I don’t play video games much anymore. But I’ll be god-damned if I didn’t play the HELL out of the Nintendo Entertainment System when I was little. Displays of nostalgia for the NES are very much in vogue now, and more than a little played out, which is understandable I guess: the NES is a halcyon trademark of our generation. These tributes can range from the insufferable and impromptu (young men at a party who do not know each other scatting the theme music from Super Mario Brothers in heinous chorus and not stopping after one round, but rather segueing into the underworld theme, only to abandon the group-sing awkwardly when they realize that their enterprise is untenable), to the oddly touching disclosure (steak-and-potatoes, salt-of-the-earth, Red-State men freely admitting to paradigm-shaking crises of gender and power upon realizing that the bounty hunter from Metroid was… a Lady). But February 2006 marked the 20-year anniversary of the release of the Nintendo in the U.S., and seeing this news gets one to thinking about one’s relationship to this dated, beloved game machine…
For me, the Nintendo is an indispensable tool of the memory, it is my madeleine. The sight of its chunky, unsexy gray console and game cartridges are a welcome metaphor for an age of very big tax cuts and very little body hair, both of which I took for granted at the time. It’s one of a shrinking number of physical reminders I have of my dad: I blurted out my first cuss word on a school night in the 2nd grade after he took a kickoff return to the house on me in Tecmo Bowl (I received only a laugh and an admonition never to use that word around my grandmother), the last thing he ever gave me before he died unexpectedly was Mega Man 2. Christmas 1989 culminated immortally in The Unwrapping of the NES, which was attended by high-spirited freakouts and spontaneous bouts of yelling and running in place on the part of my dad and myself, and much well-meaning hand wringing and clucking on the part of my mother. It was categorically impossible to get my mother excited about goombas. I harbored no illusions that he had bought it strictly for me, his only son; rather, it was clear from the start that it was more of a present to the male two-thirds of the family with fortunate father-son bonding consequences. I grew to love video games because he loved to play video games. He loved me, too, and I miss him.
After my dad died, the NES really became a touchstone of my youth, on my terms: a means of interacting and bonding with kids my age even though I was pretty shy, and the source of some of my most deeply felt recollections. The following are some of the games to which I have the strongest connection. Go ahead, friend… See if some of your favorites made Kevin’s Kut!
Play Action Football
Objective judging standards, common sense, and the liberal Vintage Video Game Review Media will tell you that this game featured an “unusual isometric, top-down diagonal perspective”, with “8 teams to choose from”, and that the game had an “NFLPA (Players Association) license but not an NFL license”. They will also tell you “This game is decent, but limited, especially when compared to Tecmo Super Bowl.” Unfortunately, this is all horseshit liberal spin. Fortunately, you are in a no-spin zone. The only thing you need to know about this game is this: Counter Option. You just hand the rock off to your fullback, have a buddy seal a lane with a sweet block, maybe give a little shimmy-shake when you hit the hole, kick it out towards a sideline, and take that baby all the way to Chinatown. Game-maker, knee-breaker.
Mega Man 2
This game was sweet, and there is no disputing it. However, often lost amidst the hoo-ha surrounding this game’s seditious and misleading cover art (Mega Man’s safety visor is UP! Mega Man—where’s your head at, dogg?), inspiring and specifically vague opening sequence (“In the year 200x…”), great tunes, and top-flight level and boss design was surely one of the most disturbing game tropes ever conceived of: the old pick-off-members-of-a-team-of-foes-one-by-one-and-use-their-vanquished-comrades’-powers-to-slay-them maneuver. This is horrible. This is like a murderer killing your grandma, and then stabbing your uncle to death with grandma’s antique letter opener, and then offing your brother with your uncle’s favorite rotary saw, and then pounding you with… surely you understand. This was horrible.
Legend of Zelda
Well this is the Big One for me. Inspired and eternal music, hateful enemies, generous cave-dwelling hermits, just straight explorin’, that shit-head Gannon… it all brings a tear to my eye. The friendship between my aforementioned oldest and dearest pal Chris McChesney and me was predicated, when we first met each other at ages 6 and 5, on two things: Cherry Kool-Aid and Zelda. I would sit and watch him, his brother Kevin, and his dad play this game in ways I never knew games could be played. They had in-game conferences for strategy during tight spots, specific roles to fulfill during the playing, colorful scale maps drawn by hand on graph paper—graph paper! It was fantastic. At some point Chris and I started playing together, and since then have beaten together nearly every single Zelda game that Nintendo has put out. So special.
That theme song… those dinosaurs… their Bubbles, Bobbling all over the place… What was without a doubt one of the fruitiest concepts in all of Gaming somehow translated into an absolutely killer and addictive application. There is a theory currently circulating among the Intellectual Northeastern Elite—the idea has met with resistance on the West Coast and Middle Atlantic—that NES music was the zenith of video game music composition, and that this was caused by the very limitations of the NES system itself. Since the NES cartridges only had so much storage capacity, games with soundtracks were forced to loop just a small number of tiny music files—composed with only a limited number of sounds—over and over again. This meant that Nintendo would hire composers to create 30- to 60-second masterpieces of dramatic, fetching, memorable, perfect electric pop. Bubble Bobble is one of the more infamous examples. Think what you will of the theory, friend, but this much is certain: if you had the physical stamina, the mental acuity, the reflexes, or the Game Genie to make it through all 100 levels of Bubble Bobble, you were wise enough even as a young sapling to realize that what you just did, and how long it took you to do it, were probably not ok.
Fernando Castro and Chachi Guevara stand on a beach loading unlimited bullets into their machine guns and unlimited grenades into their ammo belts. The jungle at the edge of the beach seethes with the menace of the enemy army awaiting them. Fernando turns to speak: “Chachi, are you prepared to take on the full military force of the maldito dictator king to free the working class of this island?” “Sí, Fernando, but when the time comes, will you be ready to walk over glowing boxes with letters stamped on them and make full use of the ridiculous power-ups they contain?” “You know that I will be, amigo, but tell me this: do you realize that we will be saving hogtied captives in the same manner, gaining +1000 points for walking over them but –500 for shooting them in the face?” “In truth, I have devoted much thought to this. Come now, it is time to join the battle. When we are waging guerilla war, compay mío, and things appear to be at their direst, remember this: we have unlimited continues.” They lock arms and eyes briefly, fiercely, and plunge into the forest, guns screaming, liberation spilling from their pores.
It is my contention that this is the single greatest game ever put to chip. It is a taut, seamless, and elegant synthesis of Platonic metaphysics, Aristotelian ontology, Husserlian phenomenology, badass Old Testament minimalism, and ice hockey. In the simple world that it posits, there is no World but the Hockey Rink. There is no Universe but the Firmament of Floating Crowd Heads. There is no Time but the Match Clock. There is no Woman, and there are but four categories of Man: there is Goalie, Fat Man, Average Man, and Skinny Man. There are Soviet Russians. There is no fucking around. Good luck, cupcake.