Two things come to mind when I think back to the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, or just “The Nintendo”. The first is that I almost never had one, and had it been up to my parents I probably never would have. The second is that, truthfully, most of the most influential games of my lifetime were not games I played on the NES. That first Nintendo system was my gateway drug, the pot or prescription painkillers that led me to the wonderful world of crystal meth that was the Super NES.
That probably wasn’t the best metaphor I could have gone with.
It was Christmas… I want to say 1988, but it could have been 1987. I had long since resigned myself to my fate: my parents were convinced that my Atari 2600 was enough video game for one household, and that this whole “Nintendo” thing was just either more of the same or a fad that would soon pass. No amount of references to blurry, squinty images of The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros. screen shots in the Sears/Roebuck Christmas catalog would convince them otherwise. No, there would be no Nintendo for me. I would spend the rest of my life condemned to playing Mike Tyson’s Punch Out! or Spelunker (or any other number of game cartridges that stunk of cigarettes, rented from a local mom-and-pop video store) at my friend Steven’s, or every other game ever made at my friend Jason’s, i.e. that kid you knew whose parents bought him every game ever made.
I am the youngest of six children, but it’s more complicated than that. My dad was married twice. His first wife passed away when their two children, Jimmy and Regina, were still young, and he married my mom when they were in their early teens. Now it’s important to note: although I was always AWARE of the details of these familial connections, it never OCCURRED to me until my early 20’s that Jimmy and Regina were, in reality, my half-brother and half-sister. They were always just my way-older brother and sister, a decade and a half separating us as opposed to the two-years-like-clockwork between Maggie, Lizz, Mary Cate, and myself.
Thinking back on Christmas ‘88 (or ‘87) it occurs to me that the whole thing may have been a set-up, and my parents may well have known exactly what was going to happen. In my memory, though, they were as surprised as any of us, although much more frowny in their expression of said surprise. As I said: I knew that a life with the NES was not in the cards for me. Imagine my surprise, then, when my brother Jim, home for Christmas with his wife Christine, hauled out a big wrapped box, a “family” gift.
You already know what it was.
Let’s get real: this was a “family” gift in name only, and in hindsight my parents, on a limited budget but knowing there was only one thing I really wanted, or maybe not wanting to spend so much on me in comparison to what they were spending on my siblings, may have set the whole thing up with Jimmy. But again, as I remember it, they were kind of pissed at him and the semi-smug enjoyment he took in watching me unwrap the present and going ape-poop bananas, which really is how we should all always get to react to Christmas presents.
That Christmas was spent stomping Koopas and hunting ducks. I even (begrudgingly) let Jimmy play for a little while. But again (and I can’t make this clear enough) the only member of the family really interested, long-term, in the NES and the hours of joy it would bring, was me.
The introduction of a Nintendo to our household brought regulations that were swiftly pushed to the wayside, because what were my parents going to do? I was already an honor student and a pretty well-behaved kid, I was already doing household chores for a relative bargain-rate allowance; there was very little they could reasonably hold over my head as a device through which to dole out to me my Nintendo playing time.
The NES laid out the groundwork for the standards to which I would hold my video-gaming life. This was where so many of the great franchises of gaming were born (even those that would later move exclusively to other systems), though many of those franchises would not see their best incarnation on the 8-bit NES. This was just a start, and I think on some level I understood that even then, I understood that the games I played and loved and devoured were… incomplete. Imperfect. Part of a larger process. So the number of stand-alone NES games I now point to as being influential or impactful are surprisingly few. Remember: this was a brave new world of mass-consumer home gaming, the first time the console gaming experience was beginning to rival in quality the product being pushed on PC or in the arcade. “Nintendo” was the battle cry of a burgeoning culture, synonymous with video games the way “Coke” was synonymous with cola.
My point? Moreso than arguably any other console system, the NES sure had a lot of half-assed crap on it, mixed in with all the classic games that we remember so fondly.
But who wants to talk about the crap? Not me. No, not when I spent a good five years doing nothing but playing… *deep breath* Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, The Legend of Zelda, Combat, Ikari Warriors, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, Mega Man 3, Castlevania, Contra, Tecmo Bowl, Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, Donkey Kong Classics, Castlevania 3, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game, Super Mario Bros. 3, Ice Hockey, RBI Baseball, The Adventures of Lolo, Bionic Commando, City Connection, Mighty Bomb Jack, Adventure Island, Metroid, Double Dragon, Kung Fu, Double Dragon 2, Ninja Gaiden, River City Ransom, Battletoads, Shadowrun, StarTropics, The Goonies 2, Gradius 2, Excitebike, Bubble Bobble, Blaster Master, Dr. Mario…
I’m not writing about each and every one of these games right now. And I’ve undoubtedly forgotten to mention some. But… man. My childhood was AWESOME.