Growing Up Nintendo #01: The Unwrapping
January 26, 2015

In the summer between my second and third years of elementary school education, I moved from Perrydale, Oregon to a backwoods town known as Ashwood where I had previously resided while attending Kindergarten. Ashwood's primary claim to fame was that it had once been a mining town with a booming population of around 800, but decades later when I lived there in the 80s, most people knew about it only if they knew of the neighboring town of Antelope.

Antelope itself was notorious because of its one-time occupation by the leader of one of the more famous cults in the world, the group known as the Rajneesh. By the time that I lived in Ashwood, the Rajneeshpuram (as the cult compound was known) had been abandoned following attempts by its leaders to assassinate various government officials. Tourists and the otherwise curious occasionally felt drawn to visit the abandoned compound in the years that followed. I lived out in the sticks and my mom was constantly torn between an interest in seeing her children play outside and an understandable distrust for the strangers who would drive through and—if they spotted my sister or I—ask for directions to the old complex.

Given that environment, it makes sense that I didn't have much exposure to the outside world. Trips to the "real" town of Madras were infrequent. We made the drive about once a week to attend church, every other week or so for groceries and seldom for anything else. Given that background, it's hard to believe that I ever even heard of Nintendo. Video games weren't as mainstream a form of entertainment at that time as they now are.

My introduction to Nintendo actually came in the form of a copy of Mario Bros. for the Apple IIe computer that was available in the one-room classroom where I received the bulk of my elementary school education. A parent had made copies of some games for his son Leon, who attended the school at one time, and the compilations that he created remained behind once the family moved elsewhere. Those compilations exposed me to high-quality ports of a lot of the old classic games—Spy Hunter, Moon Patrol, Sneakers, Ms. Pac-Man, Neptune and many others—but for me the most enticing title was always Mario Bros. I played it at recess as often as my teacher permitted.

One week in the early fall, when I was suffering from Mario Bros. withdrawals because my teacher had finally banned the games from the classroom even during recess, my cousin visited from places unknown. I hadn't seen him in awhile following his parents' divorce, so I was anxious to tell him about my latest obsession: Mario Bros. His response to my effusive gushing was that there was much more to Mario than just the one-screen world that I knew.

''More?'' I asked, amazed. ''Is it better than Mario Bros.? More fun?''

"More fun?'' my cousin asked. ''Yes. In fact, there's SUPER Mario Bros.''

I was dazzled by the adjective and by the description of the game that he provided. Even as I pressed him for more details, I knew that I had to experience this wondrous thing. My cousin had planted a seed that would continue growing until it became what it is today and has been for years: complete addiction to the magic of video games.

Back then, though, I didn't have that addiction. Instead, I had a problem: parents who were struggling to make ends meet. My dad drove log truck and was sometimes away for months at a time. My mom had a job as the sole janitor at the school that I attended, but that essentially just paid for groceries. Though my parents usually tried to make Christmas an annual event to remember, the big day was still months away. Even one month is an impossibly long time for a third grader.

Christmas crept ever closer. For years, the tradition in Ashwood was the same: the kids at the elementary school would put on a play and pretty much every remaining community resident would show up in support. This year, though, our teacher was quite progressive (and also doomed to never teach there again after that first year). He decided that instead of performing a play, the kids would act out music videos for rock 'n roll Christmas songs. Between videos, the mostly geriatric audience watched video footage of the students saying what they wanted for Christmas. I'm pretty sure that my parents still have a video somewhere of me saying that I wanted a Nintendo for Christmas. From that night onward, I was known throughout the community as "the Nintendo kid."

And still I'd never played it.

Christmas came and Christmas went. I still had no Nintendo. Even back then, consoles became scarce around the time that pine tree corpses began decorating living rooms across America. I couldn't wrap my mind around the concept of supply and demand at the time, though. All I knew was that lots of kids somewhere in the world were enjoying Nintendo and I wasn't. I was so depressed, in fact, that my teacher eventually set up a party, planned to occur in a few weeks. A local classmate would even bring his NES so that I could finally play one. The Apple IIe would be back in commission and we would be able to play Zaxxon again on my teacher's Commodore 64. Obviously, I was looking forward to that party.

Weeks passed. One night in January, around five or six in the evening, my family headed home from an early evening spent in Madras. My mom and sister were riding in our yellow Volkswagon rabbit (an ever-present part of my childhood that eventually served as the car I drove when I eventually got my license) and I was riding with my dad in his semi truck. Since it was winter, darkness had already fallen. I didn't have much to say to my dad, who I wasn't close to at all because it seemed like most of the time that he was home from his weeks on the road, he was asleep or working on projects outside. I just stared out the window as we descended the steep grade that descended into the low valley where the town of Ashwood is situated.

''So, you're pretty interested in this Nintendo thing, aren't you?'' my dad asked from his seat.

It was an uncharacteristic question, coming from my dad or from anyone who knew me at this point in time. People usually didn't like to invite my Nintendo evangelism. I probably should have thought about that at the time, but after all, I was nine years old. I probably should have noticed the faintest hint of a smile, but that escaped me too. I only knew that I had been given another chance to sell my dad on the whole concept of a Nintendo in every home.

''What makes it so great?'' he asked me, as if I hadn't already told him dozens of times.

''It's--it's everything.'' I spoke in a lot of absolutes, back then. But to me, Nintendo really was everything. I can't tell you now what trivia I managed to rattle off as the truck finished its descent along the grade, then made its way along the last two or three miles toward our house.

''Well, I'm not going to buy one,'' Dad said finally, as we neared our gravel driveway.

I was crushed. I can still remember it, the ache that developed instantly in my throat. I fell instantly quiet and stared straight ahead in my seat, trying not to cry. This was it. The absolute. I would not be getting a Nintendo. Running away from home suddenly seemed like a good idea, like that kid in "My Side of the Mountain" that the teacher had read at school.

Then we got home and my dad pulled out the package.

Suddenly I had a reason to live again. Grim prospects for my future vanished. My mom and sister joined us from the car, my sister really not all that interested in the package except that she saw how excited it had me. We headed inside, to the kitchen table, where my parents decided how best to remove everything from the box.

My parents still have the packaging at their house. It shows a young family playing the Nintendo together, enraptured by the sight of Mario jumping over a pit in the first level of Super Mario Bros. as a pair of Goomba enemies approaches. It's quite the picture. We looked a little bit like that, my family, all of us hovering over the box.

''How's it work?'' my mom asked, betraying her lack of technical savvy.

''We'll figure it out,'' my dad assured us.

''You're going to love the Mario game,'' I promised my mother. ''You'll just love it.''

I meant what I said, as baseless as it was. I kept telling her how great this moment would be—how great it was—as we moved to the living room and put the system on a TV tray in front of the television. The process felt like it took years, though it couldn't have lasted more than a few minutes. The television came to life. The little red light on the "power" button glowed red and the black screen on our television flickered slightly as two titles slid into focus: Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt. We had the light zapper handy, of course, but only the plumber's adventures could possibly satisfy me for now.

As a family, we discovered Nintendo. We stayed up late, past my usual bedtime. Everyone took turns playing as we sat in chairs and on the sofa that formed a perimeter around the living room in our tiny mobile home. It really was a cramped and uncomfortable space, with its ragged green carpet and artificial wood paneling along the walls, but suddenly it was to me the most magical place in the world.

''Look at Jason,'' my dad said as we played.

I must have been quite the sight. I'd never been more excited about anything in my life. I was living my dream. I was playing horribly, laughing when my dad ran into the first mushroom, jerking my leg when I pressed the 'A button to make Mario jump and laughing again when my dad said that it sounded like Mario was farting.

Eventually, bed time could be delayed no further. I retreated to my bedroom, my mind and pulse racing. This was the best night of my life, I was sure, and more than twenty years later I can honestly say that only a few evenings have ever topped it. There were several nights back then when we gathered around the television as a family, enjoying those games. It was a rare treat for us, one that hasn't really been repeated since.

I still have the memories, though. I can still look back at those weeks when Nintendo made everything right, when gaming became a permanent part of my life and my identity. That first magical evening and the nights that followed are part of the reason I am who I am today, but they were only the beginning.

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