I don’t know if any gift in my life brought me more joy than the Nintendo my parents bought for Christmas 1988.
We got the triple pack that came with the NES system, the gun that went with Duck Hunt, and the Power Pad, which was the ancestor of both the Wii and Tom Smykowski’s “Jump To Conclusions” mat from Office Space.
The games I played the first few years on Nintendo are my favorites to this day. Zelda II. Mega Man 2. Ninja Gaiden I, II, and III (II is the weak-link, but still). Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. Double Dragon.
I was a good video game player. A few years later, when Mortal Kombat was blowing up the arcade, I’d go to the Time Out in the Irondequoit Mall (this was back when malls were social hotspots for teenagers…the teenagers who weren’t in Time Out, anyway) and take on the Saturday challenge early 90s gamers faced: walk in with no more than $1 in quarters and see how long you could stretch your play. If you were truly accomplished, you’d be able to beat all comers and make a dollar last a long time. One of my proudest moments was the day I beat everyone I played for an hour and a half in a row, and finally people just walked away and stopped challenging me. When you really wanted to stick it to someone, you’d play while looking up at the mirrored ceiling. I don’t know why this was considered so cool, but it was like when And-1 basketball wizards bounce the ball off their opponent’s head or pull his shirt over his head while he’s guarding them. It nearly led to fights. And if you were gonna do that, you better win, or you’d look like a douche. We were all douches, of course. But tis better to look up at the ceiling and be thought a douche than to lose to a douche looking up at the ceiling and remove all doubt. Shakespeare said that.
One of my favorite games for NES was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was sooo intricate (for 1989): you could use all 4 turtles in the game, each with different abilities/strengths/speeds. So there was actually strategy involved, and the game world was enormous (for 1989) and not totally linear.
When I was 10, 11, 12, maybe 13, I always got to the last level, inside the Technodrome, and died. There were these dudes in rocket packs who floated in the air and devastated you when you got to the last room before Shredder.
TMNT was the only game I tried to beat that I couldn’t. It became my white whale. Then my pituitary gland had other ideas. Puberty arrived (so did Street Fighter). I started playing sports more and video games less. I discovered more enticing temptations at the mall than the arcade. I found whole new ways to feel inadequate beyond failing to beat a video game–ahh, Erin Laraby! Those notes I put in your locker were a foolish fool’s foolishness!
Fast forward 6 years, to the summer after my freshman year of college. I’m actually doing well with the ladies (too well, it’d turn out). I had a job. I just finished a year at a college I hated and would never have to return to. I was in that glorious time of life where I actually thought life was supposed to be this easy–if not for others, than certainly for me. Life was good.
One day I found the Nintendo in a closet. I was feeling nostalgic (now, being 34 and looking back at 18-year old me being nostalgic, makes me nostalgic), so I hooked it up and ripped through all the old games.
I love playing video games over and over again because it’s like playing songs on the piano. To not only beat a game, but actually MASTER it, means you’ve deciphered a pattern of fingering and rhythm that requires focus to uncover and discipline to command. I like to play old games in search of perfection. Lots of people can beat Contra with 30 men. Some can beat it with 3. I can beat it without dying once. I beat Mega Man 2 without dying or using any energy fill-ups. Until I have a child, I will never accomplish anything greater than beating Ninja Gaiden without getting hit once. (Caveat: the very last boss is a demon whose head you have to cut off before you can hit his stomach, which is what kills him. The demon’s head is like 5 times bigger than you and rolls on top of you when you sever it. No way to avoid it. But I didn’t get hit the rest of the game).
I took out TMNT and started playing, having decided to adopt a newfound “active nihilist” approach and enjoy the game for the journey, without care for the fact that I couldn’t beat it. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum/Technodrome…
I beat it.
I hadn’t played the game in years. I was shocked. I played it the next day. Same thing: beat it again. I kicked the floaty guys’ asses (there’s a sentence you don’t hear every day), got to Shredder, and kicked his ass too. Each time. After that week, I played it another 2 or 3 times in my life. Same thing: beat it every time.
I felt the kind of relief only John Elway could know. This one bugaboo, the one glaring hole in my resume, had been capped off in the shlockiest, more formulaic Hollywood finale.
It was awesome.
I bear this experience in mind when I encounter a difficult situation in life. Sometimes the only way you can work something out is to walk away from it indefinitely, literally and figuratively, and trust that you’ll find your way back someday, and when you do it will be the right time. Doesn’t matter how much you want then to be now. Then’s then. Now’s now. Trust in the inevitable ebb and flow of now becoming then. And when then becomes now, then you’ll get it. Walk away. With sincerity and with trust. Don’t look back, Orpheus. Don’t look back.