A Link to the Past: Sample Chapter

Below is the first chapter of my first book, A Link to the Past: Stories of Growing Up Gamerfor your enjoyment in the hope you might want to read the rest. 

Identity Crisis
…in which Nintendo and Sega fight for the right to party

Plenty of gaming consoles had their shot in the Davis household. Some just happened to show up early (Atari), while others were competitive mainstays (Sega Genesis), or passing fancies (Game Boy/Game Gear). But through them all, it was an unquestionable fact that Nintendo ruled the halls of my early childhood with an iron fist with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

My brothers and I’s games ranged from the classics, to the enduring, to the forgettable, all the way to the just plain weird. The wide-reaching games at my disposal allowed me plenty of options to prattle away the hours of carefree childhood, but they also embedded names and genres into my mind that will end up significant as this text unfolds.

The classics of the NES obviously weren’t classics at the time, but we owned the gold-colored Legend of Zelda, all of the Mario titles, Contra, Mega Man, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, and several dozen others. The NES housed the beginnings of so many of gaming’s franchise pillars that account for its historical significance, but as those franchises have reinvented themselves again and again across several generations of consoles since, those series ultimately moved beyond it. It is games like Maniac Mansion and A Boy and His Blob — games that mostly haven’t received reincarnations or two dozen sequels — that have remained wholly in the spirit of the NES’ unique identity now almost thirty years later.

Both are cult-classic puzzle games. In A Boy and His Blob, you make your way through the world of Blobolonia as “the Boy,” and are required to feed your pet blob various jellybeans that allow him to transform into useful tools. Maniac Mansion has you in a decidedly more dire affair. You play as Dave — a high school student whose girlfriend, Sandy, has been kidnapped and is being held in the Edison family mansion. The Edison family consisted of five “members:” Dr. Fred, Nurse Edna, Weird Ed (son), and two dismembered tentacles — a purple one and a green one. The family becomes controlled by a meteor that has landed outside their mansion and it’s up to Dave and two companions of the player’s choice to navigate this funhouse to save Sandy.

These two games were whacked out of their gourd. Though difficult to explain through text, both of these games possessed a level of uneasy strangeness that was uniquely present on the NES — the type of environments where nothing qualifies as “normal.” The Legend of Zelda and Mario may have started out identifying with the NES right along with Maniac Mansion and A Boy and His Blob, but as those now-crucial gaming franchises went off to become the pillars of the industry, the latter duo chose to play the role of the guy who opts to root himself in his hometown, even if it means foregoing far-reaching fame and fortune. The NES will always be Mario and Zelda’s hometown, but they ultimately outgrew it, while Maniac Mansion and A Boy and His Blob became NES institutions.    

We didn’t know that these franchises would be pillars of anything, though, much less that they would establish a foundation that would span decades into the future. With no historical cred influencing purchasing habits or loyalties, we were left with a collection of games that spanned a now-unimaginable breadth. The scenario painted a perfect opportunity for a child like me to begin carving out some type of identity concerning the games I played and the games I liked. But at seven years old, I didn’t base my identity on what I perceived myself to “like,” but on the things I “owned.”

Ownership of anything at age seven is more in principle than in practice, as I cannot recall a single instance where one brother's ownership of any game ever correlated with the other's inability to partake. But at seven years old, "principle" is an important thing. Having that ownership claim to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figure, or an NES copy of Wizards and Warriors, was the only way I knew how to establish that developing identity — especially in the shadow of an older brother. At an age when an older sibling feels like an untouchable icon to whom you can offer nothing, these possessions offered glimpses of a different reality. These were things that, regardless of worth, my older brother didn't have. It wasn't animosity — I can't even tell you if it was conscious at the time — only a younger sibling trying to find ways to peek out of that shadow. These could have been the worst actions figures, or the dumbest games. It didn't matter.

For the first several years, the gaming console — primarily the NES — was in the family living room. After sharing a bedroom during those years, the time came for my older brother to receive his own room, and my younger brother to move in with me. This correlated nicely with the arrival of the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo to the household. The family television was no longer commandeered every night by games with Fabio Lanzoni on the front — yes, there is one: Wizards & Warriors 2: Iron Sword — and we received respective game consoles in our rooms: I with my Sega Genesis, and he with his Super Nintendo. I don't think it was planned out quite that efficiently, but the timing was undeniably impeccable.

I always acknowledged Nintendo's superiority over Sega, even back then. In addition to the NES, the Super Nintendo had emerged in 1991, and between the two of them, Sega didn't have much of a prayer in our house. Sure, I owned all the Sonic the Hedgehog games, and got enormous mileage out of NBA Action '94, but even at my young age there was something about Nintendo that promised to be the more lasting venture. History has proven my inclination mostly correct, but only after a couple of years where the Sega Genesis gave my seven-year-old self a dose of identity self-esteem.

Even throughout Sega's peak influence in my life I can't ever recall a time when I didn't play Nintendo games. But as my brother invested in the early Final Fantasy titles, Starfox, Mario Kart, and any number of others, I began amassing the aforementioned Sonic the Hedgehog games, developing my lifelong love affair with season/franchise mode through NBA Action '94, NBA Live '95, and Madden '95, and enjoyed something that was unequivocally mine. Allegorically speaking, the Sega Genesis was the perfect console for a middle child trying to assert that ever-elusive identity. The Nintendo was always the older, more talented brother to the Sega. Not necessarily more talented because it was inherently better at everything, but because it had been doing everything longer. Nintendo was there first, and had the name recognition. Sega abandoned the Genesis for the next-gen Sega Saturn, which ultimately failed and cemented Sega's backseat legacy. Even during the years that saw Nintendo and Sega as relative equals in sales (early 90s), Sega’s sales success was routinely defined by the amount they were behind Nintendo. It wasn't a success all its own, but a success relative to how respectable their second place finish had been. That pretty much sums up life as a younger brother. But like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figure, or the NES copy of Wizards and Warriors, it wouldn't have mattered if the Sega Genesis was a worthless hunk of over-priced metal; it was mine. And it let Mortal Kombat show every ounce of blood it wanted to — one of the few coolness coups the Sega Genesis was able to levy against Nintendo. 

Sega Genesis had given me my identity, or at least a place to start. But as I entered grade school,I had taken my first step into a larger world, to paraphrase Obi-Won Kenobi, and it became clear that a singular identity created at age seven wasn’t going to cut it forever. That identity would morph and change, bend and change back, only to come out of it as a dedicated Sony loyalist. And it’s all Chicago’s fault.