The same day that I found out (probably much the same way a lot of people found out, by rolling over in bed in the morning, picking up my phone, and checking Reddit) that Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo’s long-time President and founding father had passed away at the age of 85, Tom and I were scheduled to visit the Nintendo Airstream in the parking lot of a hotel in Plymouth, Minnesota.
Tom had packed his Nintendo 3DS, in the hopes that he could StreetPass with them. He spent the duration of the car ride explaining what new games Nintendo had to offer, when they would be released, and what system they were for. I will approximate our conversation as best as memory allows:
“So there’s a new Zelda game, A Link to Some Stuff, and it’s gonna be sweeeeeeeet and you play it on the Wii U and it’s gonna be way smoother and Link is gonna jump like so much farther and bright colors, Katie. And there’s the Adventurous Adventure game, with trees and tunnels and stuff morphs! And it has the same artist as Previous Also Adventurous game, because people thought it was soooo pretty!”
“Cool! Ok, coooool!” I said, genuinely excited, but like in the way I get excited about quantum physics or a Pink Floyd laser show.
So it’s at this point I should probably confess something that I’ve never appreciated about myself. I have the heart of a gamer, but not the brain or the hand-eye coordination. My ability to successfully play a Nintendo game ended at Luigi’s Mansion on the GameCube, a remarkable and wholly entertaining game with wit, charm, and heart. And also, thankfully, a contained enough map that my feeble brain could comprehend what I was doing, what room I was in, and what my task was without overheating and malfunctioning entirely. Not like that goddamned Windwaker bullshit with its HUGE wide open spaces and like actual literal INFINITY of places to go and I CAN’T EVEN MANAGE TO WALK IN A STRAIGHT LINE DAMMIT. At least I could ram Luigi into a wall and follow that into the next room to mask the fact that I invariably walk my digital characters around and run them into things like they’re frat boys during rush week.
I grew up on the NES. I still have mine, actually, along with the only three games I’ve ever consistently played in my life: Mario 1, Mario 3, and Tetris. Mario was my childhood. I first played it when I was five and my cousin Curt plugged his system into a TV whose screen was too small and the aspect ratio was off, so we could only see the very top of Mario’s head and thus, presumably, played the game by guessing where the goombas were. I got my own NES for Christmas and spent the next couple of years listening to my parents yell at the TV as they continued to play long after they had sent me to bed (this is why, to this day, my mother is infinitely better than me at Mario 3). But soon it became natural even for me; I knew where all the hidden 1-ups were, I knew exactly when to take a running start off the clouds-that-looked-like-teeth to fly up and zoom through the hidden circle of coins, and I knew exactly how to time my approach at the end of a level so as to get the star card, every time. So much so that if I didn’t get nine star cards in a row for a total of 15-ups, I’d restart the whole fucking game and do it over. Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, and that jerk Bowser were as much a part of my upbringing as Nickelodeon, Nickelodeon, or Nickelodeon (I’m having trouble remembering what else I did as a child). I owned an SNES and a GameCube after that, but my talents definitely peaked with that iconic grey-and-black controller.
I should note, and hopefully this inspires as much of a tragic knot in your stomach as it does in mine, that I have never beat a game on the NES. Only Luigi’s Mansion. The frustration I felt at getting to World 8-Level Fuckin’-Really-Close-to-the-End eleven thousand million billion times as a child, and always failing, would leave me in tears, but I persisted relentlessly, perhaps because of some latent understanding that I was kid and had a lifetime ahead of me to do productive things. This translated in adulthood into me giving one solid drunken college try at it, getting 9/10ths of the way to the end in under 11 minutes, and then dying in a blaze of lava and cannonballs and cursing such a string of curse words, both real and made up, that my mother might’ve died of a heart attack had I not learned how to curse by listening to her play Nintendo. Like some grotesque Zapper-armed Van Wilder, I masked my ineptitude at current video games by clinging to my wistfulness for Mario. I am generally aware of the new systems and new titles, but I watch with detatched interest, a Rudolph that can’t join in on the reindeer games.
When your best friend in elementary school moves away, you’re not really old enough yet to comprehend the long-term ramifications of not just separation, but also growth. To move away as an adult and return to old friends after many years can foster challenges, but it’s much easier to lock into what once connected you as two fully-formed humans and run on nostalgia autopilot for a while. But I left Mario behind before either of us knew who we were or who we would become, and my fleeting forays into his world in subsequent years usually met with frustration, because seriously Super Mario Sunshine is a stupid hard game and fuck that water jet pack I’m just giving up. So whereas Tom stepped onto a bus where he was already at home, already in the guest book, already had his proverbial ass-divot imprinted into the couch cushion, I was meeting an old friend for the first time.
The Nintendo Airstream is on its yearly tour of the US, showing off its newest games and hardware for the media prior to their holiday releases. We stepped up into the silver bus with giant character faces plastered on its outside, and shook hands with Mark Cvetovich, whose official title is Prototype Security Specialist, but who we colloquially knew as The Dude Asking Us to Play Nintendo. He is tall, polo-shirted, and plays fucking video games for a living. As soon as we sat down I asked a few questions about upcoming titles, about the tour, about his role with the company, and met Lisa McKendall, the on-bus representative for GolinHarris, Nintendo’s communications firm. Mark answered all of our questions happily, but was much more interested in getting our hands on the products. No problemo, dude. Gimme some of that sweet sweet Nintendo.
He handed Tom and I each a 2DS, which won’t be available for purchase until October 12th, and Nintendo’s more affordable alternative to the 3DS. “We feel like this handheld will be great for people who want to transition into gaming easily,” he said “Oh, you mean people like me, who really suck at this sort of thing?” I said. He laughed, and gracefully didn’t answer. I played Mario Kart much more smoothly than I have been wont to do on an N64; the circle pad, which I only know is called that because I had to do some very creative Googling just now with terms like “jiggly button,” “round front face moving button” and “joystick toggle thing,” was smooth as butter. Which meant I only went off course ten or twelve times during the race!
Me, Tom, and Mark (and even Lisa, who sheepishly muttered “I’ve never played before…” but still clearly enjoyed herself) played Super Mario 3D World, which brought back some memories and then fed them through some program on an acid trip, because my long-beloved Mario worlds were now stretched out, bird’s-eye, thick and lush, and inexplicably the transformation animal is no longer a raccoon or a frog but a cat. (“Aaaaah! I don’t know what I’m doing!” I recall yelling, while my cat-Mario flailed aimlessly in circles, trying to keep up with everybody else on the map). Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was cool, because it has Vikings, but I’m not sure why, but who cares? Vikings!
But I could tell by the look on his face that Tom wasn’t done yet. “I’m really excited for the new Zelda game, too!” He said, clearly hinting at something. “Oh, do you want to play it?” Mark asked. You know that look you’d get on your face as a kid when mom said she was ordering in Pizza Hut for dinner? That was Tom’s face, only bearded. He played Zelda for about fifteen minutes, silently and uninterrupted, while I snapped a few pics. He looked up at me after a while and whispered, “You guys don’t quite know how excited I am to be playing this.”
And he was right, I didn’t. Because Tom didn’t move away from Nintendo Town as a kid; he and it grew up concurrently, Link’s story is as familiar to him as his own, and all I could do was watch, giggle, and wonder when Peach up and decided to leave her castle and actually do stuff. And if she’s not in the castle, then who the hell are we saving at the end of Super Mario 3D World? Is there even a castle at the end? How do I turn my back on a ghost that only chases me when I face it if I’m in a three dimensional world and there isn’t really “back” and “forward” so much as actual cardinal directions? This is so overwhelming! I don’t understand the world anymore! Get these kids off my lawn!
I felt like a time traveller, overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the future. We had to share the Airstream for a few minutes, because Tom wanted to play Rayman Legends, with a reporter from Game Informer who was slated to arrive after us. “You should see the vault at Game Informer’s office,” Tom said. “It has, like, almost every game ever. I saw it once. It was amazing.” I thought about my own personal gaming vault, full to the brim with the same three cartridges I’ve been blowing air into since I was six, and wondered if this is what it’s like to feel old.