The Backlog: Gravy-stained Memories edition
As children born in the 1980s, we were lucky enough to be the first generation who grew up with an almost universal appreciation for video games. That was never more apparent than during the holidays, when families would come together under the pretense of having a fun, relaxing time together. Although video games were often scorned by my extended family, they couldn't deny how useful it was in keeping us little rascals occupied for days on end while the adults rekindled their old sibling rivalries over heated petty arguments, vitriolic political disputes and perhaps one too many a hot toddy.
The holiday spirit is a beautiful thing.
But who cares about all that? We're just glad you're here with us. I don't want to speak out of turn, but I think the fact that people read our blog means more to each of us than we've ever really been able to express. So today, we're just thankful you're along for the ride. Enjoy your food, family and friends, and if you're feeling in the mood, why don't you share some of your favorite gaming-related holiday memories in the comments?
I've been playing a bunch of different stuff this week to prepare for our Game of the Year considerations. However, given the holiday here in the U.S., I've been thinking back to Thanksgiving weekends past and how they tie back in to gaming.
When I was in middle school and lived in the seventh circle of hell, the family on my dad's side began a short-lived tradition for Thanksgiving. Given how spread out across the Northwest we were at that point, it made sense to gather in one spot — so we did, at a rented house in Sunriver, Oregon. So it was there that nearly 30 members of my family would assemble — aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends with my grandparents playing host. Thank god for the rickety, half-busted old TV in the basement living room of the house, though, because it was able to keep myself and my other teenage cousins sane for the four-day weekend.
As this was wintertime in 1998 to 2000, some of the best games of that era were devoured whole during those Thanksgiving weekends. Each Thanksgiving seemed to rotate around one or two big games from the year. 1998 was all about Metal Gear Solid; I think we got all the way through the game twice. 1999 featured the recently-launched Sega Dreamcast, and titles like Soul Calibur and a game I picked up right before Thanksgiving called Toy Commander. Toy Commander was perfect for that kind of family weekend: Great, competitive multiplayer for four players, but not so gory as to make an aunt or uncle squeamish.
In 2000, a younger cousin brought his Nintendo 64 to piss all of us off and play Zelda the whole time...but he also made the mistake of bringing Mario Tennis and enough controllers to get rowdy. I'm sure some of you read the words "Mario Tennis" and had your blood pressure go up, but for those of you who have never experienced it, tennis video games can get utterly brutal. When you get four people together in the same room playing doubles, the trash talk will fly; then take in the slightly exaggerated nature of Mario Tennis, with nigh-unstoppable trick shots, and there can be fist fights over the game. Clearly, though, that makes for one hell of a party game.
I'm not quite sure why we stopped that brief tradition, but as evidenced, it's made an impact on me as a gamer. Especially in a pre-connected world, where you may not see every game each year, being able to try other things out and see some of the big games for systems you didn't have was a great experience.
I don't exactly know what it is about the holidays that makes me reclusive. Perhaps because the habit started when I was a child. Every year a new game would come out (Oh, and thanks a lot Blizzard for releasing World of Warcraft during Thanksgiving 2004), and in my youthful exuberance I would shun the pastoral obligations of family tradition by locking myself in a darkened room to play a new game.
It's worse at Christmas, but Thanksgivings past have definitely posed their fair share of social problems. Even though I'm older now and actually spend time with and appreciate my family more than I ever did as a snot-nosed brat, one story in particular sums up my once-neglectful behavior. It involves two things: my love of stuffing and my obsession for Diddy Kong Racing.
I read a lot of game magazines as a child, Nintendo Power and Electronic Gaming Monthly in particular. At the tail end of 1997 both publications began covering a new game called Diddy Kong Racing, which was set for release on November 24th. It was going to star a character from one of my favorite series at the time, Diddy Kong from Donkey Kong Country, and the game looked like an even more insane version of Mario Kart. I had to have it.
So Thanksgiving eve arrived, and I begged my parents to take me to Fred Meyer to buy me the game as an early Christmas gift. They did, and not because I'm spoiled but because I had done very well in school that semester and they wanted to reward me. And I suppose I didn't really beg. It just comes out that way whenever an 11-year-old asks for anything.
I clearly remember the clerk in the electronics department didn't have more than half a second to ask us if we needed help when I belted out a demand along the lines of "DIDDYKONGRACINGPLEASE." My parents eyeballed one another in immediate regret. The clerk stared at me for a bit, and then opened the game case to unleash my prize.
I tore open the game box before I was completely out of the store's automatic door entryway. It was an impossibility to wait until I was home to see what was inside. The familiar smell of printing ink came off the glossy yellow manual in waves, a scent unique to the Nintendo 64 era and one I still remember today.
That night I played the game for hours and hours. I think I unlocked the majority of the stages and characters in one go. But Thanksgiving was the next day, and I needed to get to bed early, according to my mom -- it had something to do with "helping your father find things at the grocery store because he might not get everything right." A spousal lack of confidence meant a holiday was just around the corner.
I remember dreaming of Diddy Kong that night. He was racing around my hometown. I was in a prop plane of some kind, and I beat the little Kong after a very heated race. Again, I was 11 at the time. Pokemon was a year away from release, so I wouldn't be a complete loser for awhile.
On Thanksgiving day I assisted my dad in getting the right ingredients for our evening feast. Then I disappeared. Honestly my family couldn't find me for a couple of hours, or they chose not to look. I had moved my console into another room, where I proceeded to start playing Diddy Kong Racing until I was called for dinner four hours later. Instead of sitting at the table I grabbed a giant plate of stuffing (really, it looked like a mountain), and ran back to the room and shut the door. That didn't please my parents.
They told me to come back out, and to stop playing that infernal game. They had every right to be upset because I was being a jerk. So I agreed to come back out and talk with everyone who came so far to see us.
A few minutes later I asked to be excused, pretending to need to go to the bathroom. Instead of relieving myself I ran back to the room, closed the door quietly and turned the TV back on. My game was right where I left it, and I wasn't found out until half an hour went by and someone needed to use the toilet. My ruse completely foiled, I was ushered back to the dinner table and finished the evening by reluctantly eating a lot of food. I think I passed out after that, and left the game running all night.
I beat Diddy Kong Racing the next morning while half asleep and half in a coma from my abnormal amount of stuffing intake.
All in all, it was a very good Thanksgiving.
I've never cared much for Thanksgiving. Gorging oneself on food and football just doesn't sound very pragmatic, you know? It just seems like a waste of time and precious digestive cycles. But I can totally get behind the whole seeing-family-and-friends part; that's something that only grows more valuable with time.
I haven't seen my extended family very much since I graduated from high school for a whole laundry list of reasons, most of which are frustrating and petty and outside of my control. But today, looking back on the memories I have of playing through Donkey Kong Country for the first time in 1994 with my cousins, I realize that there was a lot to be thankful for back them. Of course, the naiveté that comes with, you know, being eight tends to give those memories a decidedly skewed perspective, but I was having too much fun to care. Even when we'd go to visit my grandma in the middle of the Tri-Cities, which is located right about at the fifth circle of Hell ("Anger") to Spokane's seventh ("Violence"), we'd still have a grand old time with our SNESes and Nintendo 64s (or Nintendos 64, if you prefer).
Now, clearly I'm an adult in the eyes of the law, and those days of gaming with my cousins are probably long gone. But I'll never forget how much fun it was for me as a kid enjoying those long mornings in pajamas with video games and Belgian waffles. If I ever end up spawning some sort of progeny, I'll consider it my duty to carry that tradition on to the next iteration of humans. Unlike my parents' generation, I understand just how important those gaming experiences can be.