As a kid — as with most kids — Christmastime was a terrifically special time of the year. I was nine years old and a slave to the Toys ‘R Us catalogue that would come in the mail that time of the year. My brothers and I spent hours pouring over the pictures, circling our favorites, and making lists for our parents to look at and say, “You want me to spend HOW much on molded plastic figures with ‘realistic battle damage’?” Since it was the middle of the 80s, toy consumerism was at its height, with everything from Transfomers to He-Man to Ghostbusters to Teddy Ruxpin to G.I. Joe to what have you.
But probably my strongest memory of that particular Christmas from a present that I didn’t get. It was a day or two past Christmas and I went to my friend Andrew’s house to stay overnight. We were high on sugar, since we got and promptly consumed those Lifesavers “books” that are popular even today, and he was eager to show me his new toy: a Nintendo Entertainment System. Now, I’ve mentioned in the past that due to family finances and my parents’ hilarious non-understanding of how technology advances, the NES was never to visit our home since we had a “perfectly good Atari 2600.” But that didn’t really matter, because just about everyone I knew had one and I enjoyed it throughout my childhood anyway.
However, Andrew’s NES was the very first one I ever saw, and it absolutely blew me away. It helped that one of the two games that came packed in was the masterpiece Super Mario Bros., although of course I had no idea how big this game was or how important it would become at the time. All I knew was that (a) the graphics put anything on the Atari 2600 to shame, and (b) it was downright addicting. I think I was most entranced by the concept of power-ups and how they transformed my character — from a small guy who would die in one hit to a larger version, then a larger version who could shoot fire. Plus the invincibility stars and 1-Up mushrooms and coins were all part of the fun.
Did we get any sleep that night? Nope. Andrew was just as much in love with the game as I, and we kept passing the controller back and forth between lives. I don’t think we got very far, maybe to the first Bowser castle or so, but we kept trying and totally geeked out when we found where that first hidden 1-Up mushroom was (the internet was of surprising little help back in 1985 for some reason).
It was following this overnighter that I began a lifelong habit of designing games in my head to improve off of what I had played. I imagined a Super Mario Bros. level editor that would let you create your own worlds, perhaps with new power-ups and the like.
And while my kids will be growing up in a technological wonder age, they’ll never really have that singular experience of seeing the industry lurch forward so far, so fast as it did in 1985 with the advent of a little jumpy carpenter and a previously-unknown company that took console gaming to the next level.