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21 December, 2011

"Just an 8-bit Guy in a xBox World…”

This will be an unusual column for me, one focusing on video games instead of my more familiar venues.  I’m not a gamer; I don’t have an xBox, or a Wii, or a PS3.  I have a Playstation 2 … with maybe six games.  The only ones I play frequently are the various Tiger Woods Golf games.  I just don’t have the time, money, or inclination to spend hundreds of dollars on these high-tech consoles, accessories, or games.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy video games, or that I was never addicted to the electronic lure of dancing sprites.  In fact, there was a time when I spent virtually every free minute hooked to a gray and black controller, moving two-dimensional characters through side-scrolling worlds.  I was a Nintendo junkie, and Super Mario was my drug of choice.
That initial video-game craze hit at just the right time for me.  In my twenties, in my own apartment for the first time, with limited entertainment options, the Nintendo Entertainment System seemed like a cheap way to fight off boredom.  I’d get home from work, fix supper, and settle down to guide Mario on his quest to rescue Princess Toadstool from the evil clutches of Bowser.  My only weapons in this quest:  My jumping ability; my power to stomp Goombas; a few power-ups; and my mastery of kicking Koopa-Troopers and running along behind as they cleared a path for me.
Before too long, I had mastered Super Mario Bros., only to discover at the end that “…our Princess is in another Castle!”  I progressed onto Super Mario Bros. 2, only to discover that it bore no relation to the first game.  It was, in fact, a remake of a Japanese game, Doki-Doki Panic.  The game’s creators had simply replaced the original characters with ones from the Super Mario Bros. game.
While generally disliked by fans, I loved the game, and thought it was every bit as enjoyable as the first.  It gave you the option to play as any one of four characters:  Mario; his brother Luigi; the Princess’ faithful retainer Toad; and the Princess herself.  Each had their own strengths and weaknesses, and part of mastering the game was learning when to play each one.  And while it proved more difficult to complete than the first, in due course I had beaten it, as well.
However, the adventures of the two Italian plumbers weren’t the only games I conquered back in the day.  Tetris was a favorite of mine, as was 1942.  Silent Service got nearly as much playing time as the Mario’s, and even Duck Hunt had its moments.  And of course Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse soaked up much of my free time, as I battled monsters and demons in a campaign to destroy Dracula.
Still, I always returned to the Mushroom Kingdom, and finally faced the ultimate NES game, at least as far as I was concerned…  Super Mario Bros. 3.  This wasn’t just a revamped version of the first game; this was something completely new and different.  This game had map screens, and sub-games, and it completely blew me away the first time I popped the cartridge in my player.
Sadly, I never completed SMB3.  My player, like all the Nintendo front-loaders, had a fatal flaw that rendered them virtually unusable after a comparatively short time.  I had completed maybe five levels when my player fell victim to this flaw, and I had to quit my gaming addiction cold turkey.
Like many facets of my childhood and youth, the pangs of withdrawal soon faded as adult life insisted on intervening.  Eventually, the memories of my 8-bit escapades receded into the dark caverns of my mind, where they slumbered peacefully awaiting the light of day once again.
Recently, that day dawned.  I was looking for a PS2 game for a Christmas gift, and found a video game store in my area that dealt in used and vintage games.  I was unable to find the game I was looking for, but as I was browsing, I noticed a small, odd-looking console sitting on a shelf.  The only marking on it was the word “Yobo” next to a cartridge slot in the top of the console.  Curious, I asked the clerk what system it was, and what the games were like.  He just glanced at it, and said that it was a NES-clone, and it played all the original NES games.
Instantly, a flood of nostalgia washed over me, carrying me back through the intervening years.  I could hear the insidiously viral Super Mario theme fighting its way back to the forefront of my consciousness, and my thumbs began itching for the feel of the controller again.  Unfortunately the cost of the system, though not unreasonable, was more than I could afford at the time; but I knew I had to have one once the holidays were through.  I asked the twenty-something clerk if it was an item they kept in stock; would they still have one in a month or so?  He just looked at me as though I asked in which aisle would I find spats and buggy whips.  “Who wants to play old Nintendo games?” was his only response.
Well, quite frankly, I do.  And I fully intended to head back after the holidays to buy the console, and the Super Mario game of days gone by, but something intervened to make that trip unnecessary.
A good friend of mine asked me what I wanted for Christmas.  Giving it some thought, I said “a Nintendo.”  After I explained that I wasn’t talking about the Wii that costs several hundred dollars, she said that sounded like a good present, and promptly changed the subject.
Now, in the time that I’ve known this woman, and we’ve been exchanging gifts, not once has she given me what I had told her I’d like when asked “What do you want for…  [Insert Holiday of choice]?”  Don’t misunderstand me… her gifts are always nice, usually nicer than what I had wanted.  I’ve just learned that, no matter my response to her question, I will be surprised when I open my present.  This year was no exception.  In fact, this year was the biggest surprise of all.  This year, I got exactly what I asked for.
So now I sit in front of the TV, the Super Mario Bros. start screen displayed in all its glory, awaiting the command to once more launch Mario on his quest.  It feels as though I just returned to a game I had pressed the pause button on… over 18 years ago.  For four years of my life, I played this game at least two or three hours a day—every day.  The feel of the controller, like the movements needed to make the little plumber do battle at my command, are ingrained into my muscle memory by those thousands of hours of gameplay. 
Other games will follow, and ultimately I will be able to finish my struggle with the King Koopa and his children the Koopalings from SMB3.  But right now, this is good… this is enough.  There’s an expression I’ve heard that I feel describes me pretty well.  I’m not sure where it originated, if it’s something from TV or something I picked up like lint on Velcro.  “I’m just an 8-bit guy in an xBox world…”  And I couldn’t be happier about it.

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