Princess Zelda was my first love. And by love, I’m not talking about the usual intersection of convenience, white wine, and oral sex, familiar to all. I mean visceral love. The kind that makes you so sick with passion, you induce vomiting, in hopes it’ll make you feel better, even though you know it won’t and, in fact, it doesn’t ever. Except that one time you mistook indigestion for love at the KFC/Taco Bell in Schenectady.
It was mature, precocious. A complex feeling my fifth grade classmates with their soccer shorts and spaghetti straps surely couldn’t understand. I didn’t love Zelda because of her golden blonde hair, her elven ears, or her melancholic, sorrow-filled blue eyes that made you feel like turning off your Nintendo to go do math homework was the most morally repugnant thing you could possibly do. I didn’t love her because of her sage wisdom or her magical powers or the raw, unbridled talent she exhibited every time she picked up an ocarina. Details. My love for Zelda came due primarily to the fact that I had to fight to have her. I had to climb Death Mountain, traverse the Gerudo Desert, plunge to the bottom of Lake Hylia, and fight bravely atop Ganon’s Castle til I was down to my very last heart (unit of health to the layman) until plunging my sword into his beastly head to win her affection. At the ripe-old age of nine, I learned something married people have known since the beginning of civilization. Real love takes work.
A few other life lessons I learned from video games:
● Watch out for spikes.
● A good night’s sleep will cure you of deadly poisons and stab wounds.
● Barrels will explode if you smash them, but there’s probably some good stuff inside.
● Breaking and entering is fine if you have a sword.
● Steer clear of bottomless pits.
● Women have massive boobs, but it never inhibits their fighting ability.
● Ugly people are usually evil.
As an odd little kid, video games gave me an outlet for the kind of weird, guileless passion that’s much harder to find in a person past his tween years. I liked Rugrats; I liked pizza bagels, legos, Disney movies. I liked Yu-Gi-Oh and beanie babies. I liked making snowforts equipped with cupholders and transom window frames. I liked bow ties, carefully-parted hair, chicken nuggets, grape soda, onion slices, Smashmouth. Kid things. I liked a lot of other stuff too. I adored video games. Even bad ones. Anyone who ever frowned his way through Superman 64 or Pokemon Snap can attest to the depth of my enamorment. It didn’t matter. So long as I was guiding odd-looking characters through adventures with a slick plastic controller, I had a reason to get up in the morning. And to sneak back downstairs after bedtime. Sleep became an afterthought. Lying to my parents about how many hours of Super Smash Brothers I’d played on any given day, however, never was. This was the point of departure for a long and fruitful career of dishonesty and deception that would later extend to my marijuana usage, my school skippage, and that one time I stole a pair of GAP jeans.
I’d hit the ground running with educational computer games like Reader Rabbit, Operation Neptune, and JumpStart: 3rd Grade (fun fact: you don’t actually have to be in 3rd grade to play it), then graduated to games like SimCity, through which my desire to burn entire metropolitan areas to the ground was finally satiated. I was growing up. Even minesweeper and solitaire had their merits; they certainly beat venturing outside into the horrifying world of sunburns and child abductioneers. This was when computers were still huge and beige and it took an eternity to get online and your mom would yell at you five minutes later for “clogging” the phone line. Home gaming was a new thing. This may explain some of my excitement. This, and the fact that I finally had the opportunity to be better than my parents at something. Whatever the reason, any computer game, even those math-crunching ones they made us play at school, was automatically about ten-billion times more fun than, say, Candy Land. Or Duck Duck Goose. Or basketball. To clarify–basketball video games were fine. Frankly, it was about time technology got around making twenty-first century enhancements on the barbaric world of sports. Something about sweatiness, teamwork, and people touching each other always just struck me as uncivilized and icky. This was augmented by the fact that I look terrible in anything sleeveless.
Things were better through the glow of a monitor. Each game had a beginning, middle, and end–a clear, linear progression. They were rational, logical, fair. They never told me what to eat or when to go to bed; they never picked on me or tried to hang out with me after school; they never yanked my bracelets or drew boobs all over my notebooks with permanent marker. And if they ever got too frustrating or scary, I could turn them off. I was in control. That’s a rare feeling when you’re nine and fragile and your parents’ marriage is on the rocks. Everything fit perfectly into place. I could see the pixels. Subsequently, when the 1998 holiday season brought a Nintendo 64 game console into our home, I came as close as I ever have to believing in God. I believed in Super Mario, that much was sure.
And so it was. A solid chunk of my childhood was spent with this magical piece of equipment. And I mean that to sound only somewhat hyperbolic. The Nintendo 64 was a landmark achievement in the world of 3D gaming technology, and the significance of this certainly wasn’t lost on me. I say this, by the way, expecting full-well to draw the ire of former Playstation and Sega kids. If you were a boy between the ages of eight and sixteen at the turn of the decade, you fell into one of these three camps. You could usually tell which one too. The Playstation kid was dirty and loud with an insatiable chip on his shoulder he’d picked up from playing hours of Twisted Metal and Crash Bandicoot. Remember that bi-polar kid on the bus who taught you all the swear words? He was a Playstation kid. The Sega kid was more scanty a sight, but you could tell one by the amount of chalk he’d consume and the amount of stains his shirt would amass by the end of the day (roughly four pounds of dirt, milk, and dried sauce). That boy sitting on the tire swing eating a pickle with two hands, for example, was a Sega kid.
Nintendo kids were a different breed. Noble and true were we. The Gryffindor of gaming allegiances. With no time for load screens, slow framerates, or bad attitudes, we ambled through the playground with helping hands and keen eyes for injustice, our moral compasses finely calibrated by the ethic of Starfox, Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards, and, of course, Ocarina of Time. Need help with your homework? Get a Nintendo kid. Need a shoulder to cry on? Get a Nintendo kid. Need to stand up to a bully? Nintendo kid. I’m not saying we were better, I’m just saying we were better as people.
I was good at Nintendo games. I knew each one I had like the back of my hand. They were like my children, insofar as I liked them a lot and took decent care of them. It was an escape, in a sense, to a world where I was king–where demons knelt at my feet, where professional racers choked on my dust, where no weapon was too strong–no foe too powerful for me to overcome. Making a fool of myself at B-team soccer practice wasn’t so bad if I could come home and bulldoze through a perfect season of NFL Blitz before dinner. Not that I had it so tough growing up that reality was too much to bear. Far from it. But jewy kids with acne and vocal chords that take their sweet time deciding on an octave, have to glean self-esteem wherever they can find it. If any small portion happened to come by way of indoor “gay-boy” activities, I wasn’t going to get choosy.
That said, you can understand why I find the familiar claim, “video games melt your brains” somewhat irritating — or at least the ease at which it’s lobbed around. Mostly this is because everyone knows brains start to melt at a temperature of 107.6 degrees fahrenheit. Given that I make a point of avoiding Mexico and the insides of ovens, and still haven’t noticed any sort of grayish discharge, I’d say I’m well-positioned to object. I suppose the fact that no evidence, whatsoever, exists to support such a claim adds to my incredulity. Still, it’s a concern you’ll often hear voiced by the coddling birkenstock-liberal parent with almost as much gusto as the morally supreme, shotgun-toting bible-thumper. Nevermind the fact that any time you hear groaning about the apocalyptic impact of video games on society, you can trace it back to the simpering, hypocritical mouth of somebody who couldn’t tell an Xbox from a Jack In The Box (the hamburger restaurant or the toy). I suppose there’s some precedent for this, however. Refusing, or perhaps being unable to read has never stopped hordes of fundamentalist clods from wanting The Catcher In The Rye banned, burned, shat upon, etc. As it turns out, ignorance is an equal opportunity employer.
But it’s easy to tune out this kind of white noise in light of my sincerely fond gaming memories and first-hand knowledge that, despite what red-faced wrinkly people may suggest, a Nintendo console won’t force your child to join a gang, consume deadly doses of drugs, or spontaneously combust. Though, to be fair, gaming has been linked to the proliferation of ponytails (of the male variety) and increased Dorito consumption–manageable, albeit austere concerns. To some, this may seem abject. Yes, it’s possible that I missed out on plenty of wonderful outdoor childhood activities, and sure, I’m mostly alone in any gaming memories I could summon, but who said that’s such a bad thing? I wouldn’t exactly say it’s healthy for one to be a recluse his whole life, but let’s not forget that it was during his plague-induced isolation that Isaac Newton invented calculus. While beating Banjo-Kazooie in under four days may not quite be on the same level of achievement, I dare say Newton couldn’t have made it past Rusty Bucket Bay before hurling his controller across the bedroom and screaming at his little brother. We each have our callings.