Tightening Of My Skull.

Frustraiting moments in 8bit gaming
April 06, 2009
The seventh year of my life was waning.
The summer had long burned out of the sky before the trees shed their shade and stood skeletal in frosted moon silver. My face, caked in Joker make-up, had already peered into a pillow case fat with candy proffered by strangers. Now the wind howled in the cold, a mad spirit wandering blind in a white world.
The windows of the advent calender opened one day at a time, the waxy chocolate revealed and eaten.

The houses dressed in lights, the nights lit up in live, Technicolor fire. We wrote a list of demands all parts greedy, absurd and innocent. In thirty days I would be eight years old, in one week we would enter the final decade of the millennium. All events out of reach, out of mind, waiting in whatever smokey closet the future hid in.
December 25, 1989 was all that I knew, I cared to know...to hell with yesterday and the same with tomorrow. It was custom to open the stockings first for my brothers and I, while dad made coffee and mum had her tea at an hour of the morning that swims around the heads of adults, mocking their groggy expressions. The ritual evisceration of the stockings by foaming mad children had ended in the living room. We chewed the chocolate shells of kinder eggs, eyeballing the haul under the tree. Sizing up our prize, feeling a spin in my stomach when my gaze fell across a shape under the wrapping that could only be an action figure. Hoping the rectangles, soft to the touch, were not my new clothes.
We open our gifts Christmas day. Our dad,(then as now), tilts the colourfully attired packages to read the names and hands out gifts one by one. We would wait to see what one would open , moving to the next, tear off the wrapping and relish in that moment until the next present is handed out. Some gifts came in threes, to avoid fighting. I opened a Batmobile, Nick would also open a Batmobile chances are Dan will open a Batmobile before the tree had nothing left to offer. We had our stash of toys, our books and clothes and candies piled beside us.
Our eyes heavy from what little sleep we allowed, stared at a final, curious box. It was large and it was mysterious as it bore all three of our names. What was this strange gift, this one gift for all us boys? Six small hands lashed out as claws, penetrating my vision as surreal and vivid as cartoons. The wrapping was thick, multiple papers reinforced by a roll of tape. Now the box was bare, shed it's holiday skin and answered for the first time with the sensation of falling in a dream: what is this curious box?

Nintendo. Entertainment. System.
My eyes ballooned, darting across this grand and mythic creation. Taking in the triumph burning in the cheeks of my brothers, the faces of my mum and dad. This was ours. I shook, I laughed, I pumped my fist in the air and hugged my mum. I was Ahab hauling my whale behind me, stumbling on smooth stones. This moment stays in a loop, existing in a realm of thoughts and memories that never flicker and fade. These are my own stars.
I entered a forty-eight coloured world of blocky people and creatures that formed schools of thought on what the imagination could produce, tear apart and recreate. The symphony of electronic beeps and boops swirling, jumping down repetitive beats, entering my ears and staying there long after they were cut from existence. The dreamy sway of Super Mario Bros. world 1-3 was an aural first, there would be years of distinctive aquatic level music from Nintendo to follow. All with a blue I've never seen anywhere else but in this pixielated home.

I had in my hands the means to control lives, vicariously seek out treasures unknown...live out adventures in the sewers. Their names were flicked out of our mouths as natural as breathing, we all had our favorites and that alone was enough to define you on the playground.

I dove headlong into the sewers after April O'Neil as Raphael, busting heads with my sai. I was lost in the game play, besting bug monster from beyond, Mousers,chainsaw maniacs and strange, morphing square men who -I was sure- were made out of putty. I wondered when and how some of these villains would make their entrance into the cartoons. I created and recreated back stories, epic battles between the masked chainsaw maniac and his obvious opponent, Casey Jones.
My thoughts awoke from this fantasy world born of a fantasy world in no small part due to the death of Donatello, electrocuted by coral in the maddening level that gave birth to a distinctive rage built on video game frustration.
Find the bombs, disable the bombs. It was a hackneyed plot that satisfied when nothing else could be pulled from the mind, it's classic. My thumbs dug into the controller while the clock counted away my patience. Growls struggled from my throat through clenched teeth as I navigated each of my cumbersome turtles to their death. I wanted to throw that controller through the television, raise my white knuckled fists and scream at the world above while a poetic mess of sparks and shattering glass flowered in slow motion behind me.

Refusing to wallow in a broken ego I would eventually come to my feet and mimic Leo's muscle flex pose in triumph. Defusing the final bomb and basking in the glory of victory, I watched my Turtle return to the lair. Wearing a smug smile, I had wrested this game away from the impossible and held it under my heel. I then watched slack jawed, bewildered humility setting in when the vile Shredder gave me notice that the game had only begun. Behind the wheel of the Turtle-van I was back on the streets and in the sewers and warehouses of New York City searching for Splinter – a mission that is ongoing nearly twenty years later.

As the the calender weened off the preceding decade I began to fall deeper into a digital world. Putting away my face and wearing others became a ritual. These faces would turn sour in frustration as often as they as were elated masks of victory.

Determined to make my way through the dark, jungle labyrinth in Platoon I would meld with the music, rocking in state of catatonic tedium. As if guided by some cruel joke every path led to nowhere.
A wandering jaunt of backtracking that hammered away at my patience. Unable to dodge the slowest moving bullets to ever leave a gun and a fear of my own grenades only served to list Platoon as a curious exercise in confusing children. War inspired games always lured us despite past disappointments.

Top Gun gave me headaches, Captain Skyhawk was an annoyance until I became a more seasoned gamer. When we rented G.I Joe: The Atlantis Factor, I settled in for an enjoyable afternoon of game play. However I was unable to do away with a gray giant brandishing a cinder block on a pole so soon in the game.

The first level boss continually owned me. Repeatedly that brick was brought down on General Hawk's head until he went flashing off into death. Again and again I went at him until my teeth were pressed together hard enough to splinter them. Lacking the strength to crush that slender, gray controller in my hands, it would instead, be thrown to the ground. My head in my hands, elbows resting on my knees. A long exhale followed by a sigh. My eyes would work their way through my fingers to glare at the controller. Motionless, mocking me with it's two sets of eyes until I would return to it. We both knew that apart we were nothing. I pressed START, my face is gone.

The factors of frustration fall as they may, were often in games that were rented and not in games that we owned. Renting games at Videoscene was a walk past the park, that was sieged by trees and spilled over into my school yard with a dusty baseball diamond where kids gained their scars from the gravel and glass. Videoscene was at the corner of my suburbia in a squat, brown bricked building. Moving further down a steep hill to the lights, past Riverside Park and downtown waited. An amalgamated city, there were three downtown areas.

Lost now in the wastes of my memory is the location of Bandito Video - another store for our rentals. It was large, smelled of popcorn and lit up inside like a hospital. A Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 standee, beside a sun faded poster for Basket Case had me in awe. They were things whispered of between kids, they were forbidden, they were waiting for us to grow older. I still have the thick, black VHS cases rentals came in. The yellow Bandito Video sticker on the inside. A cartoonish illustration of a laughing or screaming fat man in a sombrero, resting a forearm on the store's logo. When we moved from Cambridge to Waterloo in 1991 Ollie's Video became the source for our movie and gaming escapes. A poster for Basket Case 2 behind the till welcomed me with a knowing wink.

It was in this pocket of a small a plaza we rented Godzilla:Monster of Monsters! Shoved into the mouth of the console, my mind still high on Godzilla 1985 fell into despair. Not expecting to move about a honeycomb chess board I was soon plummeting into boredom as the King of Monsters flailed about, tossing feeble kicks at rocks and spaceships when a familiar, side scrolling level was opened. So disappointed by the failure of this game to live up to my expectations we returned to the video store, tossing Godzilla: Monster of Monsters out of my life.

With the exception of Godzilla, I would not accept being bested by a game. Even after years saw me grow in age and experience I've never beaten Friday the 13th. The intro was striking, my head dizzy from emptying my lungs into the cartridge. Ready to destroy the zombies and evade the dogs of Camp Crystal Lake I stalked Jason.My first choice would always be Mark for personal reasons and I favored his speed. Creeping through cabins huddled by the shore, my heart fought it's way out of my throat when he suddenly attacked. Alas...rocks are not as effective as machetes. One by one the councilors would fall until me and my friends were dead and the game was over.

Of all my memories of time spent in this affair with a digital world that is too clear to be real is the experience known as Monster Party.

Born with an affinity for the bizarre, I was then as now tied from the heart to all things macabre. During play I would claim the mantle of villain, relishing with monster glee the chaos only antagonists know. Creatures of nightmares and dark places crawled as spiders from my mind, into my arm, through my pen and onto my school work, prompting concern from teachers that was heaped upon my parents. Monster Party took me in as one of it's own. With the level title cards in a border of dripping blood that pooled around a gathering of jolly skeletons, I knew I had wandered into something very special indeed.

Transforming from a boy into a monster seemed natural to me. The release of an alien reality into the dark world, fighting an onion ring, talking to a dead spider and destroying eyeballs atop a pile of tentacles was welcoming insanity. It was also teeth grinding and still remains open to defeat.

Our relationship, that being the one between me and that little gray box wasn't always such an operatic drama. There was total satisfaction that I would not know again until my first kiss. Helicopter kicks in Double Dragon 2...my execution was flawless, the connection delivered the right sense of brutality. Driving my knee into the face of a thug set my teeth into position, hard and cruel was my smile. Throwing turnips at Shy Guys satisfied me almost as much as snuffing out goombas under the sole of my big harlequin green boot. The exhilaration of Mario first taking to the skies, clearing a level of Contra after countless one shot deaths, Bam Bam Bigelow's oddly demonic face while I had him running in place...all this and more swirling in an ethereal eye. Images and sensations too vast to count, too important to number and out of reach but never fading as dreams do...soaking into the pillow. Safe in the arms of my childhood, my memories remain.
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