Back in the summer of 2011, I foolishly sold off my retro game collection. Grad school and my marital vows were a year behind me, and I had struggled over with finding a decent paying job in rural Virginia. As my wife and I prepped for our move up north in hopes of more career opportunities, I found myself questioning what still held value in my eyes. An old Nike shoebox full of NES games came under this guillotine.
My brother and I had sold off the bulk of our original NES collection in the fall of 1992 in order to buy a Sega Genesis. At the time, the thought of holding onto these mementos of my childhood didn’t even cross my mind; the wagging finger of Sonic was enticing me forward like a sultry siren. Although I love the Genesis at the time, it has not remained as favorable in my nostalgic mind. Yes, Sonic the Hedgehog, my impetus for buying the system, still remains a favorite, and the Christmas I didn’t get its sequel remains one of my most disappointing moments in life, which isn’t too bad in retrospect.
The Genesis led to PC gaming with the likes of Doom, Warcraft, and even NASCAR Racing. By the time I was in middle school, video games had fully broken into three dimensions, but, for some reason, I staked claim with the Sega Saturn, mostly because I was ignorant of the current console landscape and could not find an N64 anywhere I looked.
After the Saturn’s lifespan came to a premature end, my brother and I moved on to the Sony Playstation where Lara Croft beckoned. Along with Tomb Raider II, we picked up Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. While SOTN remains in my top three games of all time, its mere presence awakened a dormant feeling inside of me. Having been fairly young during the height of the NES, I always struggled with the Castlevania series, either because of the difficulty of the first and third games or the sheer what-the-fuckness of the second; however, the memory of them came flooding back, along with the desire to relive them.
That summer, I scored my neighbor’s old Nintendo and his game collection at a yard sale for $40, a freaking steal at this moment in time. While this was a great find, my neighbor had been mainly into RPGs, so while he had poured hours over Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, I could not give less of a fuck about these. Luckily, a FuncoLand had recently opened up in my home time, and I had started my first job (at an arcade no less), so it appeared fate was indeed smiling upon me.
Throughout that summer, I set about collecting all of the games that come to mind when one thinks of the Nintendo Entertainment System: the Super Marios, the Legends of Zelda, Metroid, Mike Tyson’s Punchout, and the games that held special meaning for me, such as BaseWars and the game with Fabio on the cover.
As high school rolled along, the awe of owning these games inevitably wore off. As the DreamCast and PS2 rotated into my bedroom, the shoebox full of NES games found itself lodged in the back of my closet. Matters weren’t improved when the NES system finally gave up the ghost, leaving me with a bunch of unplayable carts.
In college I learned about the glory of emulation, and I had all the games from my youth, and many others, at my fingertips. This kept me in practice on the classics until the Nintendo Wii emerged, and I could legally obtain my favorites again. While this was all well and good, emulation never gave me the same sense of satisfaction as playing a cart. For one, emulators allowed for save states, so I was able to beat Ninja Gaiden by saving after every little bit of progress I made. I had not earned the victory that I would have had this been accomplished on a cart.
Eventually, I came across a reproduction NES console made by some Chinese company. Seeing as it was $20, I picked it up, not even sure if my collection of carts still remained back home in my boyhood closet. Luckily, they did, and I was once again playing all my old favorites on a shiny new console, except for Castlevania 3, which didn’t work right because of some chip or something. Either way, I was playing the carts again, and I had even come to appreciate Zelda 2 and came within a saint’s whisper of beating it.
Within the next few years, though, my priorities changed drastically. I had far less time for games, and the games I did play were usually on current generation consoles. Coupled with the fact that I still held onto my emulator collection and a Wii full of Virtual Console games, the classic grey carts lost out in the battle of what was non-essential when gathering funds for our move.
At the time, I assumed if I ever wanted to regain my collection, it would be as simple to rebuild as it was the first time. Little did I know that a spike in retro game prices was just around the corner, making a game I had once bought for less than $10 now average more than $30. This made me reevaluate my stance when planning out which games to go after for my new collection. I wanted to focus only on the games I would play and enjoy playing, not the ones I felt I needed because they were “historically” significant. Oddly, this means Zelda 2, but not the first game. However, there were four games I knew I had to own. These were the same four games my parents had initially bought when they surprised my brother and I with the system:
Super Mario Bros.
I am confident I am not alone in claiming the privilege that this was my first experience with video games. Before Nintendo, I remember my brother and I playing a lot of Monopoly and with Transformers, but that changed when I held that small rectangular controller in my four year old hands. I would still play with action figured and a plethora of board games, but the moments we were allowed (only on weekends) to play Nintendo, I was there.
To this day, it still amazes me how complete a gaming package the original Super Mario Bros. remains. An adventure when broken down to its core components that makes no damn sense, but when taken as a holistic package, is gaming perfection. Using mushrooms to grow, jumping on turtles, shooting fireballs, breaking blocks, and fucking up a dragon who stole my woman seems as commonplace as two plus two. What can I say that has not been said about this game already, except that I still play this game, close to a monthly basis. Additionally, my proudest moment so far as a father came as my daughter sat beside me, and I placed the controller in her hand as I gently pressed her thumb against the button to make Mario jump, technically making this the first video game we both played.
The neat thing about starting up my collection anew has been finding out tidbits I never knew before. One of these is the difference between a three screw and a five screw cart. Apparently, the five screws were the earlier carts that Nintendo produced, and I was pleased to find the copy of Super Mario I had reobtained off eBay was indeed a five screw. While this means jack all for the value and what not, I enjoy knowing this is one of the carts that started it all and maybe the kid who originally played it had his life changed forever like I did.
Giddy is never a term I would use to describe my father about anything, but if ever there was a time when he came close, it would have been when he played the Zapper games. He had a collection of guns, but he wouldn’t hunt, he simply enjoyed shooting them, and this was an analogous outlet for that hobby. I didn’t realize it as a teenager, but my dad was just as much of a gamer as my brother and me when we first got our Nintendo. I hate to think he gave up the hobby because of his kids monopolizing the time on the system, but as I reflect now, it could be very possible, or he could have just grown tired of what increasingly became known as a child’s toy. Whatever the reason, my father did continue to game, and around the time I got a GameBoy, it was just as common to see my dad relaxing with a book in his hands as it was seeing him playing Tetris on the little white brick.
Hogan’s Alley, like most of the Zapper games, is fun for about 15 minutes. It does offer a little more variety than Duckhunt, though. There are three modes. One where the player shoots the bad guys out of a police lineup, and another where the player has to take them out in a simulated real-world environment. Failure to hit the bad guy targets in time results in a failure, and hitting one of the “good” targets also results in a failure. I have probably shot that stupid bitch target more times out of spit than I have for mistaking her for a bad guy. 10 failures and the game is over. The third mode askews the targets and throws a bunch of cans at the player that they need to shot in order to land on a particular ledge in order to gain the corresponding points for where it falls. Again, drop 10 cans and it’s game over.
Another classic game, but one that hasn’t held up nearly as well as Mario has. It’s still fun to bring it out from time to time just to fuck around in it, but there’s not much lasting appeal to be had anymore. The majority of tracks are simple enough to advance through, but the last couple are too annoying for me to want to try too many times before turning to another game. As a kid, the main draw for this game was being able to design and race on my own tracks, but that is something I don’t give a shit about anymore, and I can’t remember the last time I even bothered with that mode.
It may sound like I am sour on this game, and that may be the case, if it were not for the nostalgia factor associated with this game. While my parents originally only brought home Mario and Hogan’s Alley, the next day they went out and bought this game, as well. It was great fun in the 80s, and it’s more of a time capsule for me now, taking me back to a time of a wicker couch and ugly brown carpeting in my parents’ living room.
Another game my parents bought on that fabled second day of owning the system. I was quite fond of the Popeye cartoons I had watched in my young life, so I was drawn to this game. Sadly, being based on the arcade game, this one has aged the worst of these four. I got Excitebike and Popeye in a bundle off of eBay about a month ago. When it arrived, I played Popeye to ensure it worked and just to see the three different stages. I don’t believe I have touched it since
Ironically, Popeye plays like a rip-off of Donkey Kong – ironic because Shigeru Miyamoto originally wanted to make a Popeye game before coming up with his infamous ape. The player plays as Popeye and runs his sailor butt around the level, collecting whatever crap Olive Oyl is flinging: hearts, music notes, or letters. Bluto’s dumbass chases Popeye around, but he can be disposed of if Popeye eats his spinach, kind of like a power pellet in Pac-Man, or is able to knock a bag on his head.
I enjoyed this game when we first got the system just because it brought variety to our limited library. However, as it continued to expand, I spend very little time playing it. The only memory I have playing the game later was on a snow day when I picked it out simply because I hadn’t played it in a long time, and my brother was practicing his MC Hammer moves for the school dance. True story.
These four games are the cornerstone of what would become the main hobby of my life. While I have gone on to become a writer and connoisseur of films, gaming has always been one of my predominant hobbies. While Super Mario takes the bulk of that accomplishment, after replaying each of these games, I was able to find a tiny spark of what made it memorable to me in the first place. As I continue to regrow my NES collection again, I knew I needed these games to remind myself of that magical feeling that I was unaware even existed before these carts were brought into my life.