Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Poor Boy's Complaint — a video game memoir [Vol. 2]

It's not enough just to say I never got my own Nintendo. I mean, isn't it absurd, doctor, for a child of single-digit years to covet so badly something that will cost his struggling parents—I don't know—three days' wages? That's three days of stressful, perhaps backbreaking labor that will contribute neither to the family dinner nor the property taxes, not to any pending car repairs, back-to-school clothes or—God forbid—to something for their own happiness and pleasure. We're talking $200 for a glorified toy, and that's not including sales tax! What was I thinking being so selfish? And yet—what do you know?—other kids' parents saw fit to buy Nintendos for their families! That's right, I'm in school now. I can start complaining to my mom about how the other kids at school get to do this and that. No, it's not enough just to say I never got a Nintendo, because the reality of not having something does not diminish the desire for wanting it. Quite the opposite.

I was surrounded by Nintendo everywhere I looked! My first friend from kindergarten was an only child and—let me tell you, doctor—he had a Nintendo. I mean he had everything else in the world, too, but the Nintendo! I'd played Super Mario Bros. a few times but I don't think I had any idea there were so many other freaking games until I went to his house and beheld that glorious cartridge rack. The thing must have held close to 25 games in its five-by-five arrangement, and this kid was just 5-years-old!

In 1989 my mother took me to see The Wizard. Do you remember that one, the feature-length Nintendo advertisement with the kid from The Wonder Years? The “I love the Power Glove, it's so bad” movie with the autistic kid playing Super Mario Bros. 3 on a TV screen bigger than God? Did she have a clue what kind of torture this kind of indulgence put me through?

Nintendo in the late 1980s was like asbestos in the '50s. You couldn't not breath it if you tried. After Mouse Trap I'd learned to be a bit suspicious of commercials, sure, but I was still a kid. Do you understand what it did to my brain the first time I watched a TV spot for Marble Madness, doctor? There it was again, that magical land of chutes and hazards, only this time what you saw in video was pretty much what you got. This was too much! I needed an outlet for this stuff, and so one day in Mrs. Stanley's first-grade class I wrote a one-page short story about Marble Madness. For fun! Marble Madness fan fiction, doctor.

In fact, one might have thought school was a relatively safe haven, but would you have guessed our elementary library had a subscription to Nintendo Power magazine? On Monday mornings after the kooky librarian released us from the semi-circle story-time hostage zone, all of the boys would flock to the shelves to drool over the latest glitzy issue. I, of course, would content myself with some perfectly fine two-month-old edition and suckle unbothered upon the centerfold spread of, say, the entire Metroid level design. Hence I acclimated myself to what would become the pattern for the rest of my childhood and adult life, forever settling for the sloppy seconds of the greater video game culture, the flotsam and jetsam of all the seaward passengers who hopped from sinking ship to sinking ship like drivers changing freeway lanes.

Little did my innocent mind yet comprehend how fickle were the hearts and fingers of gamers. There’s a reason I have no memory of seeing Atari 2600 boxes on store shelves. That era had come and gone before I was old enough to form a coherent thought (Also, I happened to be born during the same year as—ahem—E.T.). Before I knew it the great Nintendo I never had was dead. Because in its place was something so new and so stupidly better than the Nintendo you wouldn't know why the hell you had ever even bothered to waste your time with that dumb machine's cramp-inducing rectangle of a controller in the first place. That's right. Nobody wants a Nintendo anymore, not when YOU CAN HAS … wait for it … SUPER NINTENDO? And actually, doctor, I did get a chance to play one of these bad boys hot off the factory line when my only-child friend from school got to rent one—from the grocery store of all places (I told you this stuff was inescapable). Would you believe it? And it really was like a million times cooler than the old Nintendo. I think I experienced some legitimate vertigo playing the third level of Contra III, our two characters blasting away at alien invaders above that magnificent 16-bit industrial landscape. What a trip! It seemed the sky was the limit.


Let me pause here, however, and return to the subject of my household environment. In case you hadn't already gotten the impression, I grew up in a good Christian home. I'd say the most pagan thing we ever practiced as a family was to erect and decorate a Douglas fir tree in our living room each December to celebrate the birth of our savior. And we did dress up in costumes on October 31, but it wasn't for Halloween—no, no, no—and it certainly wasn't for trick-or-treating! My mom dressed me up like a cowboy so I could go to church and celebrate something totally different called the Autumn Festival or, better yet, All Saints Day!

Our household had its own version of the Hays production code—my dad. He was usually the one to either red-light or green-light whatever my sister and I watched on TV, but also the music we listened to and the types of items we got to take home from Toys-R-Us. In other words, whatever was going to be absorbed into our impressionable young brains better not have too much sex, violence or foul language. Understandable. But it also better not glorify witchcraft, magic or any business remotely demonic—meaning ghosts, goblins, gargoyles and I'm sure plenty of other things beginning with the letter G. Let's just say I never watched Beetlejuice as a kid—the cartoon or the film. We never had cable, so that excluded any of the smut on MTV. But we also weren't supposed to watch Scooby Doo because it had monsters? Well, dad, my sister and I watched Scooby Doo regardless (when you weren’t home), and let me tell you, none of the ghosts and monsters were ever actually ghosts or monsters. They were crooked masked adults trying to scare away those meddling kids! I mean, maybe the monster issue was just my dad’s excuse because he really didn't want to tell us what the crackpot sleuths were obviously smoking inside the Mystery Machine, or the real reason why Velma got off on getting into dangerous scrapes all the time with the Fred and Daphne (Hint: It wasn’t Fred). I’m sure my dad would have locked away the television if we'd grown up in the era of Harry Potter.

That’s all well and good, mom and dad. You’re the boss(es). But my first experience with your charismatic church was pretty traumatizing in its own right. I remember when I was five years old being dragged against my will to a series of evening family events at dad’s new church where the people put on some kind of good-versus-evil, God-versus-Satan puppet show. All I remember were these periodic noise contests where members of the audience, sometimes the boys and sometimes the girls, were supposed to scream at the top of their lungs in order to thwart evil and—ultimately—send puppet Satan back into the Lake of Fire. I was not a scream-in-public kind of kid, barely old enough to understand what was going on. That crap scared the hell out of me, which I suppose was the point to a certain extent. I don’t know, maybe it wasn’t quite as bad as I remember it.

I know I didn’t have it as bad as that kid James who lived in the tiny house right off the main bus route to school and whose sweetheart of a dad (who looked liked he was 90) waved like a parade Santa Claus to every God-forsaken driver speeding by. I’m pretty sure James had to wear bifocals in kindergarten, the poor kid. Unfortunately, it didn’t win him any makeup points coming to school in a neon orange Jesus hat (well before it was the ironic thing to do). Anyway, those nasty kids at school sure made fun of him for being the resident Bible Boy. One time in fifth grade our teacher had to stop reading to us a series of young-adult fiction books called the Witch Sister series because some undisclosed student’s religious parent complained to the school about it. Those post-recess reading sessions were like crack to us! Poor, poor James. The intimidation he withstood! Everyone knew who was to blame. I mean, who else’s parents lit up a Christmas-lights cross on the front of their house 365 days a year? Lord knows I always tried to be nice to James, but this kid was defenseless. Talk about having no sense of humor—I can still picture that blank stare! I’d love to read his memoir. Do these parents ever have any clue as to the backfiring effects of their insane interventionism? Anyway, I don’t think James played any Nintendo growing up either.

I guess you can't blame parents for trying. My dad went through a lot of different jobs growing up. He swept chimneys. He sold Amway products. He sold spas and stoves. He also did some freelance ad-design for local businesses, sometimes getting paid in traded goods and services (such as about 200 free skating sessions at the roller rink, one time). Around 1990 he got ahold of a lead to do some graphic layout for this startup company called Wizards of the Coast, basically a bunch of geeks who worked out of their basement—actually, maybe you've heard of them. I guess my dad went to one of those geek's house where they had just tons of Dungeons and Dragons type of memorabilia (surprise, surprise) and they dressed all gothy. “Some pretty dark stuff,” according to my dad. Well, dad did a little ad work for them, some kind of graphic with a dragon and a globe. Turns out the wizards liked it and wanted him to do some more work—although, here's the catch. They were a pretty new company so they kind of didn't have much actual money yet, and so maybe he would have to work for something else, like some company shares? I can only imagine what must have run through my dad's head. Could anyone in 1990 really have imagined what unbelievable global market share these passionate nerds would manage to dominate over the next 10 years and beyond. Who knew there was such profit to be had in spells and sorcery? Wizards of the Coast company shares, huh? Hmm. Sounds pretty good, but ... you know what, guys? I'm afraid I'm gonna have to pass. I've got a request for some ad work from the guy who runs that hotdog stand over there. He's offered to pay me in bratwursts. So … maybe some other time.


  1. Whoa, OK, it's hard to unpack all this. First: the story about your dad & Wizards of the Coast: Amazing. Cringe-inducing. But who could have known? How could your dad have known?

    & it wasn't Scooby-Doo for me, but rather the Smurfs. There's a wizard in the Smurfs, you see, and Wizards are Evil and Of Satan, so yeah, I wasn't allowed to watch the Smurfs. It's somehow incredibly comforting to hear a background story so similar to mine in so many ways. No trick-or-treating, but yes, Harvest Carnival at the church (which was actually pretty badass).

    Also, I know you don't, but I have to ask; please lie to me: do you still have that Marble Madness story?

  2. I was wondering the same thing yesterday. Chances are that story is LONG gone. But my mom did save a LOT of stuff from my first couple years of school, so it's possible it might be stored away in some trunk at my parents' house.

    If it ever resurfaces you can be sure I'll post it up.