With the proliferation of comic book movies in cinemas nowadays, everyone has seen there fair share of iconic origin stories: Peter Parker getting bitten by a radioactive spider, gaining fantastical abilities that through a twist of fate cost him the life of his Uncle Ben; a young Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents killed before his very eyes, causing him to start a one man war on crime in Gotham City and the tale of a young boy, jettisoned from a dying planet, landing on earth and gaining godlike abilities.
I wish I could tell a profound tale of how I came to be so obsessed with video games, but honestly speaking, I don’t even know when I became aware of them.
I was born in May of 1984, so I missed out on iconic systems like the Atari and the great video game crash of the ‘80’-s. The first video game console that came into our house was the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES for short, but it wasn’t something I longed for; I had absolutely no idea what it was until we had it. This was something my brother, who’s three years older than me, wanted. I can’t remember the exact year we got our NES, but I do know that I was six years old when Super Mario Bros. 3 came out as it was around that time I was clipping an ad for Back to the Future Part III out of the newspaper. That probably means that I was no more than three-or-four years old when we got the NES so that explains a lot.
I do have brief flashes of memories of the day the Farrell’s became proud owners of their first video game console. I remember coming back from the swimming pool and my brother finding the NES placed on the bed in his room. If I recall my gone, but never forgotten, Uncle Steve managed to find one at a Canadian Tire back when that store sold such things. I guess that means it must’ve been a highly sought after item that was hard to find.
A part of what made owning an NES in those early years so magical is that my young mind couldn’t comprehend how to use it. “Wait, all you have to do is put the cart in, press down on it, close the lid and hit power, you dummy” is what you might be thinking and you’re not wrong. What made getting to the point where I hit power to the screen where I could pick between Super Mario Bros. or Duck Hunt – we were enough to have both games, plus the gray zapper – was how our console was connected to our TV.
You see, nowadays with modern consoles, you have one socket where you put in the plug for power and another for an HDMI cable which outputs your system to your display. Our NES, in the early days, was connected to our VCR which in turn connected to the TV. There was a simple way to get the NES working, and I’m more than certain I tried to mimic the steps my parents took, but to me this was as complicated as diffusing a bomb. There was a point where we had to get our VCR repaired because I stuck crayons on it, so that’s the kind of mental facilities I was working with at the time.
A big fear I’m sure parents had, including my own, was that this new form of entertainment was going to rot children’s minds as they sat parked in front of their television sets, pushing buttons and getting hypnotized by the colors on screen, the calming melodies and repetitive but iconic sound effects. Reflecting back on it now, I never realized exactly how much video games helped inspire my imagination and advanced my reading skills.
Modern video games are multi-million dollar productions worked on by hundreds of people that feature visuals that are becoming more photorealistic as the years pass and technology advances. While the NES easily had more advanced visuals than the likes of the Atari, there was still a lot of filling in the blanks your brain had to do. You would take as much story as you could from the back of a game’s box, or if you were incredibly fortunate, the instruction manual, but how you interpreted that world beyond that was completely up to you.
One of the first games that we ever owned that didn’t come with our system was The Legend of Zelda. The game tells the story of how the land of Hyrule was invaded by the evil Ganon who had taken the titular princess, Zelda, hostage. You play Link, as he’s referred to in the manual but you can name him whatever you wish, who has to traverse dangerous dungeons in search of tools that help him in his quest and the pieces of something called the Triforce, eight in total, that once assembled allow you to enter Ganon’s lair.
The Legend of Zelda was a game developed by Nintendo themselves, and the magic of their games, especially the Zelda series, is that the design of the game world and control came first before story. That’s not to say that Nintendo’s games are absent of stories, after all some of the most memorable video game characters are creations of Nintendo. It’s one of the reasons why the company has experienced such longevity and has such a loyal, almost cult like following. Everyone who plays Nintendo’s games go through the same objectives: run to the right and get to the flagpole or rescue the princess, but everyone is writing their own story and developing the personality of the character they’re playing in their head. It’s the reason why games like The Legend of Zelda still don’t give the main hero a voice: each person who has played any game from the Zelda series has their own idea of what Link sounds like based on the personality they’ve given him.
I had an Uncle who was incredibly talented with making things out of wood. He made me a wooden sword and a shield that resembled the one that Link has in The Legend of Zelda. I would go outside, even just as far as our backyard, pretending that I was Link and going on epic adventures. I remember going for a walk around town with my parents, and I wore a green Pizza Delight hat, pretending to be Luigi, and stuck a belt out of the back of my pants to mimic the raccoon tail power-up from Super Mario Bros. 3. I met a like minded kid who lived close to me and we used to make up games where we would each play as a character from a Nintendo game. We then had to make up a story as to why a robot like Mega Man would cross paths with one of the Battletoads. We were essentially making and acting out fan-fiction before that was even a thing. I was stuck in a small town, but through my mind, I made it as big as I could imagine.
During school, I obviously couldn’t get my video game fix in, but I found outlets, many of which probably helped my education more than I thought. We used to have periodic book fairs, and there was always something related to video games that I wanted, whether that was one of the Jeff Rovin How to Win at Nintendo Games titles or an entry in the Worlds of Power series. Written by someone named F.X Nine, assuredly their real name, Worlds of Power recounted the stories of select Nintendo games, albeit with many creative liberties. If you read them now, they’re so cheesy that they’ll probably make you lactose intolerant, but for a kid, they might as well have been Shakespeare. I probably couldn’t tell you how many times I read through the adaptation of Mega Man 2, though it did confuse me as for years I didn’t know if Mega Man was an actual human with a gun or robot because of that book.
While it wasn’t ever my choice to bring video games into our house, they clearly made a huge, life lasting impact on me. I cherished the moments I had someone like my parents or my older brother set the NES up for me such that I could play, and when I couldn’t, I had plenty of other outlets, whether that was reading books about video games or going outside and making my own. Video games were now here, and they weren’t going anywhere.