My first time was with an Atari 2600.
I was six. We were introduced by Chris Moran, a mutual friend who’d already exposed me to numerous cultural staples: Duck Tales, kielbasa, swearing… but this one was big.
I was nervous at first. That frog seemed awfully fragile, and the cars just kept on coming. I did the deed, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. That would come, with time.
In those days, video game graphics were like Rorschach tests: maybe it was a firebreathing fish-monster that you were maneuvering through the sea, or maybe it was an overview of a guy in a protective suit shooting a gun, or maybe it was a spaceship zapping hostile alien spaceships. Sometimes Chris and I disagreed on these details, but we still loved the games. Our favorites were Vanguard, which featured a blob shooting dots at other blobs, Combat, which featured two blobs shooting dots at each other, Dig Dug, which featured a blob shooting lines at other blobs, and Missile Command, which featured a blob shooting dots at lines. The worst game was E.T. Playing E.T. went like this: (1) Put the E.T. cartridge into the Atari 2600. (2) Turn on the power. (3) Fall into a large hole from which there is no way out. (4) Turn off E.T. and play Dig Dug instead.
Chris got a second Atari 2600 somewhere, as well as duplicates of several games, and he gave me the extras for my seventh birthday. I blushed, sensing that things were getting serious. Mom and Dad didn’t approve, of course, but the Atari and I weren’t sharing a bedroom, and they decided to just stand back and let my infatuation burn itself out.
In addition to Chris’s extras, I also inherited my cousins’ collection of Atari games, as they’d gotten a Nintendo Entertainment System.
One by one, all of my friends took up with Nintendos. Instead of monochromatic blobs shooting little dots at each other, their games had polychromatic blobs shooting big dots at each other. My Atari 2600 didn’t look so sexy anymore.
They say breaking up is hard, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you’ve stayed the course so long that in the end, you’re just there out of habit. You think to yourself, I know there’s more than this. And you’re so sure of it that you can walk away without feeling anything.
Don’t get me wrong. The Atari 2600 will always have a special place in my heart, and I have nothing but fondness for it. We just weren’t meant to be.
The Nintendo had Super Mario Bros., which set the standard for the next decade. Before Mario, the best games had one pattern. Hazards would grow faster or more numerous, but you saw the whole formula in ten seconds. Mario, though, had different atmospheres for different levels, and most levels had unique maps. It wasn’t about high score anymore, but discovery.
Mario’s controls were more nuanced, too. In Pitfall!, Atari’s closest try, you walked a fixed speed, and jumped a fixed height and distance. Every threat was, “Jump in this interval, or you lose.” But Mario had amazing freedom of movement, so the game could offer more elaborate sequences of threats, and you could navigate them in countless different ways.
Also, Nintendo games were evocative. Where the Atari had crude shapes, the Nintendo had enough detail to create atmosphere. In Castlevania, you hunted Dracula in a castle full of undead minions, with a bleak color scheme, eerie music, and startling sound effects. Metroid marooned you on a planet of secret passages, dead-ends, and hostile aliens. The Legend of Zelda put you in a faerie tale realm with monster-infested dungeons and a missing princess.
Video games had begun to capture my imagination just like favorite books and movies. What they lacked in pure storytelling, they made up for by putting me in the action. To a kid, stories are vicarious. Treasure Island made me want to be Jim Hawkins. Star Wars made me want to be Luke Skywalker.
Zelda gave me the chance.
After the Atari 2600 and I went our separate ways, I spent some time on my own, learning to like myself for myself. I fooled around with the Nintendo and other consoles at friends’ houses. I’m embarrassed to say I even sampled the stand-up machines that loitered in seedier public buildings, waiting to go a round with any guy who’d open up his wallet.
I was young. I had urges.
I carried on that way, expecting nothing more from the world, until my twelfth birthday. That was when my grandparents gave me a Super Nintendo, and changed my life. What I had with that console was like nothing I’d ever had with any before, and nothing I’ll ever have again. You know how they say everyone has their One? Well, it was my One.
My parents tried to pry us apart. They said it wasn’t good enough for me. They tried to limit our time together, so we snuck around behind their backs. In the end, it only drove us closer together.
I know everyone sounds boring and foolish describing the perfection they’ve known in another, and the way it made them feel, but I have to try anyway. The Super Nintendo was like meeting the Nintendo again, now an adult. I discovered that her many pleasant traits had flourished more than I could have imagined, and her few unpleasant ones had smoothed over into something subtle and charming. The games looked and sounded even better. They played even more smoothly. Mario left behind the irritating dungeon mazes. Metroid kept just enough of the bizarre dead ends, and Zelda just enough of the maddening puzzles, to preserve their feel but not their frustration.
I spent the best years of my life with the Super Nintendo. It taught me to be a man. I still remember the day, playing Megaman X at Dan Gerhard’s house, when I wondered aloud when we’d get a new Mario sequel.
“I’m starting to get into more serious games,” Dan said dismissively.
I felt embarrassed. It was time to grow up. From then on, my preference leaned more toward Final Fantasy.
The Super Nintendo was there for me through junior high and into high school, but then it fell on hard times. It came from a fickle parentage. A new favorite child, the N64, was born, and the Super Nintendo was left penniless in the street.
I wish I’d never even given the other girl a look. But, especially at that hormonal age, how could I not? I don’t claim to be a saint.
If you never played it, the N64 is a drunk girl with too much makeup and perfume, slurring embarrassing innuendos at you. You try to strike up a conversation, and she looks at you like you just clipped your toenails into her beer. Then you spend the night rattling around your empty apartment, wondering if the problem is you.
Well the problem isn’t you. Don’t even go down that rabbit hole. Stand in front of the mirror. Look yourself in the eye. Say it. There are many problems, and none of them are you.
The first problem is 3-D. The N64 came in the wake of an excellent PC game called Doom, the quintessential first-person shooter, and suddenly, everything was 3-D. I woke up one morning, and Mario had a boob job, a power wardrobe, and a personal trainer.
“I loved you for who you are!” I said, but it was like I didn’t even know who he was.
“I’m going 3-D,” he said. “If you aren’t willing to keep up, then you don’t deserve me anymore.”
There wasn’t a hint of emotion in his voice. I understood I’d already lost him.
The second problem with the N64 is that ridiculous controller, which I think was inspired by the typewriter in David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch—the one that morphs into a thicket of keys, and then into a giant cockroach. How are you supposed to play video games on that?
I was no stranger to relationships. I’d worked through similar problems. The Atari 2600’s joystick, for instance, only had a single button, but because the controller was almost symmetrical, I often ended up raging at Pitfall Harry for his insubordination, until Chris Moran patiently explained to me that Pitfall Harry was doing the opposite of what I wanted because I was holding the joystick upside down again.
The Nintendo’s two-button controller opened a new can of worms. Mario would be leisurely strolling toward one of those bottomless pits—yawn—but when it came time to hop over it, he’d instead break into a mad dash, and I’d watch wide-eyed and paralyzed as he plummeted to his death.
Already, the Super Nintendo controller had more buttons than most of its games used. Early on, at the first sign of a threat, I’d either stare down stupefied, or say a Hail Mary and start mashing. But at least the controller was easy to handle, and the buttons were sensibly arranged.
Later video game controllers blend in my memory into one triple-pronged abomination with buttons of different shapes and sizes, not only on the face of the controller but also on the shoulders and the underside, plus several analog sticks and directional pads in creative places. The N64 controller didn’t quite pioneer all of these mutations, but it’s the point where common sense falls away and the nightmares begin.
I ran back home to my Super Nintendo. I confessed my infidelity, and promised, “Never again.”
I spent many more happy years with the Super Nintendo, and loved it for who it was, disregarding the fast-paced world outside.
We drifted apart in the end, but amicably, and nowadays, when we cross paths, we’re still more than friends.
There have been others since. Some have been pretty good, and they too have taught me about adulthood. The PlayStation, for instance, taught me that not everything can be true love, and that close enough can be fun, and rewarding, and healthy.
But mostly, the others were a downward spiral of disappointment, until disappointment no longer disappointed, because it was all I’d expected. You get so used to it, you sometimes even convince yourself you’re still doing it because you want it.
Your friends talk you into playing first-person shooters on those abominable controllers. Aiming the damn gun is like trying to land a rocket on Mars. Your kill tally: Zero. Every time. You used to be good at video games.
Your friends bring out a guitar-shaped controller. “Want to play Rock Band?” they ask.
Thinking you’ve outsmarted them, you say, “Only if I can be lead singer.”
To your dismay, they eagerly pass you a microphone, and now you’re trying to wheeze out “Vasoline” by The Stone Temple Pilots.
Apparently, even in video games you can get booed off the stage. You decide you’ll just stick with karaoke.
One day, you catch sight of your reflection. Your cheeks are unshaven, and your eyes baggy. Your thumbs hurt. You don’t feel anything but used.
You have an epiphany: Life is a rich and vibrant thing, full of ten-hour shifts, and health insurance applications, and standing in line at the welfare office. You’re not going to waste it away saving the stupid old world. You’re going to go out there and live it.