. I apologized later because I shouldn't have said it. But I meant it.

  2. That's adulthood for you. Constantly having to apologize just for being honest.

    My wife was watching He-Man cartoons on Netflix while I was writing today. I'll have to look out for Skunkor. Can't say I remember that one.

  3. So I'm assuming you eventually did get a Nintendo machine (I remember people calling them that), right? When?

    Some of my earliest & most mesmerized memories are also from the NES. My brother got one in Christmas of '88 or '89. I was four or five at the time, and I distinctly remember trying to play and just. not. being able to do anything. Mario was so hard! I remember trying to get my mom to play with me while my brother was at school. I remember when my dad bought Legend of Zelda for HIMSELF (coolest dad ever, then), and beat it on Christmas eve. Oh man. I should probably write my own post.

    Thanks, Flynn.

  4. Hans, I don't really want to spoil the next installments ... but I'll give you a hint. No, I never got the NES. Probably for the better.