My first gaming experience was at a neighbor's house playing Joust on his Atari. I hated it. I hated having to hit the button over and over to fly, I hated that I didn't feel like I could control much of anything, and I hated that the characters were a bunch of stupid blocks that barely looked like anything. Then again, I hated the kid I was playing it with so my opinion on it may have been skewed a bit. He used to randomly beat me up, until one day my grandmother told me to punch him in the face. I did, and it was great, but I still associated video games with the idiot next door for a few years.
A few years after that, we visited my cousins who lived an hour away. I can't even describe what visiting my two cousins was like. These guys were literally the coolest people in the universe to my brother and I, and we would do anything, anything to impress them. They didn't abuse it or anything, though. These were genuine Cool Dudes, the type who would give you an entire crate of comic books because they were done with them, or the ones who would pass you a handful of video games and tell you to just keep them. I would have killed someone if they'd asked me to. I probably still would now for how nice they were to a couple of goofy kids growing up. I sure didn't treat any of my cousins as nice as they had when I was their age.
When I walked into my cousins' house, I barreled through the front door to see what they were doing. One of them was sitting in front of a little 13 inch tv on the floor of a side room, square controller in his hand. The sun had almost set, and the dim light of the screen turned his skin and clothes a pale white with its glow. I looked at the screen, seeing a couple of guys laying punches into each other. This was far better than the crap my jerk neighbor had played. These characters actually looked like boxers, and it actually looked like they were standing in a ring. This is the part where you assume I'm going to say he was playing Mike Tyson's Punch Out!!, but actually, it was Ring King. And it blew my mind.
I don't know how long I watched him play, but soon he handed me the controller without even asking me. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with the hunk of plastic that got shoved into my hand, and it showed. I just wiggled the character around, stopping periodically to throw ineffective punches for a little while before returning to my chaotic dance. It couldn't have taken that long for the other character to put me on the mat; I know it couldn't have. That single fight felt like it lasted a half hour, and I was mesmerized the entire time. This felt different than those Atari games I played. This wasn't tied to a human being that made me miserable. This was magic, with my pressing a button making real athletes take bone-crushing swings at each other.
I think my brain just glossed over the weird stuff between matches.
I eventually passed the controller back. It was probably the second I lost, but I went on to watch my cousin lay the most vicious pounding on the other guy that I'd ever seen another human being dole out. Over the years, my cousins would prove themselves to be brass gods at video games, ascending from on high to accomplish impossible feats. They beat Bad Dudes while I sat there with my jaw hanging open. They were the first people I knew who could beat the dam level in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the guys who managed to get further in a day at Tiny Toon Adventures than my brother and I had gotten in a year. This was the first time I witnessed what they could do, and while their feats really aren't that impressive any more, I still remember standing in awe not just at the games, but at the sheer force of will and skill it took to win. I wanted that power. I wanted to feel what it was like to win like that.
That was a long time coming, though. We went back home, but my brother and I never forgot about the gray box my cousins had. We wanted an NES as well, and we both set to work looking it up so that we could ask our parents for one. The number written down beside it in the catalogues was so large it was incomprehensible, and was right up there with asking for a skyscraper or a gold mansion. It may as well have had a million dollar price tag for how likely we felt it was that we would ever get one, but as a child, you try anyway. There are no hopeless causes to someone that young.
We had underestimated my parents, though. They didn't always give us what we wanted, but around Christmas time, all bets were off. I never learned until I was much older just how much they'd gone through to get us what we'd asked for. I didn't know that mom drove six hours after a full day's shift just to get my brother the aforementioned copy of Tiny Toon Adventures. I had no idea that dad camped out so that he could be sure that he got me a gold edition of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Neither of us knew just how hard they worked every year, how much effort they put into making sure we got the handful of things we asked for at Christmas.
The NES was a unique purchase in that we got to see it in advance, though. During the Summer, my parents had taken us down to somewhere in Maine. I remember precisely nothing about the trip except for a single, insane moment when I first saw the NES that was going to come home with us. I don't remember anything about talking mom and dad into the purchase, nothing about whether we begged or played it cool, but what I do remember is this giant conveyor belt coming out of an orange wall far over our heads. It was almost surreal, waiting at the end of that belt and knowing what was coming down it. When that black box slid out of the adjoining room and began its slow slide toward my brother and I, I couldn't believe it. It just didn't seem real. That probably helped, because the next time I saw that system again was Christmas.
We'd moved by then. I was far from the idiot neighbor, but also far from the few friends I had in the old neighborhood. No one in the new school seemed to want anything to do with me, not after the amazing first impression I made by throwing up at the bottom of the slide in the playground equipment. It was two years before I made any friends in that town; two years where my greatest hope was indifference from the other kids. At least indifferent kids wouldn't throw me down or scare me. Not that anyone needs to be told, but being the weird kid sucks.
All of my troubles were forgotten that Christmas morning, though, when we finally got to open up our NES. We even got an ancient tv to play it on so we didn't take up the tv in the family room, and a copy ofTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to keep us busy. My alcoholic uncle, in a rare moment of sobriety, also bought us a copy of Double Dragon. It was one of the only gifts he'd ever bought for us in his entire life, and I wish I'd kept it. I sold it a few years later at a yard sale for $2, and it's something I have a hard time forgiving myself for. We often complain about how materialistic we can be as a society, but sometimes an object is infused with meaning and love by the person who gave it to you. I took the only thing that symbolized that there was a good man buried under the years of pain in my uncle and traded it for two dollars.
My first few moments with the system were swift and brutal. I was run over instantly by the first steamroller in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, charged right into the face of the first Goomba in Super Mario Bros, and got slapped around by the first Williams in Double Dragon. It was like learning to use a limb you'd only just figured out that you had. Gone was the magical feeling of seeing someone do something when I hit a button, replaced with a drill sergeant who demanded skill and demanded it this instant. These games were slaps to the face, telling me to get my act together and learn how to play or get real comfortable with the game over screen.
I would like to say that I did get better, but to be honest, it was brother who, almost effortlessly got further than me at every single one of those games. To this day, it still makes my blood boil when he passes me in something we're both playing. All that did was make me hunker down and try even harder. Soon, I was hopping across Super Mario Bros, never making it all that far but still playing with some kind of skill. I could make it to the twin Abobos in Double Dragon on each attempt after a bit. I even almost made it to the end of the dam in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
I wasn't winning these games, though. That wouldn't happen for a few years until Kirby's Dreamland hit the Game Boy. Even so, I kept wanting to play these games. I was about as skilled at them as I was at playing sports (Not at all), but I could visibly see the progress I was making. I knew when I got an enemy down to lower health than I did the last time. I knew when I got further in the dam than before. I could see the level counter going up as I jumped to another flagpole. These games should have absolutely broken me, but I still came back to them over and over again. There was something about the small victories that made them all worthwhile, a taste of victory that the weird kid with no friends had never felt before. Wining felt pretty good for this loser kid, no matter how small the scale.
Games have stood for a lot of things for me since those days. They're a solace from the world when it seems like you have no friends. They're a place you can escape to when you feel like you can't do anything right. They're small victories when you feel like you can never win. They're a sense of accomplishment when you think you're only capable of failure. They're memories of good times with family you hardly see, of the generosity of a man who lived a life of unspoken pain and sadness, and of how hard some loving parents work to ensure there is magic in their child's life. They're friendship, love, and strength against adversity, all through hitting a couple of buttons and making the stupid pixellated man move around. This is why I love them. This is why I can't imagine my life without them.
Years later, as I was about to move out on my own, I found a boxed copy ofRing King at a yard sale for twenty five cents. The old guy selling it said he just had it left over from when his son moved out. It still had the plastic tab stuck to the back that had held it to a shelf in the store. I happily gave up the quarter and took the game home, popping it into my NES. It was terrible; a goofy mess that should have turned me off games the second I touched it. Even so, I smiled, thinking back on the days when a clumsy, lame kid looked on the screen and saw something magical.