Videogames were an alien concept to me until the Christmas of 1989. Actually, to be completely honest, it was the Boxing Day of 1989. The traditional tag-along commercial holiday honouring the return of unwanted gifts and day-after-Christmas-sale extravaganzas across Canada. And in our family, it was also the traditional day when me and my brother would be loaded into the car and shuttled off to visit our dad in grandpa's smoke filled apartment for an afternoon of awkward "also-ran" Christmas.
Now normally, Christmas with my dad and grandpa was not exactly up to Hallmark standards. Even at the young age of six, I was prepared for a handful of bargain basement off-brand G.I Joe's with the price tags still attached and a dinner of KFC take-out. For some reason Santa never seemed to try as hard with the gifts he left with my dad.
But this year was different. Even looking back I can never figure out my dad's moods or motives. Most of the time he was neglectful, surly, even angry, but there were occasions when he'd break out his "#1 Dad" T-shirt and try to impress us. This was one of those times. In an act of true "weekend dad" overcompensation, he proudly presented me and my brother with a Nintendo Entertainment System - and in that moment forever altered the course of my young life.
Our confused glances must have disappointed him.
Don't get me wrong, it was a lovely gesture. I'll take uncomfortably overcompensating dad over surly deadbeat dad any day of the week. And it was certainly an extravagant gift; I would have been happy with the $20 Cobra H.I.S.S Tank I circled out in the Sears Catalogue. But unlike, I assume, other children of the era, me and my brother didn't really get
videogames. We didn't know what Nintendo was. So the dramatic impact of the unwrapping was kind of wasted on us. Sorry dad.
Remember, this was back in the late-80's when having a home VHS was a symbol of wealth and luxury, and the internet didn't exist to inform kids about all the cool new toys they were missing. Not only did we not know what a Nintendo was, I'm not even sure if we knew what videogames
were. We must have seen or played a few arcade games before plugging in the grey plastic box that would shape the rest of my childhood that day, but I can't remember with any certainty. All I remember is having it explained to me that the Nintendo was a sort of toy you played with on the TV. Kind of like my brother's Captain Power
, some children of the 80's might remember, was a live action TV show about a cyberpunk dystopia where machines ruled a wracked and ruined earth, and the hopes of humanity rested with a handful of rebel soldiers in cheap futuristic armour. Think The Matrix
by way of Power Rangers
. The big ticket jets from the accompanying toy line could interact with the show, either by shooting the robot's glowing chest panels in any random episode, or with separately sold “training” tapes. Miss too many robots or obstacles, and the pilot would be violently ejected from the toy jet/light-gun
So it was a toy line designed to train a generation of would be freedom fighters how to fight back against the robot scourge. The 80's were a pretty cool time to be a kid.
My father had purchased the 1988 Action Set which included the NES, two controllers, the beloved Zapper Lightgun, and the classic dual game cartridge Super Mario Bros/Duckhunt
. The Zappers inclusion in the bundle was a lucky turn of events, it allowed us a smooth transition from the post-apocalyptic robot warriors and glowing I-beams of Captain Power
, to the tall grass and wild geese of Duckhunt
. The Zapper was pure and simple. Unlike the abstract idea of a control pad, with it's alien cross-shaped directional and inscrutable buttons, we knew the general gist of a ray-gun. Point at the robot, Cobra soldier, or in this case, duck, you wanted to die and pull the trigger.
Putting it like that seems slightly sad now. That as kids we would know how to work a gun before we knew how to play a videogame - and we're Canadian for Christ's sake. But regardless of the troublesome social and moral implications, the Zapper would become our gentle introduction into the world of Nintendo. We booted up a game of Duckhunt
and got comfortable with the strange new device, trading the Zapper around the room. It was an atypically fun and communal family moment at our Grandpa's apartment.
Of course, dad turned it off after missing a few times and suffering the jeering laughter of the pixilated hunting dog. This was a sadly typical display of poor sportsmanship on his part.
to crutch on, it was time to tackle the strange business of the control pad. And we sucked. I mean, we bombed. I don't know what it's like these days when you hand a kid a control pad, maybe the cultural familiarity helps ease them into it. Maybe we were just some dumb, dumb
kids, but back then, in 1989, you might as well have sat me down in front of a pipe organ and demanded I play Beethoven's 5th.
Fortunately, we had several options to hone our technique with.
In an uncharacteristic display of foresight, Dad had rented a few extra titles for the occasion. Another lovely gesture that resulted in confused reactions, and another concept that had to be explained to me multiple times – why couldn't we just keep all of the games again? So, we own the system, we own the Mario game (which we determined was WAY too hard after being defeated by the first Goomba 6 times in a row), but we have to give back Boxing
(actually Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!
) and Mad Scientist (Gyromite
was the game we played the most that day by virtue of it's sheer harmlessness. Unlike the unstoppable forward march of the Goombas that populated the Mushroom Kingdom, or the merciless fists of the infamous bully Glass Joe, Gyromite
was a more sedate affair. Literally.
Game mode B, which we eventually stumbled upon, featured poor Professor Hector sleepwalking towards his doom. Only the player, armed with the ability to manipulate the colour coded pistons of his nightmarish lab, could prevent him from falling to his death or running afoul of the monstrous green bird creatures and terrifying walls by altering his painstakingly
Actually, this isn't entirely true. Gyromite
was one of the few games designed to work with Nintendo's R.O.B, a physical robot sidekick who moved at an equally painstakingly
slow pace as the Professor. This was entirely unknown to us at the time, we assumed the second player controller worked in this mode simply because the NES liked me - the younger brother and therefore automatic-forever-and-all time second player - better.
This ignorance was probably a blessing. Had I known the game was designed to function with a robotic buddy instead of the weak soft flesh of a human, my 6 year old heart would have exploded in my chest right then and there. Another Christmas ruined.
is probably one of the worst retail games to ever made it to market that actually functions. Sure, you can point to games like E.T
or Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing
as even more grim displays of incompetence, but they're broken. They suck because of an complete lack of product testing, morally bankrupt business practices, and an enthusiastic disrespect for the consumer. Gyromite
works absolutely as intended.
Which I guess makes it kind of worse in a way.
In any case, the combination of the haltingly slow sleepwalking Professor, and the total lack of depth to the gameplay (one button raises and lowers the blue pistons, the other does the same for the red ones) allowed our freshly birthed gamer legs to take their first shambling steps towards success. When the Professor made it all the way through to the other side of the level for the first time - an act that now seems all but impossible to fail – we nearly broke the coffee table in our celebrations. We were really good at Gyromite
As the day passed we eventually went back to the other games. Our confidence bolstered, our familiarity with the controller growing, we were ready to take on the all virtual contenders.
While the finer nuances of timing, blocking, dodging, or using any technique other than the high right handed punch might have eluded us, we eventually took down Glass Joe in a stunning 3 round victory. A pair of virtual boxing champions who insisted on trading the controller between rounds to keep a real fight from breaking out.
So maybe the next boxer proved a little tougher, what did it matter? Once we took down Glass Joe we knew we could win. We knew that the buttons we hit on the pad made the little man (Little Mac) on the screen do things. The better the way we pressed those buttons, the better the way he did those things. All we had to do was find the better way and sooner or later we'd take down however many fighters there were in Boxing
. Like, all 4 or 5 of them.
It might have been a rudimentary understanding of how games worked, but it was basically correct. It was an understanding that took us back into the world of Mario
, back to conquer the Goomba.
It was tough going. After sacrificing a few more lives, we eventually figured out the timing to stomp on the first Goomba. Capturing the mushroom was a dicey affair and took a few tries to nail down, but becoming "Super Mario" and hearing that sweet sound effect was worth it. Jumps proved even more difficult, the wiring in our brain that would sync the complicated act of holding forward and jump at the same time not quite online yet. Sometimes Mario would ineffectually hop up and down at the edge of a pit, seemingly terrified to go any further. Sometimes he'd heedlessly charge directly to his doom like a lemming. I was six years old, dumb as hell, and determined to make it work.
Ignorance comes with a wonderful sort of enthusiasm. We didn't know jack shit about games at that point, we had no knowledge of conventions or typical game structure. To us, anything was possible. I expected to see the Princess after every jump. We had no clue about how long a game should be or what to expect. Days later, when we would beat the first world, it was a genuine shock to discover that our Princess was in another castle, not a familiar trope.
But that would be another day. I don't remember getting any further that night than the mushroom tree-tops of World 1-3. It was late, little boys were tired, and Boxing Day was drawing to a close. Mario's adventure came to an end after several "one last tries" and I whined like a baby when the NES was shut off and packed away.
Coincidentally, it's the only time I can remember where I actually wanted to spend more time with my dad.
It was a Christmas that would change my life. They say there is no one more zealous than a convert, and that day I became a born again gamer. Videogames would become my primary hobby, interest, and avenue for examining the world from that point on and through my entire childhood. A rabbit hole I would only sink deeper into over the years until the harsh rays of puberty would compel me to broaden my horizons.
But that would be years later. My gamer story is about how a stout little Italian, a wimp with a glass jaw, and an ageing scientist would doom the formative years of my life to the dark corners of our basement den, and the warm glow of the 8 and 16-bit era.