Two Shades of Grey: A 90s Odyssey Part 3

If you were to stack the hours end to end that I spent playing Nintendo as a kid, it would reach the moon and back eleven and one half times. And I don’t mean our moon. I mean Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter.

The antithesis of Pandora's Box.

The antithesis of Pandora’s Box.

If you were a kid in the 80s and 90s, Nintendo was one of the names for god written on your heart. Its appetite for our minutes and our hours was insatiable, but we sacrificed at its altar dutifully, laying before it afternoons, school nights, and entire summer vacations probably. It was our endless source of ecstasy and agony, and also of soundtracks that were specially composed to drive a human adult insane after six minutes—maybe less if you were playing Tetris. Unless your parents were from Soviet Russia, in which case their hearts would have swelled with a Tchaikovsky-fueled atom bomb of pride. But in Soviet Russia, of course, Tetris plays you.

Nintendo was mostly a loving little contraption—a friend to the friendless and a constant companion to the popular, it made no distinction. But it could also be pretty cruel. I am thinking specifically of one afternoon playing Double Dagon at the house of my best friend, Matt.

If you’re unfamiliar with the premise of Double Dragon, let me give you the unabridged storyline: there are two good guys and a crapload of bad guys and a bunch of karate moves waiting to happen until everyone’s dead.

We were in the middle of a glorious run on two-player mode, and we pooled our efforts to dropkick and nunchuk to death all the bad guys the game could throw at us. Which was a lot. Like, a lot a lot. We hit a point in the game where we seemed to loop back in time to the beginning of the level, where all our enemies—whose 8-bit blood had recently been running through the 8-bit streets—sprang back to spritely life, and we had to dropkick and nunchuk them all again. This wouldn’t have been so bad if not for the pair of hulking, bald-headed Abobos (which may or may not be some kind of delicious Asian chicken dish?) who would bust out of a mountainside in a really foul mood. The foulest of moods, however, was Matt’s. We had gone through this level at least three times, and while we had managed okay, the last round took me out of the running completely. My character fell, so we were left to one single dragon so to speak, along with the ancient Zen riddle how much chuk could a nunchuk chuck if a nunchuk could chuck chuk. We didn’t know the answer. None? Perhaps it was unanswerable, but he had to nunchuk the crap out of these dudes without me, and he wasn’t too pleased.

He took the first Abobo down, but the last one was out for revenge. Fist met face, and Matt’s little blue character blinked into oblivion forever.

I had never before heard the sound that Matt made, and I have never heard it since. It was a guttural cry of woe on par with an Old Testament lamentation. If he had been wearing a robe like Abraham, he would have torn in it his display of grief. Instead, he tore out the controller and threw it across the room, its black umbilicus flailing behind it awkwardly.

“MY LIFE IS RUINED,” he cried in a flush.

I should have consoled him, but that little grey console had a way of making us inconsolable. So I probably just went home, because sometimes the thought of starting a whole game over from scratch is straight up unbearable.

The agony probably outnumbered the ecstasy by at least eight to one most times, but still we loved it, honored it, breathed life into it when the cartridges would go glitchy.

When my life is finally written out, it will be divided into two neat volumes. Volume One: Life Before Nintendo. It is very small, and hardly worth mentioning. Volume Two: Everything Else, which has a very clear genesis on Christmas Eve 1989.

There is probably something from your own childhood that you pined and whined for—maybe a Cabbage Patch kid or a Beanie Baby or Furby or Red Rider bb rifle with a compass in the stock. Like most holy grails, the wanting of it in most cases was more fun than the getting of it. We’re modern and civilized, sure, but the thrill of the hunt hasn’t quite been bred out of us.

This was not true of our Nintendo Entertainment System. The getting of it and the having of it were both really great. It came complete with two controllers, a Zapper gun (blaze orange in case we were tempted to ever take it out into the woods during deer season), and a cartridge with Super Mario Bros. and its superbly awesome b-side, Duck Hunt. The best times of our life were included at no extra charge. I think the thing sold for about $150—nearly the price of an automobile and three semesters of college tuition at the time. Or so it probably seemed to my frugal parents, who possibly began debating whether or not to bite the bullet when it was first released three years earlier. I’m glad they did, as you can see from the picture, snapped seconds after my sister and I tore through the wrapping paper like the Tasmanian Devil while also making sounds like the Tasmanian Devil, because there are times when words will fail you.

Suddenly possessing the strength of TWO Grinches, I hoisted the very meaning of Christmas over my head.

Suddenly possessing the strength of TWO Grinches, I hoisted the very meaning of Christmas over my head.

We had all of our Christmas Break to play our new games, and I was not good at either of them. Timid and by nature a conscientious objector to violence, I spent many of my turns as Mario running away from Koopa’s Troopas (who were up to misbehavin’, am I right Captain Lou Albano?), hesitating to jump on and, assumedly, to kill the little Goombas. I died a lot. The Super Mario funeral dirge was catchy, at least.

I had even less success with Duck Hunt, which added insult to injury in the form of a mocking birddog that would hurl at you peels of laughter as your blood boiled and you unloaded every shot in your Zapper but still the damned things lived another day to do all the horrible things ducks are want to do.

I eventually figured out that if I pressed the barrel of my Zapper against the glass of my television, them ducks are basically screwed. From that point on, I was their worst nightmare and Duck Hunt wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was pretty fun.

Researches in Germany programmed a Super Mario game that was probably a better match for me: a Mario who had a conscience and could comment on his mushroom induced killing spree in order to get rich and get a girlfriend. Seriously, you can see here for yourself.

I had my favorite and I’m sure you had yours. Kid Icarus, Bases Loaded, Star Tropics, Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, Dragon Warrior, Mega Man III, California Games (I was a beast at the BMX event), Castlevania, and the improbable Marble Madness were heavy in my cartridge rotation. There’s probably a way to profile someone psychologically by which Nintendo game he or she loved the most. Tetris: a spatial visionary with acute episodes of obsession and anxiety. Paper Boy: a responsible type drawn to convention but with tendencies toward recreational violence. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the original, not the Arcade Game sequel): a masochist extraordinaire who might also enjoy watching animals get squished by cars. Q-bert: no one knows, because this game is the weirdest thing ever and you probably are, too. But it doesn’t really matter. We Millennials—still a decade shy of the millennium that Christmas—finally had a tie to bind us all together, and a common childhood experience is as solid a glue as they come.

What do you get when a teenager gets sucked into his Nintendo along with a controller belt buckle, his Zapper, and his dog and he has to battle Mother Brain from Metroid and her henchman King Hippo from Punch Out and a giant eggplant, and the team of good guys includes Mega Man, Kid Icarus, a sentient Game Boy, and Simon Belmont from Castelvania (in this incarnation he oddly a self obsessed pretty boy) ? You get the greatest Saturday morning cartoon there ever was: Captain N the Game Master. Check it.

What do you get when a teenager gets sucked into his Nintendo along with a controller belt buckle, his Zapper, and his dog and he has to battle Mother Brain from Metroid and her henchman King Hippo from Punch Out and a giant eggplant, and the team of good guys includes Mega Man, Kid Icarus, a sentient Game Boy, and Simon Belmont from Castelvania (in this incarnation he oddly a self obsessed pretty boy) ? You get the greatest Saturday morning cartoon there ever was: Captain N the Game Master. Check it.

I revisited my Nintendo this week for my time spent with something I love. A lot of the games won’t even load anymore, but you know which one was the most obedient and faithful after all these years? The one that started it all. Super Mario Bros.

My first attempts were pitiful flashbacks to my earliest days of falling into gaps suicidally and mistiming jumps into flying fish. But after shaking a little of the dust off, I almost got back into the groove. The underwater levels still give me dyspepsia, and the Hammer Brothers remain the number one enders of my games, so I haven’t come all the far, I guess. But it’s not a race. Unless you’re playing Days of Thunder (which I own) (which sucks). Then it’s kind of a race.

After a few trials, other things started to surprise me. I remembered where some of the hidden green One-Up mushrooms were hidden. I found the secret vine that takes you for a ride on a cloud while it basically rains coins up in here. I remembered the trick at the end of level 3-1 where if you flip the turtle upside down in his shell and ricochet him off the steps, you get to snag a bunch of extra lives. I remembered the names that Kim and I gave for the things in the game that maybe didn’t have official names—like the wands of fireballs that spun ominously in so many of the castles, which we called “fireturners” because we spoke English like it was German, I guess.

The trick, I believe, is to play like you’re still ten—fearless, reckless, undaunted by the specter of potential failure. Sometimes, the faster I ran and the more enthusiastically I flattened the bad guys, the less often I lost. There’s a metaphor for life in there. I will say no more.

I still haven’t beaten the game. Not ever. I once made it to the last of the two hammer brothers in world 8-3, but never beyond it. But I will keep on trying, because I trust Toad, and I know the Princess is waiting for in another castle, and if I quit now I will surely never ever find her.

There’s another metaphor for life in that one, too. But, for once in my life, I will say no more.

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