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Growing up Gaming: A Father’s Day Tale

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We don’t speak too frequently, but when we do, my friend Isabel reminds me in very few words just how she got to be one of my favorite people in the universe. Recently, she relayed the following quote by Mark Lawrence. Being the philosophizing food snob she is, it’s understandable why she’d have a quote by him handy.

“Memories are dangerous things,” says Mark. “You turn them over and over, until you know every touch and corner, but still you’ll find an edge to cut you.”

I love it. It’s perfect, isn’t it? So many of us define periods of time with the negative aspects and those periods of time, in turn, help define us. It can’t be healthy taking this approach, can it? Growing up is weird, though. Our later years happen so rapidly and we change so much from one year to the next. When we look back, we’re able to recall who we once were. Our ideals, however misguided, are easy to recollect; our mistakes, naivety, regrets, and tragedies all spring to the forefront of our memories.

I think gamers tend to contextualize their lives the same way, albeit with an additional mechanic. For one, the games we play and releases we await help us to establish a reliable time frame. One only needs consult the internet to look up a particular launch date relevant to the time in question. When I recall my childhood, this is the only device I use. The result is that when I go through my archive of timeframes and memories, my childhood stands out as exceptional. I tend to preserve it in amber where it maintains a surreal, dreamlike nature and envelopes a sense of innocence. Of all the pieces of amber that I can pull from my shelf and mull over, the first one in the sequence likely encompasses the most years and possesses the least certainty; all the games I played predated me, after all. Its surface is smooth, its contents blurry. But it’s my favorite and holds the most bearing on who I am today and why I am involved in video games. Who is the person responsible for shaping these malleable years, the man in charge of the synthesis of the amber? Certainly not me, but my father.

Super Mario Bros - Genesis-2

I was born in 1989 to my 22 year old Father and my even younger Mother. It was the year of the Power Glove. Nintendo was suing Tengen over the rights to Tetris and Capcom was releasing the second Megaman game. The SNES would not be out for another two years, around the time when I would actually be able to comprehend video games. It would be even longer before I could comprehend their stories since, you know, voiceovers weren’t so much a thing back then.

Playing games in a pre-voiceover era surely helped my vocabulary. Final Fantasy games and Mario RPG instilled in me an appreciation for storytelling. My Dad picked up on this advantage early, and helped nurture my hobby. Of course, before I could read, story wasn’t a quality I required. We gravitated towards Super Mario Bros. for obvious reasons. It was colorful and it was two player. It was easy to track progression and accomplishments; my first real understanding of personal growth and my first real lesson in the importance of practice.

To me, my Dad was the god of Mario. We’d play and I’d quickly exhaust my allotted lives. And then he’d hand me the controller, coach me, and I’d quickly exhaust his. It became a personal mission of mine to reach the levels I saw him reaching but on my own merit. I’d wait until my parents would go to sleep, I’d sneak out to our boxy, sticker covered television, and I’d practice. When I was finally caught, I was in World 3 at 4 in the morning. I don’t know if it was pride, but my Father didn’t punish me. I’d like to think my four year old self had managed to impress him

Naturally, we wouldn’t only play video games. My Dad and I also did all the typical Father and Son fare. When the North Eastern weather permitted and the will of the mosquitoes was in our favor, we’d play catch. We’d hit golf balls into the pond, me equipped with a mini-set of clubs and a swing he enjoyed showing off to his friends. The future I could derive from these activities was extremely limited, though, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I didn’t really have that impressive of a skill set in sports. I stuck to video games.

When the Super Nintendo was released, we bought it. This machine gave us more hours of joy than even the NES could manage. Goof Troop allowed us to solve spatial puzzles co-operatively in a game where you literally play as Father and Son. He’d play Goofy who could throw objects further. I played the zippy little bastard, Max.  Indiana Jones was an oppressively difficult title that we played often out of a love for the franchise. From that I learned that movie licenses and games rarely mix, and that taught me to be realistic with my expectations. Sunset Riders probably taught me nothing, but it had Cowboys and racist depictions of Native Americans, so I loved it anyway. It was a different time.

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It also had a handful of hyper compressed voiceovers. The audio fidelity was so awful that I thought for the better part of a year that the first boss wanted to be married to his money; a weird final request by any logic. Turns out, he preferred that we “bury” him with his money. He should have thought of that before trying to kill us, we’d joke.

Newer consoles made their way into our home, but they never quite captivated us the same way early Nintendo consoles had. For that reason, we stuck primarily to renting them. We rented the Genesis far more times than I care to remember. Honestly, we probably accrued the initial price of the system several times over in rental fees. And we did so for Lethal Enforcers.

Lethal Enforcers

 

Now, Lethal Enforcers is by no means a good game. It’s a light gun arcade game exemplary of the time. Two gaudy revolvers, blue and pink in color, plugged into the system and offered more accuracy than any of the VR guns available to us today, though, so it wasn’t a total wash. Light guns were awesome, and if you were an imaginative 6 year old, your couch would transform into makeshift cover, your recliner became something to dive behind. Really, what I was trying to turn Lethal Enforcers into is what video games are finally becoming; a more satisfying simulation of fantasy.

If renting consoles was a way to pass weekends, buying them was a way to celebrate holidays. Eventually, we owned pretty much all of them but if I’m being honest, the Genesis and the Playstations collected more dust than we originally anticipated. I kept returning to the older consoles, my earliest experiences with nostalgia, I think.

When the N64 came out, he bought me a controller for Christmas. I tried to explain to him that he was missing a crucial piece of equipment, but thanks just the same. Later that day, around dinner, I unwrapped the rest of the console. That was my lesson in trolling and Dad jokes in general. GoldenEye followed soon after. College kids have memories of playing that game with their dorm mates. Me, I remember playing it obsessively with my Dad and my best friend Keith, despite their objection to the abhorrent, three pronged controller. That controller also taught me of Nintendo’s general distaste for convention, and that gambles don’t always pay off. I’m looking at you, Virtual Boy. (And, the Wii U if things on that front don’t change soon.)

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These experiences lead to my career choice. Realism and a nay saying teacher quashed my dream of making video games; there simply weren’t that many publishers and it was a business where you had to know someone to get in. But I wanted to be involved. An early issue of EGM had a spread about E3, and I swore I would get there one day. My Father didn’t doubt it, and so far, I’ve been twice. But, eventually, I do hope to write a game that he can in turn play. That’s my next goal, and I don’t think I’d care to reach it nearly as much if it weren’t for those formative years gaming with my Dad.

But, hey, I’m going to wrap this up because Dad wants to try out Call of Duty on the new PS4. So, Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Here’s to another 25 years of gaming together, where we’ll both be old but our lifelong hobby won’t care. They’ll always be there for us to bond over.

 

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