Once upon a time, when I lived in a massive apartment complex along with a billion other kids, one of them came up to me on a summer afternoon and said, "Hey, come over here and see this." He led me through an open screen door into his own living room, where an NES was sitting on top of the TV. I knew what it was -- at this time the NES was the hottest product in the universe and it was impossible not to know. What I DIDN'T know was what to do with the controller the kid handed me. I had never touched one before, and had no clue how to play what was now in front of me -- Level 1-1 of the original Super Mario Bros.
I figured out how to move, but never how to jump. Instead I just kept running right into the first goomba over and over until all my lives were up. Since we were playing two-players, the other kid didn't feel compelled to give me any hints as long as he was winning. And once he got a sense for how lousy a gamer I was, he lost his interest in letting me play. He could've cut me some slack -- it was literally the first time I had done this.
That Christmas, I asked for a Nintendo of my own, and didn't get it. The machine was over a hundred dollars, and my mother didn't have that kind of money to throw around. This would be the pattern for the next few years -- I couldn't acquire ANY video game playing device of any kind, beyond cheap Tiger handhelds, until I was old enough to save up for them myself. The only time my parents bought an extravagant piece of electronics for me was the surprise Christmas gift of the Video Painter, an 8-bit drawing tablet for your TV that let you create TV shows with the VCR. And honestly, if I had to choose between growing up with the NES and the Video Painter, I would choose the Video Painter -- that was such a "me" toy in a way nothing else was.
But say I found that NES under the tree in 1989. How would my childhood be different? What games would I have collected for it? I can make a few educated guesses...
To start off, let's just get these out of the way. Every kid had at least one of the Super Marios and at least one of the two Zeldas, and the odds are pretty good I would have had some as well. In fact, depending on when I could've been gifted the NES, I would have either Mario 1 or Mario 3 as a pack-in, so the odds are 100% for at least one.
My favorite video game genre as a kid was racing games. Whenever I entered an arcade, I'd make a straight line for whatever had a steering wheel for controls. I don't really care for racing games anymore, but I loved them back then, and when building my library, at least one racer would be the first pick. I can't really say for certain which one. Perhaps the one that advertised itself as "rad." If it was Rad Racer, I would have played it a lot, and I also would have switched on the "3D" mode and played it without the glasses until my eyes bled. (One of the things I used to do with the TRS-80 was enter a BASIC line that would flash the entire screen with every color one frame at a time, rapidly. Were I epileptic, I would have found out pretty quickly.)
Of all the racers in all the world, Roadblasters was my favorite. A home version of the game would be a must. The NES version of Roadblasters was clunkier than the arcade original, but that was to be expected in those days and I would have blown away hours on that thing, trying to reach the end. Roadblasters DOES have an end -- even the arcade version wraps up at 50 courses -- but getting there is extremely difficult.
Keep in mind any video game I acquired would have to be filtered through my mother, and would have to please her before it pleased me. This would mean any game with boxart that had even a HINT of violence would be forbidden -- I never would have had Battletoads; "they look so vicious." None of the Ninja Turtles games; the media gave them a violent reputation. Definitely not Contra, or anything else where a muscle-bound macho man wielded a weapon. Mom would also want a game we could play together, and that she might enjoy too. Thus, there is a very high chance I would have wound up with a Wheel of Fortune game. There would be occasional breezy summer nights when Mom didn't have anything better to do and we'd play it on the couch. On one of those nights, my oldest cousin would drop over and play the game as well, solve every puzzle before we could, and make snarky comments about the phrases in the game: "Uh, come on, like who SAYS that?" I can see all this in my head pretty clearly.
I would have been dumb enough to fall for the "there's an intellectual property I like on the box, so the game must be good" trick, as millions of other children were. It's a good thing, then, that my favorite show at the time was Tiny Toons and not, say, James Bond Jr. Konami held the TTA license and they usually did not slack with their NES games. The Tiny Toons game was basically a Super Mario 3 knockoff, but it was a very good Super Mario 3 knockoff, with the ability to play as several characters and switch between them with an item found in the levels.
Though this is an NES library staple, and I watched quite a lot of DuckTales, I would go for TTA over this first. But assuming I did wind up with it eventually, I would have known what people were talking about when they gushed nostalgia over it 20 years later. I would've been part of the crowd reminiscing over the Moon Theme and wishing more games had the pogo cane mechanic. But nope -- in reality, I had a cheap mom and I ultimately had to take it on faith that this was good. It's the same thing with Spongebob memes -- I didn't have cable in the 2000s, I've only seen a handful of episodes and they all look like weird faces to me.
This would've been a disaster waiting to happen. An NES cart that allegedly lets you MAKE YOUR OWN TINY TOONS EPISODES???? It's a dream come true! I would have begged and BEGGED for this. I would have saved up every penny I could if it wasn't a Christmas or birthday gift. And then I would have popped it in, and I would have slowly realized what I had actually been sold. Given the strict limitations of the NES, Cartoon Workshop wasn't capable of much. Only six characters were in the program, only two could be put on the screen at any time, and worst of all, you were not allowed to enter your own text bubbles -- you had to pick from a list of pre-installed ones. Looking at it today it's a wonder what they DID manage to pull off; the animations are pretty good for the console and the 8-bit renditions of commonly used tunes from the Tiny Toons soundtrack sound great. But in reality the thing was only good for two hours of amusement tops. What a rip.
I know this game is vastly regarded as terrible. But it's also one of the most common NES games in existence and there's a reason for that. When I saw a screenshot for Bart Vs The Space Mutants in a magazine, I was blown away by the mere fact that I could walk around in Springfield, let alone what I'd be doing there. The bizarre plot, involving aliens coming in from space to take over the world by collecting hats or things that are purple, was basically an excuse to let Bart do typical Bart things under Nintendo censorship (spray paint public objects, slingshot hats off people's heads). See, Bart's not doing it to be a troublemaker, he's SAVING THE WORLD! All I needed to be pleased by this was two things: the ability to walk around Bart's neighborhood and the ability to vandalize it. The game would have delivered.
If I could find Videomation, I would have asked for it. In fact stupid me would have probably asked for it over the Video Painter, which goes to show how much I knew. Videomation was a primitive design program, the only one the NES ever got in its lifespan. There was no such thing as an NES Mouse, and trying to make pictures with the crosspad doesn't make for good results. There IS a pretty clever tool in the box that allows you to generate curves, and with practice it might've been possible to create some good lineart with it....but we're talking a LOT of practice.
Side note: I know a programmer friend who is currently working on Cross Paint, a REAL NES paint program, that can use the SNES Mouse with an NES-SNES adapter plug (they exist). I've seen demo videos and the thing is way better than Videomation. If you've always wanted to create art on the NES, stay tuned.
I didn't have Blaster Master, but I had the Blaster Master BOOK. The "novelization" was one of my favorite paperbacks. It was thrilling and action-packed, and it sold me on the game thoroughly. Had I the system to play it on, I would have made it my mission to find it. And I would have really enjoyed the game too. It's pretty unique for the NES in that you can play as a tank, but climb out of the tank at any time and play as a little man. The sense of exploration is great. Better yet, Blaster Master was recently revived as a trilogy of games that use the same mechanics AND fold in the novel's story. I love that Eve is canon now!
Cousin Chris would come over, see the NES, and start making recommendations, being an owner himself. The first thing he'd say would be, "Where's Mega Man? You should get Mega Man. And start with the second one." Being a comic book reader, it was impossible not to know who Mega Man was; ads for the series were in practically every issue of everything. But I probably would've been reluctant to take the plunge on a Mega Man game without a recommendation. Chris would have likely also brought carts of his own during family get-togethers. He would pop in Castlevania, a series I would never witness otherwise as my mom would be repelled by the ghoulish aesthetic. But he wouldn't bring over Metroid, because -- as he confessed to me many years later -- he couldn't finish the game because he was afraid of the Metroids. This was news to me; I didn't think Chris was afraid of ANYTHING.
Eventually, the NES would become obsolete, but it had a much longer lifespan than most other "last-gen" consoles. This was fueled solely by the nation's Boomer parents who collectively thought "why does Junior need a new game console when the one we have works perfectly FINE?" Mom would have surely been one of these people and I'd have to prop up my inferior machine with whatever I could find to feed it. A lot would be on sale at this point, so I can't predict with certainty what would be added to the library at this stage, but I CAN predict I would have gone for Kirby's Adventure. It was an instant hit and Kirby was popular from the get-go.
I remember spotting the box for the game "Mario Is Missing" in 1993 and thinking "Whoa! Mario is MISSING?? I never thought Nintendo would go there! It must be some kind of suspense thriller!" I would have bought it right then. And after that, I would start reading game magazines or become a heavy game renter.
As for what would eventually happen to the NES...I have no clue. Maybe I would have sold it and its games to pay for a more advanced console. Maybe I would have given it as a hand-me-down to a relative, like I did with the Apple II. Or maybe, if I was smart, it would have sat in storage until the day I dug it back up, plugged everything in and relived the memories.
In reality, all I have is that weird day in that kid's apartment.
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