Once, when I was small and pixels were big

This is SO appropriate seeing as how I'm working on an alien invasion story at the moment.

I had some free time on Friday, so I busted out Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest for a couple of hours, and ended up beating it just after midnight. It was so nostalgic watching that dull, uninspired, pixelated ending again. I hadn’t taken the time to play some good ol’ fashioned Nintendo in a while; I’d almost forgotten the simple pleasure of moving a clump of pixels that vaguely resembles a Transylvanian hero across a screen that vaguely resembles a haunted mansion. You just don’t get that with the more recent Castlevania games on the Nintendo DS. They’re damn good, don’t get me wrong—they’re just not 80’s.

It’s almost a steampunk kind of thing. The 80’s was all about digital signals wrapped in analog boxes. The PET computer in my second grade classroom had a friggin’ Commodore Datasette drive attached to it (remember pressing “play” to load your programs?); we listened to our music on my uncle’s rack stereo system, which sported dual cassette decks and turntable in addition to a CD player; we watched our TV on a giant, oaken box with a humongous CRT set in the center. It was my grandfather’s pride and joy, that TV. That and his trusty, ton-heavy Magnavox VHS VCR (which eventually ended up in my uncle’s possession—and which still works like a charm to this day). I was allowed to watch cartoons after school as long as I promised to record Grandpa’s favorite shows without the commercials. But I sometimes sneaked the Atari or Coleco in. (This was in late 1986–early 1987; though the Nintendo Entertainment System was out by then, my brother Sean and I didn’t get ours until Christmas, 1988.)

At the time, we lived with my grandparents and their teenage son, John. It was a two-story, New England style house. We had the upstairs, my grandparents the ground floor, and Uncle John the basement—his own private pad, complete with TV, VCR, Atari, stereo system, and pool table. But Sean and I never went down there unless absolutely necessary because John had a nasty habit of unexpectedly turning off the lights and pulling his “Eye of God” prank on us. Don’t ask.

Across the street, though, my friend Anthony had an older brother—Brett—who also happened to live in his parents’ basement. Brett had a ColecoVision and a gigantic cardboard box filled with games. I remember one day climbing into the box and standing waist-deep in cartridges…though in hindsight it was probably closer to ankle-deep.

That was Camelot to me and Anthony. As long as Brett wasn’t home, that was our lair. I remember ordering pizza and floating my liver on Coca Cola. I remember Donkey Kong and some random racing game, the title of which escapes me at the moment. I remember thinking out loud that none of the games ever looked anything like the box art. Most of all, I remember the pixels. They glowed, they had contour, the edge of the screen was always slightly warped. These imperfections were to 80’s video games as pops and crackles were to vinyl records.

(I’m fully aware that in waxing nostalgic I’m ignoring the fact that many of the aforementioned imperfections made gaming with a broken RF switch about as fun as trying to watch broadcast television through static on a rainy day.)

Games haven’t changed much in twenty-five years. Consoles have gotten faster, pixels have gotten smaller, sound has gone from bloops and bleeps to full-fledged orchestral scores—but you’re still just running, jumping, shooting things, collecting items, or trying to level the fuck up. It’s kind of a tried-and-true formula. Despite the graphics whore in me getting strung out on what the PlayStation 3 can do visually, there’s a special place in my brain that can only be stimulated when it has to personify a bunch of pixels bopping about on a black screen. That’s one thing classic console games did well: they kept you imagining things were greater and more realistic than they actually were. You had to depend almost entirely on gameplay to get your rocks off. Sure, a poorly-animated blob in Metroid looked lame, but you knew that if you missed your footing or shot off-target, Samus would get it. That sucked.

What sucked more: Captain N. When they took Simon Belmont and made him an effeminate sunbather who was scared of his own shadow, I almost puked. His earlier, pixelated video game persona was far superior. The rest of the N characters were “off,” too. It took me a while to figure out what was wrong: The animators didn’t know these characters, I did. I’d spent the hours, days, and weeks getting to know them, sending them through level after level, using up all their lives and then starting all over again, crying with them when we ran out of continues. The cartoon folk had taken these hard-won personas and replaced them with their own crappy caricatures. Kind of like how movie studios take novels that are just fine on their own and turn them into box office fodder for a few million bucks. I don’t care what anyone says, Dune was much better on paper than on film…even though I own the Extended Edition and still watch it once a month while sipping a tall glass of Baron Brand 2% Milk.

The very first stories I ever wrote were based on video games. Even though I watched Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda cartoons all the time, I never pictured those characters in my head when I wrote my little fanfics. It was always the actual video game sprites that I imagined.

They were way cooler. 😉

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About jesse

Book designer and formatter based in southern California. Supreme overlord of the SuperMegaNet pseudoverse.
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4 Responses to Once, when I was small and pixels were big

  1. Juliane says:

    Maybe it’s not the pixels that are getting smaller, but you who have grown up! Things look a lot smaller when you’re an adult. 😉

  2. daymon says:

    If I was able to I would have kept each console I had, but sadly most were either dead or stolen. They just haven’t been able to get the same kind of quality that they did back then.

  3. jesse says:

    You’re right, Juliane. I think I’ve grown up just a bit. That would explain the five o’clock shadow. 😉

    daymon, I’ve faced the same problem over the years. My brother and I used to have several classic consoles – but the only ones that still work nowadays are the NES and the SNES. The controllers are top-notch; we only ever had to take apart one of the NES gamepads to clean the contacts inside. To this day, I’ve never used a USB gamepad for computer that’s felt as responsive / “comfortable” as those old (S)NES controllers.

  4. william says:

    yeah my dad will like this 😉

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