A friend of mine suggested I buy a book which was on sale at Amazon called Console Wars. He knows I’m something of a geek – OK, very much a geek – but not my full biography. The book traces the history of Nintendo’s rise and Sega’s challenge. What my friend didn’t know, and what makes this so personal, is that my dad worked for Mattel for over 30 years. The executive who the story follows, Tom Kalinske, was at Mattel before he took over Sega of America. The book opens with talk of Hot Wheels, Barbie, and Mattel Electronics. Somehow, names came popping out of my long-forgotten childhood. You can trace a lot of my life through video games even though I haven’t been a “hardcore gamer”.
It all started at some point in the 70’s. I don’t remember the exact details, but we had a Magnavox Odyssey. That much I know. When I search online, I find that that was the first commercial video game console. There were a variety of games which it could play like Pong and its variants or shooting games which involved hitting a block floating around the screen. I’ve got no idea where we got it or how, but my dad would get Mattel samples and sometimes trade them for cool stuff which my brother and I got to play with. My mom swears that it was years before she and my dad told us what he did for living. Please do not watch much of the Odyssey gameplay. Save your eyeballs for the last two videos if you want to understand why people love video games.
Memories go past that into when Mattel got into handheld games. These were dedicated devices which would play one game like auto racing or baseball or football. They weren’t sophisticated and amounted to a few buttons to push while red LEDs flashed around a screen. They ran on 9-volt batteries which we went through like popcorn. I can still remember testing them on my tongue. If you put both battery contacts on your tongue and got a jolt then it was good-to-go. We had a nice box of the games and every once in a while, my dad would get a new one before we’d take off for a summer vacation. That and strategically deployed Jelly Bellies would get him and my mom through long drives with us. I even remember one time he took some to a local toy store to trade them in for a competitor’s game before a sleepover I had.
Arcade games came out soon after this. Space Invaders. Asteroids. Galaga. Centipede. And Pac Man. Pac Man was so different than the rest. My best friend had an uncle who worked for Bally. We were playing Space Invaders at his house and it seemed amazing. Then Mattel got into video games and my dad brought home an Intellivision. Having a father in the biz meant early access and budgetary constraints which weren’t there. Each new game was always thrilling and had us competing against each other. Plus, having a father who had early access to it all made the experience that much cooler. I can’t even begin to guess how many hours I spent in front of video games as a kid. When there was the annual Toy Fair in town, I’d join him and get lost in all the games and lose all track of time.
When Mattel Electronics faded, my access and available time did as well. There were several years when I didn’t play games. Well, aside from a few on my PC in college. After college, I got a Sega Genesis and got back into it for a while. This was the dawn of Sonic the Hedgehog, Street Fighter, and Madden. I can still envision my favorite offensive plays. I had a job designing machinery out of college and and a maxed out PC for doing CAD work. Eventually, the company had real trouble making payroll in a way which wasn’t going to change. In the end, during the job search, that CAD station got used more for playing Doom against co-workers.
The recent release of Grim Fandango on iOS brought back memories of the PC adventure games I got into after that. Grim Fandango, the Zork text-based games, and other Lucas games such as X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter were amazing. Descent: Freespace was my favorite. These pieces of entertainment went from bits of wiring to cartridges you’d somehow know to blow into in order to make them work to crafted stories with characters you’d come to know through the course of the experience.
I took another hiatus from gaming at one pivotal moment. I recall watching football when the original X-Box commercial came on TV. My jaw dropped, but my wife encouraged me to get the bike I’d been thinking about instead. That turned out to be some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten as far as fitness and life-long friendships are concerned. I’d skipped the early X-Box and Playstation consoles and didn’t do much gaming until the Wii came out. It was impossible to get because of the low supply and stratospheric demand (Console Wars explains that this was intentional). My wife was teaching high school then and asked a student who was working at Target to stash one for her. For the kids. Certainly for the kids. They got into Mario a lot more than I did. We did play a bunch of Mario Kart and I enjoyed the heck out of Metroid Prime.
Not that long thereafter, I picked up a Playstation 3. For the Blueray player. Right. OK, I admit that we watched a lot of movies on it via Netflix (you know, when Netflix shipped physical things around the country). My boys’ video game childhood consisted of Mario on the Wii and Ratchet and Clank on the PS3. Lots of Ratchet and Clank. The three of us picked our own favorite games. While my youngest spent more time with the Wii, my oldest son and I soaked up the Assassins Creed series. I came to love Infamous. All three of us battled in ModNation Racers which lets you build and customize your own karts and tracks. Sessions of Uncharted were like movies we’d watch as we got caught up in the mix between Indiana Jones and a 3rd person shooter. It was appointment TV after dinner – which we’d play. My older son and I squeezed in co-op games which pitted us against waves of enemies. These were works of immersive art with storytelling, complex mechanics, compelling graphics, and iterative play modes to keep the entertainment flowing.
Recently, I bought a Playstation 4. I held off for a while until I couldn’t take it. I picked up a copy of the third Infamous game and we were taken right back to those after-dinner sessions. My younger son and I started playing and took alternate paths through the game. We’d talk about it while avoiding spoilers and had a really good time. Very soon after that, the new Ratchet and Clank game came out. I remember that the first series seemed to look like a quality CGI movie from a few years before. The PS4 version upped that while giving them a story that my oldest son felt was the best of the bunch. The series presents a huge range of guns that do every thing from simple explosions to turning your enemies into sheep. Your characters collect bolts which they spend on upgrading the weapons to create bigger explosions or turn the sheep into goats. One day while I was watching them play, they paused and flipped through the options menu to show me something. There’s a setting which changes all the bolts to look like the golden rings from Sonic. That’s awesome enough to give a long-term gamer some chills. In a week, Uncharted 4 is going to release and start the cycle again.
Over the weekend we had dinner at my mom’s house. Afterwards, I went up and grabbed a turntable and some albums I had growing up to take home. As my oldest son flipped out over the original copy of Journey’s Escape, the younger one asked if I had any video game consoles when I was growing up. I’m fairly confident that the kid I once had to talk into Legend of Zelda will spend some time looking at older games online to ask me about after this.
I feel lucky to have had these experiences. They tie together my childhood with my brother and dad to my parenthood with my kids. I can’t help but look back and smile at it all.