You’ll have to excuse me if the language within this article comes across as a little haphazard. I’m day three into a health overhaul that includes less refined sugars, cutting back my coffee intake and generally eating cleaner. I am starting to dramatically feel the effects of my body withdrawing from the garbage I have been bombarding it with. Age is a wonderful thing in many ways, and while it offers a perspective and accumulation of experience unavailable to my younger self, it tolerates the abuses of bad diet and sleep deprivation far less.
There are no more late night gaming sessions fuelled by soft drink, cheap home brand lollies and CC’s that dominated my teenage years. Well, there can be, but the shock to my body the following day is something akin to being dragged into a hut, crying as a line of Amazonian women demand repeated Snoo-Snoo. Indeed, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is spongy and bruised”.
I could not begin to count how many of these sugar-fuelled nights occurred during my pre-adult years. It was the mid-1990s, I was 16 years old and the Super Nintendo (still the greatest console, in my opinion) ruled every waking hour! Today my allegiance belongs to great game design and not any one particular brand, but it was different back then, I was a complete Nintendo junkie. Anyone into gaming during this time would be well-versed in the console wars waged by SEGA and Nintendo. Sonic vs Mario regularly splashed across the covers of magazines such as Hyper, and whilst it’s interesting to see how that battle eventually played out (Sonic is now a selectable player in the latest Super Smash Bros? How times do change), there was nothing more exciting back then than picking a side and defending it to the bitter end. Hell, I’m old enough to remember when Sonic used to appear in games that were of a consistently high quality (not that I played them of course, ‘cos you know: LOYALTY!) And why wouldn’t I be loyal to the mighty SNES? The awesomeness (it’s a word) of Star Fox, the depth and complexity of Super Metroid, the wonderfully rendered world of Donkey Kong Country, the fun of TMNT 4: Turtles In Time and of course, Zelda 3, which is a masterpiece from beginning to end.
The opening scene of A Link to the Past, set in a thunderstorm, is so atmospheric that whoever decided to begin the game this way deserves some kind of prize, possibly the key to a city – a big one – or perhaps a Nobel Prize. On and on I could go, waxing lyrical for paragraphs about many great games (OH! I nearly forgot about Secret of Mana…) but ultimately, that makes for a rather tedious piece of writing.
It is tempting to dismiss the excitement about a long past gaming era as nothing more than nostalgia. Indeed, with the increasing distance of time and the burden of adulthood, nostalgia can take what was in reality only average and morph it into greatness. We remember not what was, but idolise the past as a way to express what we believe our lives now lack, whether that be a mortgage-free existence or perhaps a greater sense of freedom in general. I make this same mistake whenever I think about the period of my life I was into Limp Bizkit. A time when I thought ‘Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavoured Water’ really was a good album title, and I had yet to realise one of the permanent laws of the Universe: Fred Durst is and always has been a complete arsehole.
The 1990s was a decade where I was completely ignorant of the responsibilities that are now part of my everyday existence. Friendships were built around gaming, and the person gaming next to me was my comrade for life! None of us had yet to experience the separation that occurs as we all begin to walk the inevitably divergent paths into adulthood. Families, jobs, bills, degrees and the politics of friendship eventually take precedent over the latest addition of EDGE, or the newest instalment of a once cherished franchise. Whilst it is true that some my age will begin to wage a protracted and emotional battle against the dying of the light, one characterised by the sad sight of someone clinging to the glory of a youth now past in obvious desperation, for me I do not wish to return there. I hold nothing but good memories of this particular area of my life, and I enjoy being thirty-six far more than being sixteen. Those memories all blur into one, and they always bring a smile to my face. The excitement of a new release, walking with my friends to the local shopping strip and hiring games from the corner video store, loading up with all manner of sugary treats and musing upon life’s biggest question: it’s Friday night, do I have pizza again? Yes! The answer is always yes. Yet, those same memories contain images, sounds and emotions linked to friendships that have now ended, and moments that can never be recreated. Yet, there is no sadness. I hold great reverence for this time, for one simple reason, they were some of the greatest of my life.
Gaming obviously meant a lot to me. Not only was it an amazing amount of fun, but it offered an escape for a non-gaming life that was proving to be consistently less than desirable. Throughout my teens I inhabited two worlds, let’s call them light and dark. The first – light – was filled with pixels and power-ups, laughter and friendship. The dark? Well, you get the idea. When I was with my friends, my non-gaming world bled away and for that moment I felt a sense of freedom. More than this, when playing solo I found gaming offered a reprieve from the environment around me. There is a long-held stereotype about gamers being isolated loners hiding in a basement. Bullshit. Even in the 1990s, well before the advent of MMORPGs and the uptake of the Internet, gaming offered the one thing that kept me buoyant during those disparaging years: a sense of community and belonging. I felt safe. As I started writing this piece, I didn’t really know if any specific theme would emerge other than ’SUPER NINTENDO = AWESOME, YEAH!’
More than the SNES, it was the community that gaming provided that helped me immeasurably. It is a sense of community that I feel is even stronger today within gaming in general due to technology. Sure, it is not free of issues (rampant sexism and homophobia to name just two), but online gaming has opened up spaces that allow those scattered across the globe to connect, create friendships and have a hell of a lot of fun.
When I think back across this period of my life, it is through the lens of gaming and friendship that I view it. How could I not? Friday nights blurred into Saturday mornings which became Sunday mornings as chocolate, chips and soft drink were consumed and ‘winner stays on’ rules strictly adhered to. It was bliss. That only leaves me with one thing left to write about. No article that reflects upon the glory days of the Super Nintendo is complete without mentioning this one particular game. The title itself is enough to send grown adults into giggling fits of joy and laughter. It was this title that I probably devoted the largest amount of time to more than any other game before or after. It was a game where microseconds meant everything, where perfecting the power slide was a skill worthy of its sense of achievement. To myself and my gaming comrades, no other game offered the enjoyment, bonding experience and pleasure that this one gave to us in spades. It was a bad-ass game where phrases like “Toad was, and still is, my man” actually made sense. It featured a fat Italian plumber, pitting his skills against other Nintendo characters around a series of increasingly devious circuits and Battle Zones. It seems fitting to close out this article with four simple words that defined the era of the Super Nintendo more than any other: mother fuckin’ Mario Kart!