Much like ranch dressing, Thriller, and the Sears catalog—The Nintendo Entertainment System shaped my life in ways that were both very important and wildly confusing. When the thing first arrived on our shores, it cost about ten-kerbillion American dollars, so for most of the lower middle class, we had to wait a few years for it to come to the “I can live this kind of debt,” prices. Advertising for the super rockstar console was relentless, every Saturday morning cartoon blasting bright imagery and loud pixels into children already blitzed on sugary breakfast cereal. These ads tore you apart at the seams, the poison was just too much. For us, it was our first taste of pure and ravenous lust, little high-calorie wolves set for a sinister kill. We’d do anything to play video games of this new caliber in our own living rooms, the thoughts screaming in every dream, bouncing across every decision, little boys awaking in the mornings already in full-fit rage. We’d gnash our teeth and see blood everywhere, tiny fists tearing footy pajamas off, itching all over, anything just to get ahold of a Nintendo. These were violent times in our biology, our first realizations that we could love something so much, we’d take things to dark and horrible places just to let it know. “Yes, I will drown Garfield and I will do this while Odie watches in horror, eyes taped open and strapped to a steel bathtub, numb to his whines. As long as there’s a copy of Kid Icarus waiting for me when that last bubble of red-flecked air pukes to the top of the toilet, I will be your assassin.”
Your first few Christmases after the Nintendo is announced just test your tolerance for demonstrable disappointment. A good friend regales me with his own personal hell from back in the days of golden tokens and morning cartoons featuring MC Hammer. Sans-Nintendo, his entire world felt incomplete and terribly lonely. Sitting at the dinner table with his family and every imaginable orange, yellow, and brown hue that 1987 brought with it, he’d only pick at his plate, pushing peas around with his tiny finger. Conversation murmurs along as it did in those days, occasionally over the drone of whatever sitcom served as distraction, and the little boy can’t eat a thing. His mother makes an innocent enough request, “How about you hon? How was your day at school?” There are no words. A tiny boy with a large ginger mop of hair simply bursts into deflated sobbing, crying into his mashed potatoes because the weight of the world without a Nintendo Entertainment System is simply too much. Until the thing arrives under his Christmas tree, each afternoon in his family home is punctuated by a little boy sitting in the corner by himself, facing the wall, gently sniffing and sobbing at the injustice of the world.
My experience wasn’t much different. We’d been sated by an Atari for years, but the leap between Joust and Super Mario was a cavernous trek that no human could find any relation in. My parents tried to tie us up with those impossible Nintendo-themed wrist watches, the monochromatic ones where you could navigate Mario or Link up onto a platform, one level, on repeat, with little controls that never worked properly. I learned to draw Super Mario with perfect precision, and my brother and I would act out, during play, what we assumed the game was like. It arrived though, after a couple of tortuous years, we’d acquired our very own Nintendo. It played out like I imagine many other holiday morning un-wrappings played out—two little children are ordered to open that big box at the same time, and as they rip and tear in anticipation, the branding of a Nintendo reveals itself from under green and red paper. The first stage is exultation—you scream and cry and throw a wild fit because your pain has finally come to an end, the shackles have been shed. The next part is the thank-you’s. You clasp onto your parents calves and start kissing, thanking them for being the benevolent masters of the realm that they’ve shown themselves to be, never before has someone’s rule been so generous. Then you fucking pass out.
Our Nintendo Christmas came with all the fixings—the console with Duck Hunt, Track and Field, and Super Mario Bros. included, two controllers, the laser gun, and the giant power-pad thing that you just bent down and pounded with your fists instead of actually “running” on. The high was incredible. My twisted obsession with Mario hit full force this Christmas, as after we’d devoured the Nintendo, every other gift was branded with the Japanese-born Italian plumber—wall stickers, t-shirts, notebooks, a trash can, pencils, blankets, posters, and a trapper-keeper. I was bathed in the 8-bit light of Mario, and I gave myself to it fully.
The Nintendo wasn’t much of a heated fixture in our home, as my brother and I rarely vied for time alone with it. He was never attached to the machine like I was, but was still aroused by its function. Where my brother didn’t really enjoy playing as often, when I was becoming one with the Nintendo, yielding my body to its every pleasure, my brother preferred only to watch. While he was simply an eight year old boy sitting in a beanbag chair watching me try to best the impossible Ninja Gaiden, he was, for me, serving as a cackling court audience, silver robed and gorged on port and exotic cheeses, clapping excitedly and slathering his gaze over the television screen while I was engaged in bloody combat with whomever King Nintendo had ordered.
We couldn’t afford the expensive cartridges to play new games, so renting became the standard. Pre-internet and sans-subscription to any sort of video gaming periodical, a random pick at the rental shop based on whatever third-hand recommendation we’d gathered at school was all we could hope for. Occasionally my mother would come home with a title I’d begged her to snag, fresh from the video rental place and covered in the scratches of rage from other children. Oh, the stuff was abused. While the console itself was made from material of debatable reliability, the controllers were formed from some sort of plastic-like Asian diamond. Frequently they were hurled at the glass of the television, used as impromptu grappling hooks, slammed, banged, and tormented at every turn. Nowadays, with the delicate flat screens and the wireless controllers crafted from flimsy paper, rage has no place, let alone an errant sneeze mid-game that winds up costing you the mortgage.
These rental games though—the abused ones with the scratches and saliva from hundreds of children trying to blow the dust from the exposed chip—they were summertime mana. More than once I remember bidding my mother good-day as she went off to work, leaving me glued to the Nintendo, only a few minutes later for her to return and exclaim, “Oh my God! You’ve been sitting here all day?” My body position un-moved for what was clearly eight or more hours, I’d turn my gaze to the window and notice the darkness. I’d then turn to my mother, “Ah, another one slipped by, but I’m this much closer to the bubble throwing frog king, the evil boss, Wart.” She heads for the kitchen, sits at the dinner table, and simply stares into the nothing, wondering what she’ll name her children in the next life.
Beating Super Mario Bros. 3 at six in the morning on a Sunday before being hauled off to church, was a memory I’ll not easily forget. One of the most acid-trip games ever created, part three of the mustachioed plumber series, was, and perhaps still is, one of the quintessential Nintendo experiences. It was the kind of game that you planned your life around, like the release of a new Back to the Future movie, or the occasional buffet restaurant opening. The high you would get from a Nintendo Christmas was difficult to re-ignite. The drug had coursed through your body and had run things so hot, any gift you’d get from then on paled in comparison. Gifts these days, especially as an adult, never hit the same notes, but we always seem to be chasing that dragon, hounding the shopping malls and scouring the information superhighway for the Next Thing, always left heated, bothered, and with emotions that need channeling. It is this particular high that I’ll always chase, midi-music in my ears, and the cry of the home arcade forever in my soul.