I’m fresh off a round of Shadowgate and I’m wired. I just drank two Presidente longnecks just to bring me back down to level. I’m in my apartment, it’s 1989, I’m 11, and I’m playing Nintendo.
This all started last Saturday. Carl and I were walking down 6th Street, vaguely shopping but mostly just wafting around. We passed a dusty old storefront that I’d never noticed before. In the window were old dead-stock video-game consoles: Atari, ColecoVision, the Magnavox Odyssey. It was like that scene in Field of Dreams where he’s walking down the street and sees The Godfather advertised on the theater marquee and realizes he’s stepped back in time to meet Moonlight Graham.
Now I’m in the store. A big, fat Samoan who’s literally wearing a Hawaiian shirt is leaning on the glass display-case counter and staring at a tiny black-and-white TV with rabbit ears and dials. The store is dingy, dimly lit and devoid of customers. Everywhere are ancient video-game systems, cartridges, joysticks and brown-and-grey keyboards — artifacts from the advent of the home computer. I am in reverie.
I ask the Samoan about the original Nintendo Entertainment System in the window. I was 7 when the first shipment of these grey plastic boxes sailed into a U.S. harbor. He says $89, refurbished. I walk out. I’m too embarrassed to fashion myself as some nostalgic aging hipster who thinks that a) wouldn’t it be cool to own some retro piece of obsolete electronic hardware in my house, and b) this will cure my late-20s malaise by regenerating childhood glee.
But the next day, I’m back at the store. I spend a cosmetic amount of time pawing through old floppy disks for various Reagan-era PCs before re-approaching the Samoan. ”I’d like to buy the Nintendo.” It’s sloppily shrink-wrapped, along with one control pad and an adaptor to connect it to my post-Space-Age TV. I say a silent prayer that the shopping bag won’t be transparent. The Samoan stuffs it in a black Hefty wastebasket sack and pulls the ties.
If you were born between 1976 and 1982, you’re probably feeling this. If you were born a bit earlier, you were an Atari baby, raised on Frogger, Dig Dug and Pong. Slightly later, and you played Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat on Sega Genesis, or a more advanced version of Nintendo, like the Nintendo 64. You didn’t spend months trying to beat The Adventure of Link (like I did in December 1989) or send innocent birds to a violent end in Duck Hunt. These were the scenes from my childhood, and I spent years literally replaying them over and over in my parents basement, a socially inept gay boy who could at least get to level seven on Rad Racer.
How can I explain to you what Nintendo meant to me? When I walked into that store last Saturday and saw those game cartridges that I hadn’t thought about in nearly 20 years, it was a similar sensation to the time in my parents’ attic when I opened the old footlocker that I hadn’t opened since I’d brought it to summer camp in New Hampshire. The smell of camp smacked me right in the face, and suddenly I was in my old cabin. Not remembering my old cabin — I was there. That’s how it felt to suddenly be surrounded by messy piles of Excitebike and Zelda.
I arrive home with my Hefty bag and Shadowgate. I set up the system — it’s absurdly simple. Two cords, one that connects to the TV and one that connects to the outlet. Two buttons, Power and Reset. Ah, the ’80s. A simpler time. I remember the music immediately — staccato and metallic. The graphics are pleasingly ascetic. The game is technologically limited, based on patterns and repetition.
I don’t know what to think about myself for buying this thing, or how I should feel about the fact that this little mental time warp back to early childhood could make me so happy. It seems clichÃ©d and unhealthy. My generation is known for worshipping retro aesthetics, for refusing to grow up. I’m not interested in participating in that. I do, however, want to briefly remember what it was like to work toward and conquer something.
Eventually last Sunday, I reached a certain stage in Shadowgate that I couldn’t get past. I’d tried everything — reciting all my spells, waving a torch around (it’s a role-playing game, so it involves a lot of stuff like that). Totally stuck, I suddenly realized that this was the exact same spot I’d gotten stumped at in my parents’ basement when I was 11 years old. I’d worked for months to figure out how to move past this level, but I’d never achieved it. I couldn’t believe that rather than delivering me back to the unencumbered delights of childhood, my Nintendo was only going to reanimate the frustrations I used to feel when I couldn’t win the game.
Until I realized that fretting about an impassable level in a video game is sooo 1989. Why become frustrated and ditch the game like I’d done nearly two decades ago when I’ve got Google? I popped open my iBook, searched ”NES Shadowgate hints,” and suddenly, I had hundreds of cheat sheets before me showing how to advance to the next stage — just take the key from the skeleton’s hand to open the door to the dragon’s lair! Sure enough, it worked, and I’m happy to say that after a brief 16-year hiatus, I’m now well on my way to defeating Shadowgate. And I can drink a beer while doing it. Maybe the present day isn’t such a bad deal after all.
Will Doig writes from his exile in New York City. Should he emerge from Shadowgate, he can be reached at email@example.com