More than the games, it was the people
Well, I did it. I took the plunge and purchased an original Nintendo Entertainment System on ebay (no emulators here, sucka!). And like Mario warping down an oddly placed green sewer pipe, I've found myself engulfed in a wave of 8-bit nostalgia. To be honest, I'm no video game wizard (that movie is total cheese), but having grown up in the 80's there was really no getting around owning or at least playing Nintendo games. It was like Reebok Pumps and fanny packs, we all experienced it together, it was part of the culture. So with that, I bring you a CULTURAL EVENT! An article 28 years in the making. Fellow Retrojunkers, I give you:
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when and where I first experienced the blips and bloops of the NES. I mean, do YOU remember the first time you saw an episode of The Cosby Show? Or The Simpsons? Some things have just always been there. That being said, I can tell you the first time I played any type of video game, that's a good enough place to start.
The first video game I ever played was a table top version of Pac-Man at in the waiting area of a local restaurant. At 4 years of age, I remember how amazing it was to look through plexi-glass countertop and see a little yellow circle eating panicky, colored ghosts. Actually I was even more enthralled by the coin deposit and return console. I loved how the light shown through the red plastic that read "INSERT COIN" and pushing it in like a launch button. But I digress.
So my older brother showed me that I could actually control the little creatures on the screen by inserting a quarter. I was pretty neat. It was fun to work the joystick, but I wasn't dazzled. I mean given the choice at that age, "Yellow Disc Guy" or Scooby-Doo? Scooby wins out, no contest. Once we got home my brother brought out his Atari system and showed me a few games, but I only really remember playing Empire Strikes Back for like 5 minutes and going back to my Hot Wheels. Thus ended my contact with the video game world until I entered Kindergarten around 1987.
It was at school that I made friends, friends who were obsessed with characters I didn't know named Link, Mario and Donkey Kong. Everybody would talk about Nintendo like it was the new He-Man (not the actual New Adventures of He-Man cartoon-bah!). "Have you played Excitebike?" WHAT? "I got to the end on Bubble Bobble" BUBBA WHO? "Gannon is the big boss on Zelda" UHHH...THAT'S GREAT. I LIKE GHOSTBUSTERS. You were either in or out and I wanted to be in. So I accepted invitations from classmates to go over to their houses and play this thing called Nintendo.
That's what the activity was called "Playing Nintendo". That was the way you made friends or at the very least got invited over and could scarf down some Hi-C and Handi-Snacks. It really didn't matter what games anyone had, at that point they were all pretty new and exciting. But I do associate certain games with certain kids I knew growing up. What follows is my impressions of the NES games I played, where and with whom I played them.
Still one of my all time favorites, this gang-related beat-em-up will forever be linked the Prince of Pain, Jeff Garcia. Jeff was short, blond kid with a lisp who didn't look Latino to me, but what do I know? Jeff lived next door to this Spanish family that used to baby-sit me after school until my mom got home and sometimes they would let me go over to his house to mash controllers. He was kind of a rebel, claiming that he once ate a whole economy sized tub of Now and Later candies in one night and that the citric acid nearly split his tongue in two.
Most important to me though was that he knew how to beat Double Dragon and to this day he is the only person I've actually seen make it to the end boss. You know, the evil Lee brother who is holding the girlfriend hostage? I remember him having a cape and being able to make big leaps, but memory is tricky thing. Either way that was an unforgettable afternoon and I gave Jeff his deserved praise.
Super Mario Bros. 2/Mickey Mousecapade
Mario 2 is definitely my number one NES game and one that never gets old for me. My introduction to this revolutionary (and vegetable laden) entry in the Mario saga came at the hands of my buddy Brandon Ricks. I remember going upstairs to his game room and seeing a more cartoony version of Mario actually pulling onions out of the ground and using them to crush his enemies. No more jump and smash for this Italian plumber. I think the level that endeared me most to the game was the desert one with all the snakes popping out of the sand, that was fun stuff.
Brandon also had Mickey Mousecapade which was the first licensed game I ever played. It blew my mind to think I could make, granted a very crudely rendered, Mickey and Minnie jump around a living cartoon. Brandon also had a Mickey Mouse phone in the game room which made it all the more appropriate.
I never memorized the 30 life code (I'm sure you all know it) because everyone else already had it down, so I just let them input it. My go-to guy was Samuel Low/Lew(?) who was a year older than me and lived next to my buddy, Brent. We would go over to his house twice a week after school and get our Nintendo on! Contra was always the first cartridge pulled. I usually stuck to the low platforms and Sam took the high ground. It always sucked when I would get a power up but it launched up to Sam before I could get it. To get my revenge I would just push select and steal one of his lives after I died for the 30th time.
I loved blowing the tentacles off the end boss that was like a machine alien-octopus thing, am I remembering that right? Or was it just like an energy whip that was coming after you? Anyhoo, fun game and no fist fights ever broke out over life stealing. Although we did have a "play" karate fight get out of hand one afternoon where Sam and our other buddy David Letterle let their fists of rage do the talkin'.
My next door neighbors, the Exley's were an old couple with grandkids my age. They had bought an NES for their progeny to play, but when the grandchildren weren't in town, I got to come over and play. Which was great, because I didn't have one of my own yet. I remember the Exley's had their Nintendo hooked up to a little TV underneath the staircase. It wasn't a closet or anything, just an open area under the stairs. I played the Nintendo Pinball game every once and while, but really I was there to whip some ghouls as Simon Belmont.
My favorite weapon was the Holy Water, I just loved watching that giant bottle jump out of Simon's body from seemingly nowhere and disintegrate the enemy. I never got too far on the game, but fighting Medusa was fun. Was she a boss or just kind of mid-level nuisance? I can't remember.
The Lutz family were the closest thing I had to brothers and sisters my age. They were 5, eventually 6 kids from church that I hung out with all the time. Keith was the oldest and he was the game master. I distinctly remember sitting in their kitchen on a summer afternoon and Keith breaking out the power glove. I had seen The Wizard and the commercials, but this was the first time I beheld its glory face to face.
He even let me try it on (Saint Keith?), but soon he revealed to me what thousands would come to know: the Power Glove was a useless piece of crap. I asked him what it could do and he said, "Pretty much nothing. You can enter a few codes with the keypad, but it doesn't work with many games." The truth was out. So we just plugged the regular controllers back in and played the the awesome, much more satisfying TMNT: The Arcade Game.
Power Pad/Marble Madness
While we're on the topic of NES add-ons, how about the Power Pad? For those who don't know, it was basically Dance, Dance Revolution (sans music), on an electric Twister mat, mixed with Wii sports. The game it worked with was called Track and Field (although the screen in my pic says otherwise) and basically you would control the 8-bit Olympic athletes on the screen by jumping around (WITHOUT SHOES!) on the colored circles.
It worked...OK. I wasn't the most physically fit, but my buddy John Cannon, at whose house I played it was Mr. Athletic. When I got tired of losing the 100-Meter Dash I would pop in his copy of Marble Madness, which had the best "3-D" graphics of the day. It was really just clever shadowing, but it was cool to control the little marble through the grid-like landscape and keep it from falling down the holes. Simple pleasures, folks.
Paperboy/Top Gun/T&C Surf Wood & Water Rage
Kelly Loy was a troublemaker, but he had some good games. First and foremost he was keeper of Paperboy in my neighborhood. It was either that or Top Gun and frankly, landing the plane in the Top Gun Nintendo game was like Inspector Gadget trying to thwart Dr. Klaw without the aid of Brain and/or Penny. In a word, impossible.
For that reason I stuck with riding a bike and tossing the early edition at the Grim Reaper. Much dodging and ramp jumping was done on Kelly's living room TV and even though the NES version didn't have the handle bar joystick like in the arcade it was still a fun game. But even more fun was T&C Surf Wood & Water Rage. Two things determined your cool factor in the 80's: Surfing and Skateboarding, this had both! When I got my refurbished system on ebay, I made sure this baby was part of my collection. There is something truly hypnotic about this race against the clock as you got your guy to ollie, grind and jump all over the beachside boardwalk.
What made it even cooler was that prior to playing it, I actually owned a T&C Surf t-shirt that contained all the characters from the game. It was like my wardrobe had come to life! (I just pray my Lacoste polo shirt doesn't cause any alligators to appear in my closet).
Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt/Golf
Eventually I did stop mooching off my friends' Nintendos and got one of my own. I think it was Christmas 1988 when the gift of gaming was bestowed upon me. I remember my brother Erik and my brother-in-law Trace setting it up for me and then I pretty much just watched them conquer Super Mario Brothers that morning. I didn't really have the patience for video games at that age, I just wanted one because everyone else had them too.
That's why Duck Hunt was a good one for me, because I could just shoot a few ducks (but never that damn dog) and then move on to Legos without feeling guilty for not saving the princess. In addition to the pack-in games, through some odd twist of fate I ended up with Nintendo Golf. The only part that entertained me was that the golfer looked like a taller version of Mario and I liked the wind up to the swing. I never actually understood the rules of the game though. Get the ball in hole, that's all I knew.
Unfortunately I used that philosophy years later golfing with a girl I liked and thoroughly embarrassed myself. I can't help but think that if I had spent more time playing Golf on the NES we'd be married now...(sigh).
And on that depressing note, I'm bringing this article to a close. Truth be told I could go on all day (maybe there's a part 2 in there somewhere). I hope it stirred up some fond Nintendo memories for all of you and I'll look forward to reading your comments.