December 25, 1987 wasn't just Christmas Day. For me, it was the Day Reality Became Less Interesting. At some point that morning, I was transformed from an awkward four-year-old boy who was fascinated by dinosaurs and had a difficult time relating to other children his age into the owner of an expensive, cutting-edge technological marvel called the Nintendo Entertainment System.
Was there any possible way I could have understood what I was getting myself into as I tore the wrapping paper from that particularly large box with the "From Santa" label? Did I understand the significance of that moment then, standing there in my red Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pajamas and staring dumbly at that mysterious black cardboard box while a small cluster of parents and relatives chattered, took pictures, and tried explaining the gift to me?
My parents probably spent the next fifteen years looking back and wishing they had gotten me a baseball glove for Christmas instead. Or maybe some G.I. Joe toys.
The NES era was like the Sixties of video gaming. It was the geek's golden age. Video games had existed before the NES, sure, but this was the fist time they really made their presence felt. Children ate, slept, and breathed Mario back then, and I was no exception. You didn't come from school and "play video games;" that kind of terminology didn't exist yet. You came home from school and played Nintendo, because there was nothing else. According to the INTERNET, there was a brief period around this time when Mario was more widely recognized than Mickey Mouse by American children. The NES marked the first time that large amounts of onscreen text first began appearing in console games, which was such a novelty back then that nobody cared if it made sense or not. ("If all else fails, use fire." "Winner is you!") It was also the first time concerned mothers starting worrying about the effects of Nintendo game "violence" on their children's tender psyches, blissfully unaware of the Mortal Kombats and Grand Theft Autos lurking just a few years down the road. If you had a sweet tooth, you could enjoy a hearty bowl of Nintendo Cereal, which came in a box split down the middle between "fruity" Mario flakes and "berry" Zelda flakes. This was before the advent of hip prime-time television ads for games, console release parties on MTV, and annual video game awards on Spike TV awards. Instead, it was the age of Captain N the Game Master, the Zelda rap, and The Wizard starring Fred Savage. It was a revolution within the gaming world and nothing like it will ever happen again. Nothing short of virtual reality gaming could possibly create the same kind of stir the NES did in its heyday.
The NES was the best and most important video game console ever made. There's just no contest. The video game industry would simply not exist today without the NES: it would still be buried in a New Mexico landfill, beneath a sun-baked layer of E.T. cartridges for the Atari 2600. Every subsequent generation of consoles have only been riding on that initial cascade of momentum the NES generated. Let's go down the list: the SNES, Genny, and TurboGrafix 16 were basically souped up versions of the original NES. The Jaguar, Sega CD, Sega 32X, and N64 were essentially souped up versions of the souped up versions of the NES. Then there was the Playstation, which came kind of close to matching the NES in terms of sheer impact -- and is the only console which can make that claim -- but still would have never existed without the success of the SNES, which would have never existed without the success of the NES. The Dreamcast, PS2, XBox, and Gamecube are souped up versions of the Playstation, and the XBox 360 and PS3 are souped up versions of the souped up Playstations. (I'm reserving judgement on the Wii for time being, but that shouldn't be mistaken for optimism.)
The NES set the standard for what video games should be, and it hasn't really changed that much in twenty years. Sure, now they may have eye-popping 3-D graphics, cinematic FMV's, symphonic soundtracks, and epic storylines driven by three hundred hours of voiceover delivered by all-star casts. They may be forty hours long, open-ended, and have multiple endings and treasure troves of unlockable content. They may have hyperrealistic gore splattering and tit-bouncing physics. The controllers may have pressure-sensitive joysticks and innumerably more buttons. But every action game at its heart is still Super Mario Brothers, Castlevania, or Megaman. Every adventure game still clings to Zelda's coattails, and no matter how massive the production values, every game Square Enix puts out is essentially a new edition of the original Dragon Warrior.
Doddering old gaming farts like me bitch a lot lately about how stagnant and lousy the video game world is lately, and that's because it is. I came close to beating Kingdom Hearts II recently. I was somewhere in the final castle, when it suddenly occured that in spite all of the gorgeous graphics, flashy battle sequences, cameo appearances, and deep (ie: contrived to the point of absurdity) plot, all I was really doing was wiggling the joystick and mashing the X button until my opponents were dead, and the only reason I had spent thirty hours of my life doing this was because I wanted to see the ending. So I downloaded the ending, put KH2 back in its case, and tossed it into the closet to collect dust with the .hack games. To hell with it.
What's my point? That Square Enix threw millions of dollars into making a game where all you do is mash the attack button until the battlefield has been cleared, sit through a cutscene, mash the attack button some more, sit through another lull in action and read some text, etc. That sounds an awful lot like an old 8-bit game I used to play called Rampage. Sure, there are a few differences -- I mean, Rampage doesn't have any Disney characters, massive bosses, EXP points, or as many menus, and Kingdom Hearts doesn't have giant city-destroying apes and lizards trying to destroy America, but the whole "jump around mindlessy while hitting the attack button to swat away enemies" part is pretty similar. So eighteen years, three console generations, and 120 extra bits later, I'm still playing the exact same game I was before, only with a glossier coat of paint. Swell.
All I'm groping for here is that the NES is console gaming at its purest and best. It will not and cannot ever be matched. After all, it's been about two decades and people are still blowing on those damn cartridges.