8-bit Time Machine

How the Nintendo Entertainment System left it's mark on the 80's, pop-culture and my life.
September 08, 2008
Let me start by saying, as most everyone here, I LOVE THE 80's. As many other children of the 80's, toys, cartoons and video games were some of my greatest joys. This article will focus on the latter of the three, and on one video game console in particular, the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System.

I suppose I have always been drawn to video games. Being born in 1981, some of my earliest memories are of Pac-Man, Tank, and other Atari or arcade games. Those bright colors and simple shapes are an obvious attraction to a toddler. I was 4 or 5 when my family got a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. Young enough to not really remember much of my life before NES. And at just the right age to begin mastering the hand eye coordination that video games require. I took to the NES immediately.

For me, the NES was and endless source of mystery and excitement. Games like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid were epic adventures. You never knew what could be waiting in the next room or what would happen when you finally found the item you'd been searching for. Many games added to the mystery by being so vague. (Sometimes due to a poor translation) You'd hear playground talk of secret rooms or items, and your mind would be sent spinning. Before the internet, the only way to get hints on games were from magazines, the fabled Nintendo Hotline or from kids who had gotten farther than you. Although sometimes a hint or two could be gleaned from the box or instruction manual. Speaking of which, I loved to read the instruction manuals, committing every hint, item and picture to memory. I was even fascinated with the box and cartridge art. Which, by the way, never seemed to be an accurate depiction of the actual gameplay. Many games paled in comparison to the awesome scenes depicted on the box fronts, manuals and carts.

The Castlequest box art is pretty epic. A daring swordsman, a scantily clad damsel in distress, fairies, evil knights, ogres, and a giant demon monster, all set in a vast dungeon. The actual gameplay? Not so much.

But I suppose that's part of the magic of those 8-bit days. You had to use your imagination with the NES. The pixilated denizens of Zebes or the blocky inhabitants of Hyrule looked only vaguely like the pictures in the manuals. Your mind filled in a lot of the blanks. I have a feeling that's partly why many of us hold these old games so dear.

Link in 8-bit form and Link on paper

The NES was a way of life for a kid in the late 80's. Everyone had one. Everyone knew the lingo. Nintendo was a God we prayed to daily. Nintendo was our drug. We needed it. And needed it bad. I always felt bad for those kids that could only play for an hour (Or even a half-hour!) a day. And looking back, the funny thing is that those kids were the REAL Nintendo junkies. Always looking for a fix. They would come over to your house and spend two hours locked into a serious NES feeding frenzy. Sitting way too close to the T.V., tongue wriggling from their mouth, with eyes that never blinked. After a while, you'd ask if they wanted to play G.I. JOEs but they couldn't hear you. They were too busy "playing with power."

Two devout souls dedicated to the Nintendo faith.

I suppose the pinnacle of the Nintendo's pop-culture popularity would be the movie The Wizard.

Was it a 100 minute Nintendo commercial? Yes. But I loved every second of it. A movie starring Fred savage about running away from home, and Nintendo games was right up my alley. But more importantly, it was the first chance that kids in the U.S. got to set their greedy little eyes on actual footage of Super Mario Bros. 3.


The movie also spawned one of the greatest quotes in all of cinematic history.

"I love the power glove...It's so bad."

My family didn't have a lot of money growing up. We only had a handful of games and renting games was only an occasional treat. I dreamed of winning some kind of NES lottery. But winning a Toys R Us shopping spree was my ultimate fantasy. It drove me crazy to see those kids that took their time to pick things out. (You've got like THREE empty shopping carts and a time limit! Run through the aisles as fast as you can with your arms out and knock as much crap into the cart as possible!) Around that time that there was also a game show on T.V. called Video Power. Video Power was a perfect representation of the pop-culture Nintendo era of the late 80's and early 90's. The sets, clothing, music and people on the show are a shining example of that exact moment in time. The host's name was "Johnny Arcade." He was supposed to be the coolest video game master this side of Lucas from The Wizard.

Lucas' reaction upon hearing that Johnny Arcade is the is not only better at video games but has more style.(And yes that IS Tobey McGuire in the pink shirt. And YES his mullet is awe inspiring. AND YES his tiny performance in The Wizard is still better than his performance in the Spider-Man franchise.)

He certainly seemed cool to me at the time. But looking back, Johnny Arcade was a total spaz and a bit of a bully with the contestants. The set-up of the show was fairly straight forward. Kids would answer questions about video games and have an NES play-off. Whoever had the most points at the end got to run around a stage filled with video game games and toys wearing a vest and helmet covered in velcro. They had 40 seconds to run around and stick prizes to themselves and make it down a tube slide before the buzzer went off. Again, some kids would browse around looking for things they wanted and it drove me nuts. But there was an occasional smart kid. The kid who would stick anything and everything to himself. Grab armloads of games. Get to the slide, toss what they were carrying down and go back for more before time ran out. I wanted so badly to be that kid.

.........................Feel the power!...........................Johnny Arcade being an over the top ignoramus

.........This week's winner enters the maze of pizes..................The velcro helmet and vest in action

But despite the fact that I had a limited NES selection, I always had fun. And only having a few games to play taught me to cherish the things I did have even more. It probably made me a better player as well. A lot of NES games were hard. Really hard. And when you only have a few, all you can do is play them over and over again. You master every move, know every secret, and have the layout of every level memorized.

Wizards & Warriors and Breakthru. Two of the games I owned as a kid and therefore, two of my favorites. Both are fairly hard and yet I can still beat both of them due to the levels, items and enemies being ingrained in my brain.

Like everyone else, I eventually moved on from the NES. The Sega Genesis and the SNES quickly took it's place. The old grey toaster lost it's luster, began to gather dust and eventually disappeared all together. (Probably sold at a yard sale) A casualty of the metamorphosis from childhood to adolescence. From there it was on to the PS1. Followed by the PS2. Video games had come a long way.

I never forgot about the NES. I still cherished all of those childhood memories. But for the most part they stayed tucked away in the back of my mind. Until a fateful day when a neighborhood yard sale offered all of that childhood excitement back to me for mere pocket change. Little did I know that the NES and small stack of games I brought home that day would kick start an obsession. I got bit by the collecting bug. And that bug bites hard.

The NES collecting bugs. If bitten, call Dr. Mario immediately.

I started collecting NES games around 2001 or 2002. It was a great time to start collecting. NES games were old enough to be considered a plaything of the past but the wave of retro-popularity had not yet hit. Therefore they were cheap. Almost dirt cheap depending on where you went. The fact that childhood nostalgia could be purchased for mere dollars only fueled the fire. My collection grew fast. I bought all the games I had back then and all the games I always wanted. Then it was on to all the games I had never even heard of. Although I haven't been serious about collecting in years, I now have over 400 games. (And a closet chock full of NES related merchandise) I can imagine the look on the face of my former self if he were to see the mountain of NES swag I have amassed. He would probably think I was the coolest person in the world. (WAY cooler than Lucas OR Johnny Arcade) So, in a way, the wildest fantasies of my childhood have come true. I have more NES games than I know what to do with. Those kids with arm loads of prizes on Video Power have nothing on my collection. And although the games aren't as fun as they used to be, my inner 80's child still smiles whenever I blow the dust out of a cart, load the game in JUST right and press that power button.

Old pics of my NES game collection. It's grown a bit since these were taken.

The 80's was a magical time to be a kid. You couldn't ask for a more colorful, fun or off the wall decade to grow up in. The fashion, movies, television, music, and toys of the 80's are all totally unique to their time. No other decade can come close to the energy and wonder of the 1980's. And seeing it all through the wide eyes of a child has made me cherish those memories and that time in my life even more.

The 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System is just one facet on the gem that is my 80's childhood. But the memories of those hot summer afternoons spent in front of the NES are some of my favorite.

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