Let me tell you a story about my origin as a gamer, which is just as much a role I identify with as a hobby I like to do. One of my earliest gaming memories has to do with my mother, my first gaming console, my first video game . . . and bedtime.
As a new parent myself, I can absolutely respect the importance of bedtime. BabyGMR needs her sleep. Learning to walk takes it out of a girl, I’m sure. And heaven only knows, it’s important to my sanity, too. My Turtle, daddy to BabyGMR, has only recently come home, just in time to whirl her through her evening routine before putting her down. Bedtime is the beginning of the only adult time I might have had all day. I am a big believer in a proper bedtime for a kid these days.
It’s December, 1988. My twin sister and I are seven years old, and have just received the Nintendo Entertainment System Action Set for Christmas. It came with two game controllers, an NES Zapper, and two games, Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt. And it was the big Christmas present, you know the one. It’s in the big box surrounded by lots of brightly wrapped, but smaller presents that try to hold your attention until the big box is finally permitted to be ripped into. My sister and I stared at the revealed box, properly astounded. We had an Atari that had very simple games on it, Pong and Tooth Invaders and such. Lines and dots on a flickery background. We hadn’t been very interested in it, truth be told. We considered each other much better playmates than the glowy dot machine.
Duck Hunt was interesting, but did not hold our interest long, despite the admittedly awesome zapper. The ducks were cute, and the screen flashing when you got one was nice, but to a seven year old, this was just Pong with better graphics; do a simple thing, hope you did the right thing in the right place at the right time. Only now there was someone built into the game to laugh at you when you missed. Pass.
But Super Mario Bros . . . hey, now. My sister poured over the instruction manual, reading the story to me and showing me the pictures while I picked up the controller in uncertain hands. It would set the tone for my sister’s and my video gaming experience the whole of our childhoods, her reading and studying and guiding me, navigating, offering suggestions, while I drove. We never fought over whose turn it was to play. Not once.
The story intrigued us, as did the novel video gaming concept of having a goal more complex than “don’t miss.” There was a princess? Who were these poor mushroom people that were missing her? Who was this mean, brutish turtle/dragon thing that had cursed her kingdom and her people? Who were these brothers, working together to save her and set things right?
Brothers working together to save kingdoms and stop bad guys? Hey . . . they were like us! Didn’t we do that sort of thing together all the time in our imaginations? So we, as sisters, helped the brothers set things right.
Well . . . we tried to. I was not a natural at Super Mario Bros. My first real issue was at World 2-3. Remember World 2-3? The Cheep Cheep level. Oh, those Cheeps! They were cheap. It’s a level with lots of bridges and death pits where flying fish soar up from the bottom of the screen in graceful arcs. You can kill them by jumping on their heads, like the slower, earthbound Goombas, but as we soon saw, trying to do this was very risky. They were everywhere, you were just as likely to mess it up and get hit as you were to actually kill one.
We tried all kinds of things. Taking it as slow as we dared with the timer. Blazing through the level as fast as we could. Trying to kill them. Trying to ignore them. Over and over and over. I got frustrated and put the controller down, but could never stay away long. I was going to beat those Cheeps. A lifelong practice of perseverance began the day I started World 2-3 in Super Mario Bros!
My mother sat behind us on the old gray couch, her legs folded under her, spellbound. She rarely interrupted us when we were playing. She wanted to see what came after World 2-3 as much as we did. One day, we tolerated her interruptions with as much grace as seven year olds could muster. Dinner. Pajamas. Teeth brushing. Finally . . . bedtime.
My sister and I paused the game as soon as we noticed and looked expectantly back at Mom. She looked at us in some surprise and then looked at the clock. We looked at each other.
“Well . . . let’s try one more time,” Mom said.
“One more time” turned into an extra half an hour, when she reluctantly wrapped things up. We hadn’t gotten past World 2-3 that night. But when we were finally tucked into bed and received our kisses goodnight, there were three happy girls in that house, nonetheless.