Tales of Nostalgia: The Mystique of the NES

As part of our endless desire to re-live the past, the Same Page welcomes you to our latest feature: Tales of Nostalgia. Read on and enjoy as our contributors spin stories of video game mastery, confounding movie mystery, and unsung sports heroics.

By: Judd Livingston

Video games. Sweet Jesus, did we love video games when we were kids, didn’t we? Some of you may still play them now, hell some of you may even see yourselves as bona fide aficionados, but it’s just not the same as it was.  Sure the games are more elaborate and detailed, but the mystique is gone. Some may argue it’s because we’re older; we’ve lost our innocence and are faced with the dreary duties of daily life.  But not me. No. I think there’s something else to it.

A veritable life changing experience.

A veritable life changing experience.

For me, video games didn’t exist before Nintendo. I mean, sure we had a little Pac-Man portable  game when I was growing up, but that wasn’t exactly a video game as I would come to know them. Maybe it’s just my age, because Coleco, Atari, and Intellvision had been around for a while before the NES showed up in ’85. I remember how I was introduced to this hallowed console: It was August, and my brother’s birthday was coming up, when my mother told me we were taking a trip to the mall. The mall! Oh, what a magical place the mall was for a 6 year old! Toys! It seemed like every store had a least a toy aisle if not a full-on toy department. I could while away the hours just browsing through this fantastical section. The 80s were also a magical time in that parents would still leave their children unattended in public. In the 50s the danger was still minimal, in the 90s it was palpable, whereas in the 80s the danger existed, but parents tended to have more of an “ahh fuck it” feel about it.  My mother would leave me with the toys while she looked at linen’s or whatever it is mothers look at when at the mall, knowing full-well that if she brought me along, there would be interminable whining. I’m certainly saddened knowing my children won’t be able to share that experience of temporary independence.

“Where are we going?” I asked. I knew we were going to the mall, but I wanted to know which stores, because there was still a chance my mother was on a mission of sorts; needing to pick something up for a project of hers, which would mean we’d be in and out in under 20 minutes with no fun time, not like when she was just shopping for shopping’s sake. “We’re getting your brother his birthday present at Consumers Distributing.”  Damn it. Consumers Distributing was a bit of a double-edged sword when it came to toys. They were a catalogue company, you see, much like Sears-Roebuck was in the days of Little House on the Prairie. Their catalogues were a bible for children throughout Canada. They offered the same household appliances and jewellery that Sears, Eaton’s and The Bay did, but the entire final third of the catalogue was all toys! Big, beautiful, glossy photos graced each page. And the images of kids, just like me, with huge grins on their faces, playing with train-sets, model racing sets, GI Joes and Transformers, translated to me how happiness could certainly be bought if only you make the right purchase. Hours were spent thumbing through these pages. My parents tended to leave them in the magazine rack in the bathroom, which would mean I would be stuck in their long after my duty was done, sitting on the toilet with my pants around my ankles drooling over this season’s new crop of plastic joy.

The problem with Consumers Distributing, however, was that the store was just a warehouse. You went in, gave them your product number and they sent out a nondescript cardboard box containing your item. Lame. So, I knew my trip to the mall would be uneventful. I was even more disappointed when we got there. My mother stepped up to the counter and gave the clerk the information he needed. Then she pulled out a whack of cash. I’m talking serious dough here. I didn’t know how much exactly, but I knew that was more 20s than I’d ever seen her spend on me. What the hell kinda gift was he getting? The Transformers Command Center? Castle Greyskull? Cobra’s Evil Lair?  A large box came hurtling down the conveyor and my mother picked it up and we left. “What is it?” I asked. She said “A Nintendo.” “Oh.” I replied, not knowing what in the world that was. I went home confused, disappointed, without having seen any decent toys, and promptly forgot about the whole thing.

A few days later, or maybe a few weeks (time works differently when you’re 6), my brother asked me if I knew what my parents had bought him. I knew I wasn’t supposed to say, and normally I wouldn’t have, but when he brought it up, my curiosity got the better of me: I had to know what this thing was. “I dunno,” I answered, “A nanaimo or something?” He had a confused look on his face for a moment, then I suppose some sort of realization occurred. “A Nintendo? Was it Nintendo?!” he asked with urgency and excitement plastered on his face. “Yeah. Yeah, that was it!” “YESSS!!!” He proceeded to dance around the room and I continued to be confused.

Finally his birthday came. It didn’t take my Dad long to set the thing up, but the process was punctuated with him snapping at my brother, who was dancing around the room like an idiot. “Sitdown will ya?!” There was a brief moment of sheer panic when, after hitting the power button, the screen filled with squiggly lines, but a moment later our father flipped the RF switch from Channel 4 to Channel 3 and all was once again right with the world.

From that point on, video games were just a part of my daily existence. I don’t think there was a day between grade 1 and grade 6 where the school yard wasn’t punctuated with deep, involved discussions about them. The beauty was, there was always something new to talk about; some new game, cheat codes (up up down down left right left right B A start), bragging about how far you got (“You never got to 11!” “I did too! I took a warp zone from level 7!” “Doesn’t count! Doesn’t count then!”).  There were some other consoles on the scene, but they weren’t really something any of us acknowledged. Nope, life was pretty sweet for us Nintendo owners.

Gateway drug.

Gateway drug.

We started with Duck Hunt and Super Mario, and moved on up to Blades of Steel and Contra. Some might say it was the golden age of our video game lives. Things just kept getting better. The Power Glove? Yes. I didn’t know anyone who actually had one, but it looked awesome. And then The Wizard came out. Looking back, it was a genius marketing move by Nintendo: the whole thing was just a big commercial for the upcoming Super Mario Bros. 3, but I’ll be damned if we didn’t all go see it. Walk up to any 30 year old, middle-class white male and say “Caaaliifourniia” and see what he says.  And then, in ’89, shit started to happen that rattled us a bit.

You remember it, don’t you? You know, when some kid in Grade 8, or your older brother or someone else’s older brother came up to you and your friends and hovered for a few minutes listening in on your conversation before smirking and saying something appropriately condescending like “Don’t you retards know anything? NES is for babies. Sega Genesis is 16-bit.” 16-bit? What the hell was that? What’s a bit? When you’re a kid, facts don’t matter, it’s all about posturing. None of us knew what the hell any of this meant: Genesis, bits, whatever, but if any of us asked, we’d be ridiculed for the rest of the year for sure: “You don’t know?? Ohhhhh my God! Johnny doesn’t know what Genesis is! Johnny doesn’t know what Genesis is!!” Kids can be cruel… and amazing. If the adult world worked that way, I’d be a king.

Eventually the word would get down to us, and then we started getting excited. Back then, there was no Internet; there weren’t an interminable amount of video game magazines; there weren’t television shows to fill us in on all the latest news. Or maybe there were, but we sure as hell didn’t know about them. It was like being in a POW camp: you get information piecemeal and try and figure out what the hell’s going on. I miss that. I miss the rumour mill. I miss not knowing and trying to put together things piece by piece.

The Genesis came, and it was pretty awesome. But for us little kids, it couldn’t beat the NES. The fact was its controller was too big for us. We needed to grow into it a bit, despite its superior graphics. Graphics were about to become a huge thing for us. Up until the Genesis, graphics didn’t matter because you were really only playing on one platform: the NES. The graphics were what they were, period. Now, well now, everything was changing. The Genesis did have far superior graphics, and because of that you were sure to lose arguments in the playground. Generally, the older kids were the ones with the Genesis, and of course they got on the train and pushed it hard on us. It didn’t matter that it didn’t have nearly as many amazing games as the NES, we were kids and couldn’t elucidate that in a debate. It was simply “Genesis sucks.” “No, it’s got way better graphics!” Dammit! Beat again!

A new challenger emerges!

A new challenger emerges!

But there was, eventually, a way out we could use: The rumour-mill had produced some new gossip all of a sudden, and this gave us NES fans the ammunition to finally fight back! Super Nintendo was coming. It was 16-Bit, but it was coming out after the Genesis, so by kid-logic, that meant it was gonna be way better!

Then the dynamic of the whole thing changed. It stopped being about the games, and it started being about the consoles. A debacle that is best exemplified, as I’m sure you’ll remember, in the great disquiet that arose in 1993 during the Mortal Kombat Wars. The SNES version’s graphics were far superior to those of the Genesis, but Genesis had the blood. For weeks, maybe even months (kid time, again, works differently) before the game was released, debates would explode into shouting matches. Children agonized over whether their console was, indeed, the one to be backing. Some simply lost their minds and wandered about the playground twiddling their thumbs and saying “upupdowndownleftrightleftrightBAstart” over and over again. It was a time of great division. The debate remains unsettled to this day. I’m not saying it was the end of the golden age, I don’t think that happened until whatever came after the SNES. Atari Jaguar? Sega Saturn? I dunno, I can’t remember. I’m just saying there was a shift.

One of the greatest myths of the golden age of video gaming was the Neo-Geo. This, again, came in the midst of the original Sega/Nintendo battle. A year after Genesis and a year before SNES, whispers could be heard around the schoolyard. Stories of a system so great, so powerful, that it could fell trees with a single blow. It could leap mountains in a single bound, and it still sliced tomatoes.

Neo Geo: A powerful bit of mystique.

Neo Geo: A powerful bit of mystique.

I once saw an ad for a Neo-Geo in a comic book I had, which was odd as they didn’t really push it too hard. But of course, the Neo-Geo became the Holy Grail of video games. It destroyed anything on the market. It was fabulous, tremendous, and it cost $650. It was so far out of reach for any of us that it just had to be good. And that was the beauty of video games back then. There was mystery, there was myth, and there was mystique. It was that magical time before Game-Genie, but after Q-Bert. We would walk around, little braggadocios, swapping techniques and theories (this was before strategy guides), it was wonderful. But there was always that kid, you know him, that kid who claimed to have played a Neo-Geo:

“My brother has one.” “Nuh-unh.” “Ya-huh!” “Then bring it to school and show us!” “I’m not gonna bring it to school RETARD. You’ll break it!” “Fine, bring us a game.” “My brother unhooks it after he plays and puts everything back in the original box. Anyway, you’ll break it!” “Then let us come over!” “My brother hides it and he won’t let you guys play cause you’re stupid.” “Whatever. YOU’RE stupid. Dickweed.”

Ah, video games.

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