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Nostlagiaudit, Part II >

[Comments] (2) Nostalgiaudit, Part 1: OK, I started getting people I don't know asking me about "Nostalgiaudit", so I'm just gonna post the whole essay. This thing is longer than "Awesome Dinosaurs" and a lot less interesting, so feel free to skip it if you're not interested. I'll post it in two parts so that it's less to read in one chunk.

Premise: although video games feature in some of my most vivid memories of my childhood, the memories themselves are a disjointed, jumbled mess with no overarching narrative. I wrote this essay to put things in chronological order, to see how my interest in video games developed in childhood and temporarily flared out as I entered adolescence. And in the process, hopefully capture some more general information from the tattered remnant of my memory.

Names and dates are as best I can remember them, names in some cases backed up by old yearbooks. I've tried to omit any information my childhood friends might not want published on the Internet, and partially or wholly redacted some names. Although I'm pretty unsparing of my own childish attitudes (see esp. Ultima II, and my relationship with Sammy C.), I've tried to be more generous towards other people.

Earliest memories

My very first video gaming memory is of watching my cousin Brian play the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man at my grandmother's house. It was probably sometime in 1982--maybe just after Brian's birthday or Christmas. You might not think of this as an auspicious memory, because the 2600's Pac-Man was a disaster, but I didn't know from Pac-Man. I was three years old. I saw a world on my grandmother's previously dull television, and my cousin manipulating that world from outside.

My second memory is of being in an arcade without any money. I was five, we were on vacation in Hawaii, and I was allowed to briefly wander through an arcade in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center as we walked to the Chinese restaurant we'd be eating at.

The year was 1985, and it was one of the old-school arcades that don't exist anymore. It was loud and dark and I was short. I watched someone play Donkey Kong. I watched the attract mode from Pengo. I had no quarter to spend and I only spent a couple minutes in the arcade, but I was hooked. Much to my parents' dismay, video games were now a part of my life.

Around the same time my mother acquired a Hewlett-Packard computer for some contract work she was doing (for HP itself?). I'm not sure what the work was but it involved a piece of software called FALCON. My great-aunt LeJeune, who worked at HP, also sent along two floppy disks of games. One of them had hangman and other somewhat pointless games, including one where you typed in how many tacos you think you could eat and the computer boasted that that's nothing, its brother could eat N+2 tacos. Not really a fair game. I played the hell out of these games through kindergarten, never even looking at the other disk.

Then one day my mother told me LeJeune wanted one of the game floppies back. Which one did I want to keep? In retrospect, I think my mother really wanted to stop me from spending so much time on the computer. But I chose to get rid of the disk I'd played so much, because I'd never tried the other one. For the first time I booted up the other disk. It contained the Colossal Cave text adventure. I happily played this game for a year and a half.

My father worked at a company that rented time on mainframe computers. He'd take me into the computer room, where it was cold and the floors were made of removable panels. Data was stored on big reel-to-reel tapes and I'd run through the tape library, looking for the right data to give to the operator. I also typed my name into punch cards, and played games on the teletype. The only one I remember playing is the old Star Trek game where you punch in commands to navigate the ship or repair the shields.

My father wrote about this in a journal entry from February 4, 1986:

Sunday afternoon, I went to work, as Ed Simon and I were testing MVS/SP. Leonard went with me and we were there for 8 hours. Leonard had quite a time playing battleship and tic-tac-toe and then later he mounted and dismounted tapes. We took food and ate periodically. At one point Leonard said, "This is the best time that a kid ever had that went to work with his dad." Which made me feel very warm.

My first console gaming memory comes from about 1987. My mother took me to a Circuit City in Los Angeles, where there was an NES demonstration system (the controller was mounted on a semi-flexible rod) and an older kid hogging the system. I was transfixed by Super Mario Bros. I waited patiently for the kid to give me a chance at the NES, whereupon I ran right into the first Goomba and died. The older kid took the controller back and my mother hurried me along.


In August 1987, just after I turned eight, we moved north from Los Angeles to Arvin, a tiny agricultural town south of Bakersfield. For a few months my father was still working for his Los Angeles-based company, and he brought home an IBM PC with a monochrome monitor so he could do work from home. One of his co-workers had loaded the PC up with a lot of pirated games. I played all of these games happily, but my favorite was the DOS version of Rogue. At a company picnic in LA I was excited to hear the kid of another employee talk about playing Rogue on a color monitor!

I soon discovered that my next-door neighbor, Sammy C., had an Atari 2600. I'd go over to his house occasionally and play games--I especially remember Moon Patrol on the black-and-white TV in Sammy's room. The only other specific game I remember is the terrible The Empire Strikes Back tie-in. Maybe the TV was a color TV and I thought it was black-and-white because those two games weren't exactly colorful.

I'm not sure what Sammy's father did, but his family was pretty well off, and for Christmas 1987 Sammy got a NES. My next console gaming memory is coming over to Sammy's house in the afternoon on Christmas day, and seeing Sammy and his father downstairs going through the first dungeon of "The Legend of Zelda".

After that I went to Sammy's house nearly every day after school. I remember two distinct phases here. In phase one, the NES was upstairs in Sammy's room, as the Atari had been. The games we played were early titles mostly published by Nintendo: Kung Fu, Pro Wrestling, Excitebike, Pinball, but also Top Gun.

In phase two, the NES was moved down to Sammy's living room, where I originally saw it. The games were more sophisticated: Contra, Goonies II, Castlevania II, and so on. When I started the NES cartridge audit (in part 2) I soon noticed a pretty clean partition between cartridges I'd only played in Sammy's room and games I'd only played in his living room.

There's a chance that I've got it wrong. Maybe Sammy got the NES before Christmas 1987, plus a few safe first-party choices. Then for Christmas that year he got a lot of more sophisticated games like Zelda, and the NES was moved downstairs. But it doesn't really matter.

Early arcades

There was no video arcade in Arvin, but the grocery store had a Galaga and a Rush 'N' Attack, and Bear Mountain Pizza had about six cabinets including my favorites, Gyruss and Golden Axe. (I'm collapsing the timeline here -- Golden Axe didn't come out until 1989, but the grocery store games were there when we moved to Arvin.)

And yet, my secret desire to run unaccompanied through full-blown arcades would be granted, thanks to Chuck E Friggin Cheese, Nolan Bushnell's pizza restaurant/animatronic nightmare/kid-friendly arcade. There was one in Bakersfield and we went there every few months. I went to at least one birthday party there, though it wasn't mine or my sisters'.

I don't think I recognized at the time that Chuck E Cheese was at the low end of arcade experiences, but it was all I had, and the games were magical. (I also liked the pizza at the time, and the orange soda--all you could drink!) Along with Skee-Ball, my favorites were Paperboy, Gauntlet, Super Sprint, and RoadBlasters. Now that I think about it, all of those were Atari games! Did Nolan Bushnell seed Chuck E Cheese with Atari games? I was generally given a dollar per Chuck E Cheese visit to spend on games.

Miscellaneous arcade cabinet memories: I remember seeing the mystical Nintendo PlayChoice 10 game once, probably in a Bakersfield pizza restaurant other than Chuck E Cheese. We went on vacation somewhere and the hotel laundromat had a Galaxian cocktail cabinet. (Not sure why we were staying in a hotel--my father never did that unless someone else was paying. Maybe that was in Hawaii too.) I remember being transfixed by a Ms. Pac-Man cocktail cabinet in a dimly lit restaurant.

Outside Arvin

In mid-1989 Sammy got a TurboGraphx-16, and got rid of his NES and all the games. He had put away childish 8-bit graphics and now he was a man! A man playing freaking "Keith Courage in Alpha Zones". I thought this was a dumb move at the time and history has vindicated me.

It's sad to realize that my relationship with Sammy was based entirely on the fact that he had an NES. I didn't come over to play his TurboGraphx, and he never came over to my house to play Rogue. (I did show Rogue to one of my school friends, and they didn't get why you'd want to play it.) Sometimes we'd play in the huge vacant lot behind our houses (still a vacant lot, according to Google Maps), but more often I was alone back there. Sammy's backyard had a swimming pool; I never swam in it.

Around the same time as Sammy's defection from Nintendo to NEC, my family moved out of Arvin, into the grape fields, and I no longer had a next door neighbor. After this, Sammy and I hardly ever saw each other. He was a year ahead of me in school, so we didn't interact as a matter of course.

I remember playing Tetris on Sammy's Game Boy, but the Game Boy didn't come out until July 1989, by which time we'd already moved. So who knows. When I went to the Bakersfield Target with my mother, I'd always rush to the electronics section and play Super Mario Land on their Game Boy. That's still as close as I've ever been to an original Game Boy.

During the year I spent playing games with Sammy I also acquired more software for the PC, probably as gifts. I remember playing a Jeopardy! game a lot, as well as Infocom's Planetfall.

The Nintendo Power years

Where did I first encounter Nintendo's journal of agitprop, Nintendo Power? Almost certainly not at Sammy's house. The first issue came out right around the time we moved out of Arvin.

I remember the friend's room where I first saw the cool clay SMB 2 sculpture on the first issue's cover, but I don't know which friend it was. By default I'm going to say it was CJ Cullins, my post-Sammy NES buddy, even though the room doesn't feel like his room as I remember it. Maybe his family moved.

Unlike with Sammy, I had a non-Nintendo friendship with CJ, a tall skinny kid with bronze hair and freckles. We'd met in third grade when we were both newcomers to Arvin, and though it cooled over the years as our school clique identities solidified into "nerd" and "skater", our friendship, held together by a mutual love of Nirvana, lasted in some form until I graduated from high school and moved back to LA.

(CJ doesn't show up in my junior high yearbooks, but he is in my high school yearbook. If I recall correctly, he moved away for a couple years and then moved back.)

CJ lived in Arvin proper, a few blocks from the school. My house was six miles away. So my middle school years of two-player gaming often took the form of Friday night sleepovers at CJ's house. Although the year I spent at Sammy's house was formative and looms larger in my mind, many of my favorite old gaming memories were formed at CJ's house: killing each other in North and South, winning Kid Icarus, and getting multiple endings to Maniac Mansion.

For Christmas 1988 I got my own NES. I don't think I got any other games at the time, but the Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt pack-in was plenty of excitement for me. I remember my father helping me set up the A/V cables that Christmas, but my memory of playing SMB that day has blended in with all the memories of the dozens of other places I've played that game. The NES also came with a printed game catalog, which I loved to read. To this day I get a nostalgic thrill from the pixel art used on the covers of the NES launch titles.

From my earlier coveting I knew that the NES cost a hundred dollars at retail, a princely sum at my age. For several years afterwards I would envision large amounts of money in terms of how many Nintendos it would buy. I'm pretty sure the NES came from my grandparents. They were pretty generous, and $100 was about what they'd spend for a grandchild's big blowout Christmas present.

(I had a friend, not mentioned elsewhere in this essay, who very memorably did not get an NES that Christmas. But I've already written a fictionalized version of that occurance, so you'll have to wait until I sell the story to read it.)

In July of 1989 I got my first issue of Nintendo Power. I remember doing an insane amount of work to pull a big stump out of the back yard for $50 so I could pay for my subscription, though I may have done that in 1990 to renew my subscription.

It's hard to overestimate how much I loved Nintendo Power. I read it all the time and everywhere. It was full of detailed information about pieces of software! Its maps let you explore a game world mentally without ever buying the game!

It never occured to me that Nintendo Power was corporate propaganda designed to do just that--submerge you irretrievably in Nintendo's world. The unsavory aspects of Nintendo Power are clearly visible to my adult eyes: the "tips" that were workarounds for bugs in the games, the artfully worded blurbs for terrible cartridges, the back cover's constant shilling for the Nintendo Seal of Quality (which was a joke in your town and every other), and most of all the letters, which were carefully selected to give kids talking points when arguing with adults about the merits of video games.

(Looking at those old issues of Nintendo Power, the most interesting parts now are the crazy cartoon monsters at the bottom of the pages, delivering gossip about upcoming games and totally unconstrained by normal rules of corporate synergy.)

Parents, including mine, were concerned about their kids spending so much time on the Nintendo. My parents grudgingly accepted my obsession as another aspect of a) my interest in computers, b) the end of civilization. Looking back, I suspect their attitude towards my Nintendo usage was "as long as his grades hold up..." My mother must have seen Nintendo Power for what it was, but she never said anything to destroy my illusions.

(My standard punishment when grounded was confiscation of my NES controllers for a week. It was aggravating but not a terrible punishment because I could still use the PC. Also, I found where the controllers were hidden, so I could still play before my parents woke up.)

But even the propaganda aspects weren't all bad. A game might be terrible, but the Nintendo Power writeups were always entertaining. A two-page spread for a mediocre game would show all the cool power-ups, kind of like a trailer that gives away all the good parts of a movie and you don't have to see the movie. A tiny blurb for a terrible game would give you enough ideas to design a decent game or fantasy scenario in your head. As long as you didn't try to play the games, you were fine.

I drew my own Nintendo Power-style maps in sixth grade. I designed a Mega Man game that featured enemies like Ink Man (his minions could blind you with ink, turning the screen temporarily dark). I designed an exploration game that was a total ripoff of Goonies II.

Large as my Nintendo obsession looms in memory, the audit in part 2 shows that I didn't own that many cartridges. Almost all the ones I did own were Christmas or birthday presents. At this point in my life I almost never had enough money to my name to afford an NES cartridge. And so the games I remember best weren't necessarily ones I owned. They dated from time spent with Sammy C., or I only knew about them through Nintendo Power. Or, most commonly, I rented them.

Look in the NES audit in part 2 and you'll see a lot of rental games. Arvin had two video rental stores and by this time they'd branched out into renting NES games. Many's the Friday my mother would take me to one or the other of these stores and let me pick out a game for the weekend while she picked out a movie. CJ and I also rented games for our sleepovers, though I'm not sure how that worked because neither store was particularly near his house. (No, I remember now: CJ and I and Ivan Orozco walking to one of the stores from school and renting a game and walking to CJ's house. I remember because I was in the lead walking home, walking backwards to explain something to CJ and Ivan, and I ran into a signpost. Bonk.)

At some point during this 1989-1990 period I stayed over at the out-in-the-boonies house of yet another friend, whose name I won't mention. His house had an Atari 2600 with a huge selection of games. It also had bugs. Bugs that would run across the floor at night and bite you, making it impossible to sleep. We played those games all night. The games were not too hot compared to the NES, but they were totally new to me. I'd never heard of them or read previews of them in gaming magazines, and each one was a surprise. In particular I remember Adventure and a bizarre little shooter called Plaque Attack.

(Much later, near the end of high school, this person's mother would yell at me, believing me through a hilarious misunderstanding to be a bad influence, a product of negligent parenting, a long-haired freak who did nothing but drive a fast car and cause trouble. This was the coolest I ever felt in high school.)

Although most of the kids in Arvin were Hispanic, most of my NES memories are of playing with other white kids. The exceptions are Ivan, who would sometimes join me at CJ's house, and Ricky Garay, who's now a comedian in LA; but I don't think they had their own systems. If you look through the cartridge audit in part 2 there's a lot of one-off mentions of being at some other kid's house, and the other kid was always white. Although nobody in Arvin was really well off (except Sammy's family, apparently), immigrant families tended to be even less well off, and less likely to buy an expensive machine that their kids would play all afternoon instead of doing homework. This changed gradually: in 1997, Dario Espinoza, my best friend from high school, got an N64. Though I don't know whether his parents got it for him or if he bought it himself.

Next time: the end of the NES years.

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Posted by Brendan at Fri Jul 17 2009 16:51

When my elementary-school friend Ben moved to Hawaii, our mothers prodded us into writing each other. Ben had the brilliant idea of making these letters consist mostly of a Nintendo Power-like guide to an imaginary Zelda game; I had never even played Zelda at this point, so I just kind of took terms like "power sword" and "rupees" and ran with them. There was a lot of activating secret portals and leaping through them, leaving the rest of the level unfinished.

I think our mothers had the foresight to make copies of some of those letters; I hope they're still around. I think the actual correspondence content was pretty hilariously skimpy. "Dear Ben, Hi. Have you done any surfin' dude? Okay, this is world 6-5."


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