I was born in August, 1990. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember much of my life before 1995. That’s understandable - not a lot of people do. An infant’s brain can’t handle much in terms of keeping track of time. I remember bits and pieces of things, like the apartment my mom and dad lived in when I was born, and vague memories of the house we had on Cape Cod circa 1993. I remember the bar that my dad worked at, called The Emerald Room, in Hyannis. I remember being enchanted by being on an airplane on the way back to Florida.
The most powerful memories, though? Video games.
My dad got my mom a Nintendo Entertainment System when they were still dating in the late 80s. My dad ran a bar out on Captiva Island, Florida, at a resort called ‘Tween Waters. One of the bar backs mentioned that there was this hot, new thing out called “Nintendo”, and my dad, being a bit of a hi-fi junkie, couldn’t pass up on buying some new toy for his setup. So, some time around 1987, he picked up one of the newer iterations of the NES. The particular revision was the one that came bundled with Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt on the same cartridge, along with a Zapper, as well as a book titled “The Official Nintendo Player’s Guide.” He played it occasionally, usually in short bursts, since Super Mario Bros is as challenging as it is fun.
I basically inherited the NES when I was born. At that point, it stopped being my dad’s console and started being mine. I stumbled through Super Mario Bros and got frustrated when I couldn’t shoot the ducks in Duck Hunt. Eventually, we picked up copies of Tetris and Dr. Mario, both of which were games that my mom really enjoyed. She’d spend hours, sitting on our guest room floor, playing level after level of Dr. Mario until I fell asleep, which was her signal that she could do so, too.
My parents always surprised me with some of the best birthday gifts imaginable. I don’t think I had a truly bad birthday when I was a kid. Every birthday and Christmas was astoundingly fun, something to brag about if you experienced it and envy if you didn’t. I was a premature birth: I was born four months early, at a weight of 1.5 pounds, which at the time was the lowest in recorded history, apparently. Doctors strongly recommended that my parents refrained from giving me a name, since they didn’t think I’d live past a week. Clearly, that hasn’t happened yet. I think my parents were trying to make every celebration memorable, since they were probably unsure if I was going to make it another year. I dealt with a ton of health issues: muscle atrophy, vision problems, handwriting issues… It’s no wonder that when I received a Game Boy some time for my first or second birthday, I kept that screen as close to my face as physically possible. I remember pouring hours into Super Mario Land. I didn’t care much for Tetris, but that game grew on me when I got older. I also got a Sega Game Gear when I was 3 or so. I had a grand total of three games for it: Sonic 2, Aladdin, and NBA Jam. I wasn’t aware enough to appreciate NBA Jam, I wasn’t competent enough for Aladdin, and I wasn’t nearly dumb enough to enjoy Sonic 2. To this day, I hate that game. I kept going back to it to see if there was something I was missing, but I never could fully enjoy it. Consequently, my Game Gear stayed in storage until I was significantly older. I didn’t know a soul who actually had one of them when I was a kid. Heck, I barely knew anyone else who played video games. I was, after all, a toddler.
I got a Super Nintendo when I was either two or three. It was a Christmas gift from my mom and dad, like most major consoles. I fell in love with it immediately. I still have my original Super Mario World cart, which I still play quite a bit when I have the time. To me, Super Mario World is even more nostalgic than the original game, probably since I had a solid half-decade of time as a kid to enjoy the Super Nintendo before bigger and better things were available. I remember completing the Yellow Switch Palace at the beginning of the game, pressing the Start Button on the map screen, and scrolling around to all the various places you could potentially visit on the wider world map, and being in absolute awe over it. “There’s a forest?” “Wow, there’s a bridge!”
My parents probably thought I was crazy.
The USA Network used to air a block of cartoons on Saturday mornings, like most TV stations before the mid-2000s. Back in the 90s, they used to air repeats of the Super Mario Bros. Super Show. I used to get super friggin’ hype when it would come on, since the world at large didn’t seem to have much exposure to Nintendo or video games as a whole. Seeing that show was a treat. It was Mario, except he talked! He talked, went on adventures, said a whole lot of dumb, confusing stuff… Alright, the show was kind of garbage, but for a video game super-fan who thought nobody else shared his hobbies, it was still something fun to watch every weekend. I’m sure my parents didn’t feel the same way. I don’t even want to know how much I probably annoyed them. I’ve since tried to re-watch the show as an adult. It’s not great. It’s barely good. I don’t even know if it’s worth watching with a bunch of inebriated buddies just to riff on it.
A lot of my writing is kinda… disjointed. What the hell is the point of all of this? Well, I guess there isn’t much of one. I just felt like writing down my thoughts. I’ve slowly but surely began to re-acquire some of the games that I’ve gotten rid of over the years. Thankfully, I didn’t get rid of everything from my childhood. Far from it - I still have most of it, with the main gap in my collection being my NES library. After pouring through my old copy of the Nintendo Player’s Guide, I remember how much I missed playing those old games that I didn’t have anymore. Most of them were acquired as an adult, but I will never forget sitting in our old master bedroom, reading through the Players’ Guide about how to get to the second quest in The Legend of Zelda, or how the writers managed to make Ring King and Deadly Towers look like decent games that needed to be bought for the challenge or excitement they would bring.
Things really went into high gear for me when I started school in 1995. Coincidentally, that’s also a decent starting point for my memories as a whole. I still remember the first day of Kindergarten, driving out to Sanibel Island to the small, 300-ish person school they had on the road between the main island of Sanibel and the sister island of Captiva, where my dad worked. The sky was overcast at 7 in the morning on that August day, the school building seemed insanely huge to a 5-year-old kid. I happened to be the first student in the classroom that day, so I got a personal introduction to our teacher. I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect, and I definitely struggled for a bit since my vision problems prevented reading a lot of stuff on the blackboard. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, since I met most of my childhood friends that year. We bonded over Super Mario All-Stars and Donkey Kong Country on the SNES. That part of the whole school experience was alright. I wasn’t the fastest learner, unfortunately. My teacher was concerned about my reading skills, or lack thereof. I couldn’t read what she wrote on the chalkboard. She noticed that I didn’t have very good handwriting. I vaguely remember her suggesting to my parents that I be held back a grade, which was something that the school was more than willing to pull the trigger on, since I already barely made the deadline to attend Kindergarten in 1995. I was born in late August. Any later and I’d have had to wait a year. My parents didn’t give up on me, and they fought for me every day. They knew I wasn’t an idiot. They knew I could read. I was just shy. I was embarrassed to speak up in class. They weren’t wrong, but that didn’t solve the problem. What did? Well, like most things, the best way to learn is to forget that you’re learning.
My Kindergarten teacher had an Apple IIGS in her classroom. This was a relic by 1995 standards, completely outclassed by the two-dozen brand-new Gateway 2000 desktop PCs in the school’s computer lab, located two doors down from our classroom. Still, we used the IIGS quite a bit, as going to the computer lab was a once-a-week thing. Most of our time spent on the IIGS was with edutainment software. We’d sit and learn about animals, or vehicles, or scribble out rudimentary drawings on primitive paint programs that hadn’t been at retail since 1988, but we also played a fair bit of actual games on the thing. Every so often, our teacher would let us play a game called Odell Lake, made by MECC, the people who made Number Munchers. Odell Lake was a game where you learned about the various flora and fauna that lived in the titular lake, which is apparently a real place that I haven’t ever been to. I’m sure it’s amazing. I’m not exactly a Field & Stream sort of guy, so I don’t know if I’ll ever actually go to it, but it’s nice to think about.
Odell Lake wasn’t exactly a game for 5-year-olds. Honestly, it’s kind of boring. You basically play as a fish, and depending on the type of fish you play as, you need to avoid various predators and eat various prey that reside in the lake’s waters. The idea is that the game included documentation on the various fish and fauna you will encounter, and you need to read up on it to see what, say, a Mackinaw Trout can do in certain situations, or what a Dolly Varden eats and what it will get eaten by. All of this is a little too complicated for a Kindergartener, but we sure as hell tried. For some reason, I took to the game pretty quickly. It’s not really an action game - I’d classify it as sort of an educational rogue-like. You read the prompts, and reacted to your encounters, either succeeding, or failing and trying again. From what I can remember, there wasn’t really an ending. I played like crazy, and when I wasn’t able to play it myself, I watched others play. I began to understand just what the hell I was actually reading, more than the school work my teacher gave me. One day, she looked up from her desk to see me actually reading, and more importantly, understanding the text on the screen. I could even repeat it out loud. She was overjoyed. There was one issue: It was painfully obvious that I needed glasses.
Being born prematurely had an impact on my vision. Doctors said that the problems stemmed from being in an incubator for five months after I was born. I went to the eye doctor, and got a vision test. They said the results were the worst they had ever seen. My prescription for corrective lenses was pretty severe. I’ve always had to see through super-thick lenses, and for years I had gigantic Rivers Cuomo/Buddy Holly looking frames that probably could have protected me in a nuclear blast. The first thing that I remember seeing out of my new glasses was actually the interior of the Sears that contained the optical department that created my glasses, or at least where they were sent. My mom nearly cried when I couldn’t stop looking at the birds in the sky on the way home. I still kept my Game Boy close to my face, though. That screen was pretty rough to look at, even if you happened to be somewhere with a large source of natural light, like a bathroom, or the surface of the sun. In 1995, I played a lot of Donkey Kong Land. I remember going to the local 7-11 and buying packs of Game Boy and Game Gear trading cards with bubble gum inside. The cards had artwork for various games, and the backs had little hint guides for various titles. I remember really wanting to track down copies of Super Mario Land 2, Yoshi, or Sonic Chaos. I eventually did, but it was when I was a lot older. Games like Yoshi were incredibly interesting to me. I was a big Super Mario World fan, Yoshi was awesome. Having his own game? I thought that was amazing. I remember being incredibly disappointed when I finally played it a decade later when I was in high school, since it isn’t some sort of epic adventure starring everyone’s favorite green dinosaur. In fact, it’s a very simple puzzle game. I still enjoy the game for some strange reason, but that’s due to nostalgia more than anything. Maybe I shouldn’t complain. Yoshi was developed by an up-and-coming company called Game Freak. They basically did it for the money it would bring the company. Why’d they need the money? Well, it was to raise funds for a little RPG they called “Pocket Monsters.”
I always felt a bit like an outcast in school because I loved video games, since it seemed like a very small amount of kids played video games back then. I felt like I was in a tiny, uncool clique along with my small group of friends. All of that changed when I was n third grade, in 1998. I had been sick for a week with a cold. I spent most of it sitting at home, trying to stomach terrible cold medicine and playing Super Mario RPG to pass the time. When I returned to school, Pokemon had released. And every single kid I knew had it and a Game Boy. I begged my parents to get a copy. I had played a lot of Game Boy games, to be sure. Around that time was when my dad an I started going to local pawn shops to find games. Back then, you could actually find stuff since the games I wanted were still relatively new. That’s how I got to finally play the games that I had all the trading cards for, like Metroid II and Super Mario Land 2. It’s how I found out that the Super Game Boy existed, that I could play my Game Boy library on my Super Nintendo, finally able to see that friggin’ screen in any sort of real detail. I remember pouring over the Super Game Boy’s documentation, learning about stuff like Donkey Kong from 1994, which was a different game from the yellow-colored Donkey Kong Land cartridge that I played nonstop. Like Donkey Kong Land, Pokemon had a special cartridge color: either red or blue, depending on the version of the game you bought. My mom brought me to the local K-Mart that was a mile or so away from our house. I loved that place - they used to have have an electronics section that kept every game on display in a huge glass display case. K-Mart was also a place where a lot of games went to die - I still remember seeing a copy of Mega Man 6 for the NES in the case near the Game Boy games. Something like that would be an amazing thing to find in good shape nowadays, but I wasn’t there for NES stuff - my NES console was long gone by 1998. I was there for Pokemon. I picked the Blue version, because I had a blue Game Boy Pocket in addition to my original white Game Boy. Like pretty much every kid in my class, and the rest of the kids across the country, I was hooked. Our third grade teacher actually banned the word “Pokemon” from our class because we were absolutely, positively obsessed with it. We played the game to death, we watched the anime when we could. I couldn’t, because it aired on weekdays at 7AM, and I had to leave for school before that to arrive at school by 8. Every kid I knew had the official Player’s Guide, with all the little stickers in the back. We covered our crayon/pencil boxes with our favorites, we ruined our lunchboxes. We ran around at recess pretending to be Charmander or Pikachu. We all had link cables to trade and battle with each other. A few people even had Game Boy Cameras, that conveniently had some artwork of Pokemon before the game released. It even had a glimpse of Mew, the one Pokemon that wasn’t officially available. It was kind of a badge of honor to print out a pic of Mew from the Game Boy Camera using the Game Boy Printer, a product that about seven people seemed to know about. Mew was more or less a playground urban legend, albeit one that was actually true. It didn’t seem like it was real at first, but as anyone with an internet connection and a Game Shark could tell you, it was very real. Nintendo didn’t officially acknowledge Mew’s existence until the first Pokemon movie was released, and even then, you still couldn’t legally get it in a retail copy of the game. Nintendo did a few contests where the winners could send their carts in to have Mew copied over, but even that was kind of hollow - there wasn’t some sort of epic encounter for the Pokemon, you just received it. There was no fanfare, no battle, no struggle to catch the little bastard.
I have a ton of fondness for the video games I grew up with, but I was getting older. I was eight years old. Practically an adult, to my third grade brain. As fond as my memories for Pokemon are, third grade kind of sucked for me. I was bullied quite a bit. A lot of people I didn’t want to be around made it their mission to make my life hell. Honestly, I think that’s the first time I ever really felt depressed. Some kids would mess with me, I’d react by getting mad, and they’d act like I was the one who instigated the whole ordeal, meaning that I was the one who got in trouble while the other kids just laughed behind the teacher’s back. It drove me crazy, and I didn’t deal with it in any way that made them stop. Honestly, I probably made things worse since I tended to overreact to things instead of keeping a level head, which didn’t help my case when people messed with me. Playing video games was an escape for me, and it’s one that worked, for the most part. It’s part of the reason why I sunk so hard into the medium. The next few years were a blur of Pokemon, Super Smash Bros, Mega Man X5, and the absolute latest and greatest titles for everything under the sun. I got my Game Boy Color at the same K-Mart where I got Pokemon at, and I played the damn thing until the screen started to bleed. The Game Boy Advance followed suit, bought on launch day at the same K-Mart. I still despise the voices in Super Mario Advance, and I distinctly remember hearing about the secret shop in the Zelda Oracle games that could only be found if you were lucky enough to play the game on a Game Boy Advance.
I didn’t get back into the older stuff until after my first year of college. I wish it was for better reasons. See, my mom was diagnosed with cancer in Summer 2009. I wasn’t the sort of teenager to go out and get drunk or high, so I tended to my fear and frustrations with video games. Luckily, a local Play N Trade opened up in Cape Coral, FL. Back in 2009, “retro” games were almost literally a dime a dozen. NES games were $3 across the board, SNES games were $5, as were N64. For very little pocket money, you could load up on nostalgia for a fraction of what it would cost for a copy of Madden or Halo. As a late teenager with an addictive personality that spurred from nearly two decades of being spoiled rotten by loving, caring parents, I kinda went nuts and bought literally everything I could possibly get my hands on. When I say “everything”, I mean it. I had games that I had no reason to play, like Platoon on the NES, or Home Improvement on the Super Nintendo. No person needs those games. Nobody needs a copy of Milo’s Astro Lanes on the N64, no one has ever clamored to buy Boxxle on the Game Boy. I was buying stuff to fill a hole, because I didn’t know how to deal with my mom being sick. On top of that, my dad was getting sicker, too. He was always in relatively-poor health due to a life of crazy medical issues, so when he got sick, I just doubled down. My parents were fine with it, since I wasn’t going out and getting wasted every weekend like most other college students. Plus, they had no intention of leaving me. They loved me. I loved them. They wanted nothing more in their lives but to see me happy. So I was spoiled even more. When they passed away, 11 months apart, in 2009 and 2010, I was completely devastated. I really feel like that I'm a different person, now. But I've always tried to keep that little part of my childhood alive by holding onto my game collection.
I still have most of the games that I grew up with. Not a day goes by where I don't think of how they mean to me. I don't think I'll ever quite get rid of them, at least not without a very good reason (ie: getting married, really needing the money, etc...)
Video games shape our lives in ways we can't imagine. I think we all have special, or even mundane memories about the games we've played over the years. For me, it takes me back to being a kid, playing Super Mario Land at the local Firestone while waiting for my dad's Lincoln Town Car to get fixed, or the surprise birthday party in 1996 when I got Kirby Super Star, which is still my favorite game of all time. Most importantly, these memories keep my parents alive in some way, deep inside my memories. And I don't think I'd trade that for all the money or power in the world.