I Spent the Weekend with an Old Flame from the Nineties

Back in the early nineties I owned a Nintendo EntertainmentSystem, or a NES, as it’s more often known. The console was my first real dip into what a gaming console was, with its oversized 8-bit cartridges, of such a size you could do considerable damage to a person if you hit them in the face with one, it was a machine like no other. To this very day, I can still faintly smell the odour of the polystyrene packaging as I first extracted that wonderbox from its polymer sarcophagus. The console was a Christmas present, but I had a terrible habit of looking through wardrobes and under beds in the runup to Christmas, so I knew it was coming. To make the situation worse, my mother discovered me looking at it one day, and rather than punish me for being a nosey little sod, she let me play on the system early. It only happened once, and I would say the joy of getting the console on the big day was diminished by me playing on it early, but it wasn’t. It was every bit as exciting as the sneaky liaison I had had with the machine some weeks previous. Actually, thinking back, I can thank my mother for starting my passionate affair with Nintendo because of that gift. I don’t recall making any demands or pleas to get a NES, I can’t remember even knowing what one was until I got the system. We were a family of the Spectrum 48K and its bigger brother, the Spectrum 128K, those were my early gaming platforms, but it was now in my life and I was hooked on it.

I will confess that my obsession with Nintendo may go hand-in-hand with my other passion around that time: American wrestling. I regularly got the monthly WWF Magazine from my local newsagents, and also being a reader of American comic books, I would see the glitzy advertisements for the NES, with two kids having the time of their lives playing various games. Maybe it was my desire to be like those kids in the adverts that got me to ask for the system, who knows? I had a fascination with America at a very young age, being raised on a diet of films rented from the local rental shop, American culture was in my DNA at that young age, something I am happy to say I have gotten over and managed to broaden my cultural intake a bit more.

The NES isn’t the topic of discussion I want to cover here, that’s the prologue for a much grander obsession that would come two years later after I first plugged in the controller on the front-loading NES. What I want to talk about is its successor: the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or SNES, as it’s known to this day.

I can remember getting the SNES with much more clarity. I was twelve around the time. A lot had changed. I was a fatter child, struggling with what my mother called ‘puppy fat’, and spending a large amount of my time playing on various gaming consoles with my friend Liam. Although Liam has moved away, on the odd occasion we do get together we will still play games together, old habits truly go down kicking and screaming. By 1992 I had the NES, Sega Master System, Sega Mega Drive, Nintendo Gameboy, quite a list, and you would think I would be happy with that lot, but I wasn’t.

Wrestling magazines had been replaced with gaming magazines. Mean Machines was my magazine of choice. It covered everything about gaming, all consoles, all games, it didn’t matter, gaming agnosticism at its finest, when it wasn’t about taking a side, but whether a game was any good or not. You didn’t have debates about console exclusives in these pages, it was everything mixed in together. Back in the nineties, there was a subculture in gaming around importing games not released in various territories. It was an expensive hobby, and only those elitists could afford to partake a lot of the time. I on my meagre pocket money could only dabble here and there, with the only real game I got my hands on was a Star Trek: The Next Generation: Echoes from the Past that came with a handy gadget that converted an NTSC cartridge from our American cousins’ Genesis systems into the faithful Mega Drive. But I digress, the reason I bring up importing is Mean Machines was pretty hot on the import scene and would regularly report on rumblings from further afield. Most of the time it was what games were happening in the USA, but often we would have a little exposure to the world of Japanese gaming. This was before the Internet, or what we know now of the Internet, you couldn’t look up and explore the world as we do now. Everything we knew was filtered down to us by writers and libraries. No YouTube, no Reddit, nothing that could tell you what was happening on the other side of the world.

It was around when I was finishing up Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES that I first got wind that there was a new boy in town thanks to this magazine. Worldwide release dates were staggered. Often taking a good couple of years for what was hitting Japan to hit Europe. Going back to Super Mario Bros. 3 I didn’t know this game was in existence until I saw it in the film The Wizard with Fred Savage. Whilst that film has been accused of being a 90-minute Nintendo advert (a claim that is rightly justified in this writer’s eyes) it did its job of fuelling my passion for gaming. To give you a little taste of what gaming was like back then, The Wizard was released in 1989. That means I would have seen the film around 1990 when it came to Sky Television (TV was scarce back then), and if you then consider that Super Mario Bros. 3  came to the UK in August 1991, you can understand just what sort of system we were dealing with in regards to worldwide distribution of products. Like I said, everything was drip-fed.

So it was thanks to Mean Machines that I knew the SNES existed. A fun little fact about the SNES, or Super Famicom as it was known to our friends in Japan, is that the release of this console in that country in 1990 caused such a disturbance on a social scale, that the government of the time asked all future releases to be done at a weekend as they couldn’t cope with the fallout. Not only that, but there are apocryphal tales that Nintendo opted to ship the console at night to avoid robberies by the Yakuza. As to whether this is true or not, you’ll never find the answer, but from a logistics point of view, it cuts down on the traffic, doesn’t it.

So this phantom console would taunt me from the pages of Mean Machines. With its bewitching visuals and the fevered reports of the various writers of the magazine, it seemed so unfair that I lived on the other side of the world from this system. I had a good friend in the Mega Drive and that tied me over, the Mega Drive dominated the UK, but like Androids to iPhones, there seemed to be some mystical allure about Nintendo products. Both are equally as good, but Nintendo is a fix you get in your system, and once it’s there, it’s hard to shake off. Detoxing and rehab don’t cure it. I believe the same feeling is what you could equate to love, you never forget your first one.

On a playground in somewhere 1992, I was shown something I will never forget – A SNES controller. I didn’t even know the console had hit our shores, but there it was. Perhaps it was the exuberance of the multi-coloured buttons, or its sleek, smooth curves that replaced its boxy elder sibling’s two-button controller, I was entranced by it and I had to have one.

That day came in Christmas ‘92, there under the tree was a box that could only be a SNES. I also got a dictionary that year, one I still have to this day, and I tell you I may be in a different position if I’d stuck with just the dictionary, but I had a SNES, and with it came Super Mario World, one of my main long distance antagonists from the pages of Mean Machines.

This console was a defining moment in my young life. On this platform I fell in love with Street Fighter II, the second game I owned on the system. This machine allowed me to indulge in that passion, and may be the root cause of my love for fighting games, so just for that introduction alone, I thank it.

I remember having Star Wars on the NES. A good game in its day, a tidy platformer with plenty of flourish and vigour, I even recall being astounded at the pixelated portrait of Sir Alec Guinness after battling your way through the Jundland Wastes to reach the crazy old wizard that lived on the edge of the Dune Sea on Tatooine. So imagine my astonishment when I first laid eyes on Super Star Wars on the SNES. What a huge change this was.

Image result for star wars nes
Star Wars on the NES
Super Star Wars in action

It may not look like much of a difference to the casual eye, but the gameplay, the sound, the number of enemies, the colour palette, everything was instantly better. I can only imagine that for a developer at Nintendo it must have been akin to removing a pair of shackles that stopped your movement, so the developers at LucasArts must have filled their boots with the new power they had to the system. The strange flourish Nintendo seemed to insist upon was almost every game was prefixed with ‘Super’ as an adjective. Odd choices make strange bedfellows, but every release of most games I purchased came with this enforced prefix.

Like every love in life, part of you always moves on. One of the penalties of having a relationship with a piece of hardware is that there can be no room for organic growth and change between the player, and the console as the source of a gaming fix. Times change, maturity happens, hardware grows old. It’s a harsh truth that these machines are left behind to collect dust, the only constant they have given to our lives are the memories of our time with them. Those machines of my pre and early teenage years, the Super Nintendo and Mega Drive, are some of the fondest I have for my gaming hobby.

Where to begin with what it’s like to have an old love from my teenage years come back into my life? The experience is a confusing one, although mostly a pleasant one. There is a somewhat sense of irony that the console now fits in the palm of my hand, a physical manifestation of the console I outgrew, or an advancement in the technology of the day that means the power in a calculator could run a SNES today. Take from that what you will.

Unboxing it led to some conflicting emotions. The collector part of me insisted that it should never be taken from its packaging. The giddy and excited boy inside of me was screaming for me to tear it from its packaging and plug it in as quickly as possible. Whilst Nintendo have only loaded the console with 20+1 games (The other is Starfox 2 that was never released commercially) there was a rush of hedonistic pleasure as I meticulously removed it from its confines and then plugged it into the television. I must commend Nintendo on the attention to detail they have put into their little slice of retro. Even the packaging is similar to a console’s packaging from that era. With a bevvy of the games available to play on the back of the box, I looked at them all in wonder. Some I had never heard of or engaged with before, whilst others brought a Cheshire cat grin to my already elated face. With slight hesitation, I indulged myself and plugged one of the two supplied controllers in.

The new version of the SNES is like a time machine. It has transported me back to being thirteen and playing Street Fighter II again. The ability to replicate a CRT screen is commendable. I opted for this to play my games in as this is the closest I could get to reproducing what I would use at the time.

I can look at that SNES that’s had a touch of dwarfism injected into its makeup and I can smile at it. This is the console of my youth. The controllers feel the same. The games play just as badly as I remember. My thumbs hurt from playing too much Street Fighter II and trying to fire off moves that I remember by muscle memory alone.

That is one of the effects that has surprised me most with the SNES Classic Mini, to give it its full title, is how my body has remembered the information I preciously stored away twenty-five years ago. I can still remember cheats, combos, moves like I am back in 1993 and doing them over again. The hands may have aged, and the hair may be a little thinner, but somewhere inside there is a younger version of me that has never left, he’s just been dormant.

What I purchased wasn’t just a slice of nostalgia, although that is what it was marketed as, I have bought a time machine that allows me to traverse my psyche back to a younger day and just be the boy I once was for a few stolen moments, and that is worth every penny.  

          

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