Back in my mid-’80s heyday, I would occasionally visit the Bay Shore Family Roller Rink. I always loved the logo pictured on the front of the building: a happy cartoon family skated together, led by the father hoisting a flag emblazoned with the name of the business. Every half year or so, my elementary school would host a party there, and we would strap on our old-school, blocky skates (this is before the days of inline skating) and awkwardly roll around the rink for an hour or two. Hell, we were even forced to perform “The Hokey Pokey” in skates–again, very awkwardly.
But probably the biggest hit of the roller rink wasn’t the skating, the neon sticker vending machine, or even the greasy pizza station in the back. It was the small but nevertheless impressive arcade that lined one of the walls of the building. It was there that I was first introduced to the world of Nintendo. I remember skating around alone one Saturday night only to discover I couldn’t find any of my friends who came with me. Then I noticed the sizable crowd surrounding one arcade cabinet, which included my aforementioned pals who abandoned me. Curious as to what the commotion was about, I worked my way out of the rink and, since I was still strapped to the plastic, wheeled contraptions, baby-stepped my way to the game in question.
As some of the crowd parted, I was amazed by what I saw. The title character, who was mustachioed and clearly modeled after Italian descent, was stomping on little guys shaped like mushrooms, eating mushrooms himself and getting bigger, and picking up flowers and throwing fireballs in a colorful world full of castles and princesses. The game was “Super Mario Brothers” (or “Bros.,” for short), and this wasn’t the Mario Brothers I was used to, who were usually stuck on one screen and trying to avoid flying turtles and other odd hallucinogenic animal imagery cooked up by some computer wiz in Japan. In fact, that was the most amazing thing about this new game. When Mario walked over to the right edge of the screen, he wasn’t stopped; the screen kept moving forward. His world got bigger. And bigger. My young, impressionable mind was introduced to things called “stages” and “bosses” at the end of each stage that you had to defeat before moving onto the next one.
At the time, the action to most hit games was confined to one static screen: “Pac-Man,” “Q-Bert,” “Frogger,” “Galaga,” “Space Invaders,” and even “Donkey Kong,” which also starred our famous Guido video-game hero, though he was known as “Jump Man.” “Super Mario Bros.” changed all that. I was told this game was called a “sidescroller,” because you started moving from the left side of the screen and had to keep advancing to the right. From Point A to Point B. Simple. But brilliant.
Because “Super Mario Bros.” was the biggest hit since “Pong,” about 90% of all video games followed this model afterwards. There were the “Castlevania,” “Megaman,” and “Contra” franchises, and they all owed more than a little to borrowing the framework of the original game that made it so successful in the first place.
These home video games were virtually unchanged until 1996. That was when I first played Nintendo 64 (as in 64 bits). I was a sophomore in college, and my neighbors proudly boasted, “We just hooked up our N64!” Being a lifelong Nintendo fan, I excitedly raced to their room to play “Super Mario 64,” the logical extension of the Mario series.
The first thing I noticed that was radically different-not only from the original Nintendo but also the Super Nintendo, which was basically Nintendo on steroids-was the controller. Glancing at the strange gizmo that seemed to have 15 extra, unnecessary buttons and not only the typical cross-shaped controller but a mini-joystick for your thumb, I asked, “How the hell do you hold this thing?” After being shown and the game was loaded up, I was at first amazed at the graphics. Indeed, Nintendo was utilizing every inch of its 64 bits. The world was HUGE. But that was a problem.
I’m notorious for having a terrible directional sense, and I one time (no joke) got lost in my own high school, so if I was having trouble navigating the real world, what hope would I have in the fake, pixilated world of Nintendo? None at all. Now there were gigantic maps to follow and even multiple camera angles that gave me headaches every time the flying Koopa overhead switched them on me. After fumbling with the strange controller for almost an hour, and having Mario retrace his same steps over and over again, much to the chagrin of my neighbor (“Dude, you went that way already!”), I gave up. I surrendered the ungodly controller to him and admitted defeat. In fact, my thumb was smarting, a symptom of “Nintendo-itis” that normally only happened after playing for hours on end, not less than one hour. “Nuts to this,” I muttered and then left the room, dragging my proverbial tail between my legs, as my neighbor scored another zillion points after finding the secret passageway–or something.
I really didn’t touch video games since–until 5 years ago, when my girlfriend (now wife) bought me Nintendo Wii for Valentine’s Day. I thought, if nothing else, I would get some good exercise from this machine with games such as “Wii Sports,” “Wii Fit,” and the like, since, for those who don’t know, the system is interactive; if you move the controller one way, your character on the screen follows in that direction, as in playing tennis or baseball, etc.
But, of course, I didn’t want to be confined to just sporting games, so I picked up a few extra titles. I’ve always enjoyed and was good at pinball and racing games, mostly because they’re simple (get a high score and finish the race before everyone else), and there are no mazes to navigate, unlike the newer, complex games. So I bought “Mario Kart Wii” and “Williams Classic Pinball,” which has the unique advantage of being set in an old-school, ’80s pinball gallery, complete with a soundtrack by heavy metal hair bands. (These marketers know their target audience, i.e., me, is aging.)
But how could I resist “The Simpsons Game”? My favorite show coupled with my favorite video-game company? As Homer once obliviously asked himself: “How can I lose?” Big time, that’s how. More maps. More puzzles. More complex strategies and secret characters to unlock. At one point, Kearney, one of the bullies who torments Bart, starts mocking you for taking so long to figure the stage out: “Not exactly Einstein, are ya?” he taunts. Panicked, I checked the game rating on the box: “Rated T for Teen.” So basically, this game was intended for 13-year-olds to master, and I, now well into my 30s, was spending hours on something that was literally supposed to take minutes. When I finally completed Level 1, the stats screen recapped my efforts: The duration of time an average “gamer” takes to complete the first level is approximately 25 minutes. My time? 17 hours (obviously, not in a row). I put the game down in defeat. There was a reason why I found this game in the bargain basement bin of Best Buy in the first place.
Then my birthday rolled around that year, and my best friend gave me a new Wii game: “Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures.” Again, one of my favorite movie heroes paired with one of my favorite childhood toys. “How can I lose?” You probably know the answer by now.
Donned with the classic brown fedora atop his yellow Lego head and armed with his trusty bullwhip in hand, poor Lego Indy spent hours aimlessly wandering the CGI landscape and randomly whipping inanimate objects-with no clear goal or endpoint in sight. Frustrated once more, I turned to the game rating on the disc’s container: “Rated E for Everyone.” That means this game is supposed to be played by 10-year-olds, and I couldn’t reach Stage 2! I was getting worse.
My wife sat by helplessly as I got my Lego brains beaten out. Then, after leafing through the game’s instruction manual in a last-ditch, desperate attempt to help me, she offered, “It says here you’re supposed to grab the hat off one of your enemies in order to impersonate them!”
“And how do I exactly do that?” I asked, getting killed for the 49th time (luckily, you pretty much have unlimited lives in this game).
“I don’t know,” she answered. “It doesn’t say. But you need a hat to gain entrance into the nightclub, so you can get closer to completing your artifact.”
I felt like adding: “Then I can capture the Seven Keys of Kenthuzler! And acquire the Map of Righteousness! Tolkien couldn’t follow this plot!” When did things get so complicated? A game is supposed to be fun, not work.
After quitting the game, I was informed by the prompt onscreen, almost mockingly, that I completed 1.5% of the game. Hours of my time to finish 1.5%. Is it worth it?
The next day, I e-mailed my best friend my woes, and he immediately responded with a link to an online strategy guide. Quickly perusing the pages and pages of text I had to learn in order to master the game, an old phrase popped into my head: “Nuts to this.” I haven’t played Lego Indy since.
A few weeks later, as I was driving to my bank, I ended up passing some very familiar terrain that sparked more than a healthy dose of nostalgia. There, next to the bowling alley, was a cleared field with some rubble on the sidelines. I thought I spotted a cartoon flag sticking out of the debris. The Bay Shore Roller Rink was leveled. I knew it had been abandoned for years, but passing the cheery logo of that cartoon family skating together was always a gentle reminder of a more innocent time. And now it’s gone. That logo reminded me of the reliable old witch that was hung to a treetop high in the air every Halloween near the front entrance of the pumpkin patch around the corner from my house. That last farm in my town was replaced years ago by a posh housing development.
Call me old fashioned, but I’m going to stick with my sidescrollers, thank you very much. And if I can’t find any more in existence, I’ll always have my pinball and racing games.