It's a me, barrio!
Spectating defined my earliest video game memories. The title screen of Mega Man 2. Running underwater, struggling for air as Sonic the Hedgehog. Leaps of faith in a dungeon of blue on a quest to become the Prince of Persia. I first witnessed these iconic instances as, well, a witness, not an active player. And it was glorious.
[In Character Select, we introduce ourselves by our gaming origins.]
My cousins’ house was a haven for gaming. Early on, they had a cutting-edge PC running DOS and a (legit) Family Computer with the trapezoidal eject lever. After a few years, these were complemented and later replaced by the Super Nintendo and the Genesis, all boxes enabling entry into dazzling, fantastic worlds.
Leading these excursions was my cousin, Kuya JJ, who was the eldest. He knew the ways of the universe, and I, along with the rest of our extended family, thought the world of him. Kuya JJ would sit in front of the television, boot up the system (SE-GA!) and start playing. My two cousins— his younger siblings— and I would watch, groan, and cheer as he blitzed through loop-the-loops at supersonic speeds, decimated Robot Masters, handed M. Bison his ass, and saved various princesses in various palaces and other castles.
In no way would we think this setup was unfair. These games were damn hard; we young ones had only cut our teeth in the first couple of worlds of Super Mario Bros. Kuya JJ, our ten-year-old hero, knew of the arcane warp zones and of levels with backgrounds in black.
There was nothing quite like the sense of achievement from watching someone else playing and beating a game. Especially if the game was beyond our depth. We got most of the excitement while remaining safe, as Kuya JJ risked his virtual lives in the virtual world. Shouting “Look out!” and gasping at opportune moments (like when KO-ing Zangief with only a sliver of Guile’s health remaining) brought us together.
This disconnect from the actual act of play, combined with my mere four years on earth, caused me much confusion, especially when it came to game endings. I had no idea what to make of the final scene of Super Mario Bros. Why was Princess Toadstool tiny? The ending of Mega Man 2, with him walking home through the seasons, hit me hard. Mega Man could take off his helmet? What? He has hair? Wasn’t he a robot? That messed me up for years.
Even out of the game we would reenact our favorite moments from the titles we enjoyed the most. Street Fighter was the most obvious, but we had an added twist: we would troop on over to the corner bakery, ask for dough they could spare, and sling them at each other as our own Sonic Booms, coming home splattered in flour and goo. We would wear empty Pringles cans over our fists and face off against Dr. Wily. On special occasions, Kuya JJ would fashion a bubble wand from a soda straw, as well as solution from dish detergent. He would blow bubbles at the three of us, and we would pretend to be a drowning blue hedgehog (Kokak!).
The participative lessons I learned from Kuya JJ became invaluable in other forms of digital play. At the computer lab in the school where my father taught, I would host virtual games of Jeopardy! as well as create quizzes using the educational software School-Mom. At our home computer, kicking it on Windows 3.1, I would be terrified of the Ski Free Monster and marvel at the gritty realism of Syndicate, where I learned the word “several”, and thought for a time that it meant a large number that was a multiple of seven.
Still, these were experiences on shared hardware. I came into my own when I received my own Family Computer for my sixth birthday, a sexily curved clone of the original, but with the same iconic controllers. My father and I spent the previous day looking for the console, though naturally I wasn’t allowed to play it until the next day. The wait was agonizing.
It was on that day that I discovered Contra, a game that stood out because it came on its own cartridge, apart from my hand-me-down 50-in-ones. That rockin’ title screen, complete with explosion, promised great things. It delivered in spades. To a child that grew up in the 90s with its 80s action fallout, this was perfection. Controlling chiseled gun-toting men based on Stallone and Schwarzenegger, blowing up alien invaders across a variety of locales, to some of the best chiptune music ever composed? Yes.
The game became an obsession. This was the time before complex AI, so the difficulty of the game came from the sheer amount of danger your little man was in, made more harrowing by the fact that he-you died after getting hit once, and you only had three lives at the start. Playing co-op invariably meant losing your partner some way down the long line of jungle, waterfall, and corridor sections, and surviving became a question of remembering when and where enemies (those damn turrets) and power-ups (hell yes, Spread Gun) would appear— reflexes wouldn’t be nearly as much help. Knowing where to jump and when to shoot was the key. After a few weeks, with my fine motor skills and memory significantly improved, I finally managed it: I beat Contra. Whether or not the famed Konami code was involved, I can’t remember. I had won.
Alas, we moved to the States soon after, leaving my beloved Family Computer, and Kuya JJ, behind. I was unceremoniously dumped two generations forward in games technology, and was introduced to current-gen greats Spyro, Ocarina of Time, and GoldenEye via department store kiosks and the consoles of friends and relatives. I discovered my first gaming bildungsroman when a classmate lent me her Game Boy for a week, with a copy of Pokémon Red snug in its back.
I would not own another home console for another a decade and a half. Our nomadic lifestyle (and lack of funds) meant that I would be a handheld fellow for the foreseeable. I received a Game Boy Color at age 10, which could play Pokémon Silver, the first video game I ever bought with my own money. The DS and PSP came in college, after years of reading books, the original portable entertainment.
At the end of 2010, I bought a Wii for my family . The true successor to the Family Computer, the Wii had the same universal appeal and a focus on group interaction. It even had sequels to the classics I loved, with Mega Man 9 and 10, Sonic 4, and Contra, games I cannot beat now due to my eroded skills. Perhaps one day I’ll bring this shiny red box to Kuya JJ’s house, and ask if I can watch him play.