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Before the Internet: The NES

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

“On April 30, 1993, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) put the web into the public domain. A decision that has fundamentally altered the past quarter-century.” --DAVID GROSSMAN. Although plenty of our pastime activities included electronic entertainment and movies, the 1980s offered kids a multitude of recreational distractions that may be less relatable to today’s youth. Whether timeless or lost to time, this ongoing series is dedicated to the many 1980s activities in which we engaged.

While a lot of what we did before the Internet involved actually scooting our butts out the door and confronting the wide world with an awe-inspiring sense of imagination, not everything required as much motivation. Believing otherwise, many of us may even look at the contemporary world and utter the worst possible “old person” phrase: “Kids today…” And how might you finish that statement? Kids today play too many video games. They don’t play outside like we used to. They don’t have the same vast sense of imagination. They spend too much time on their cell phones.

Only, that’s a bunch of generational BS, isn’t it? Yes, kids in the 1980s spent a lot of time outside. But we also spent a lot of time with the little gray box: The Nintendo Entertainment System.[1] The only home console I had experience with before the NES was my father’s Intellivision. I don’t think he bought it for me or my brother (maybe we were too young?) because he had that system in his bedroom. We were allowed to play it of course, but to my recollection it was a bit of an ordeal. We had to ask first and wait for him to set it up. A lot of the time games or components didn’t work correctly. I was too young to understand what the issue was, but our enjoyment of the system was usually relegated to only short sessions with the game Tron.

A couple years later, my neighbor upstairs, Robert [2], got his own NES. He’d occasionally let us play, though mostly he made us watch him play. It became clear that I had to secure my own Nintendo, because friendship with Robert was untenable. Since the nationwide US release of the NES was in September of 1986, I’m speculating that I got one in 1987.

“Speculating?” you ask incredulously. “How do you not remember the precise time and date of this epic acquisition!?”

It’s true. As much as I loved my NES, I have no recollection of when or why I received one. For context, in 1987 I was only seven years old, so my memory of that time is spotty. I asked my parents to fill in the blanks, but neither of them is quite sure either, landing on, “It was probably a Christmas present?” Complicating matters, there exists no photographic or video evidence of an ecstatic young Tony tearing into a wrapped Nintendo box. It’s a shame, really, to be completely devoid of what I can only assume was an incredibly happy moment.

Still, I remember playing that amazing video game system for years to come, and those memories are solid and unwavering. Early on, one of my absolute favorite games to play was Duck Hunt. Yes, the simple, light gun shooter that came free with every console. Remember, I was pretty young, and at the time simple games satisfied me the most.

I’d like to say as I got older I got better at video games, but the truth is I rarely beat any of those games. I managed to squeak out a win on Super Mario Bros. with the help of warp levels, tips from friends, and many hours of practice. I also scored a win in Life Force [3], but only because of the infamous Konami Code [4]. Later on I'd get a Game Genie and tear through all my games again, this time actually being able to progress through previously impossible levels. In other words, I always had to cheat.

Otherwise, I’d stumble through the same levels as I always did, never quite beating most games and never attaining any notoriety as a gaming wizard. None of my friends were particularly good either. I knew because one of our favorite things to do on hot summer days was crowd around the NES, taking turns with Mario games or Contra. We'd play Castlevania or Fester’s Quest, only taking breaks long enough to blow into the cartridges to make them work. [5]

Sometimes we’d head out to the video store and rent a new game to try. One of my favorites (one I never owned but rented a number of times) was 3D World Runner. As I said, I tended to like the simpler games. Excite Bike, California Games, The Karate Kid, Kung Fu, Rad Racer, these were games I returned to frequently. My other neighbor, Tommy, used to spend most of his time with The Legend of Zelda and other RPG style games, but I never did get into those for some reason. I’d watch him play, and he’d reveal secrets like the warp flute, and I remember thinking it was all too complicated. There were too many hidden areas and unknowable secrets. The game was too much of a maze and too hard.

To this day I have still never beaten The Legend of Zelda [6]. Interestingly, over the years I have grown fond of this style of game. Though not exactly the same, I have been playing Elden Ring a lot for the past month and have loved previous entries in the Dark Souls universe. But even as I grow older and continue to play newer and newer consoles, my love for that old gray box has never lessened. I still return to those NES games of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and I continue to find enjoyment in their pixel art and 8-bit soundtracks.

I suspect I always will.

[1] Not to mention all the time we spent at the arcade, the movie theater, watching VHS rentals, and any number of other digital distractions. [2] He was an older kid who was usually pretty mean. I remember one of his favorite pastimes was standing in the stairwell and spitting from the top floor to the bottom. [3] Part of the Gradius family of games. [4] The same code that worked across many Konami games, including Contra. [5] As an adult I learned blowing into the carts not only didn't fix them, but probably contaminated them worse.
[6] I got very close a few years ago with the help of an online walk through, but lost interest at some point and never finished.


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