Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Nerd's All-Time Favorite Christmas Gift

This Christmas Eve I wanted to reflect on the best Christmas gift I've ever received, because it's one that my nerdier readers will draw common cause with. While action figures had a shiny newness and appeal that always brought me excitement on Christmas morning, they were never fascinating enough to hold my interest much longer after Christmas. Instead, my all-time favorite Christmas gift was the Nintendo Entertainment System that my brother and I received exactly 20 years ago today.

Neither of us had asked for a Nintendo, but the gift wasn't unexpected. After all, one of my favorite cartoons from the time was The Super Mario Brothers Super Show, starring the late Captain Lou Albano. I vividly remember opening the box and watching my father set the system up. He got us started on the pack-in game (Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt/World Class Track Meet) and the dreadfully-frustrating Ghostbusters. I was immediately impressed by the vivid colors and 8-bit "orchestra" of synthesized sound. (Kids must have been so much easier to impress back in 1989.) I always wanted to kill the laughing dog from Duck Hunt, but the stupid game would never let me. From that point on, I was a Nintendo junkie (in spite of my conversion to Playstation by 1996.) But the NES was one of the most thoughtful and most enduring Christmas gifts I have ever received.

Nintendo's introduction of the NES with a limited launch for Christmas 1985 was nothing short of a stroke of genius. They launched the system against staggering odds precluding their success. The video game industry was dying, thanks to a flood of powerful, low-cost computers (especially the Commodore 64,) a glut of unimpressive games (epitomized by E.T. and Pac-Man on Atari 2600) and oversized, unreliable game systems like Atari 5200. Nintendo took a two-pronged approach: the NES would be designed to resemble a VCR and other commercial electronics instad of a video-game "toy," while the R.O.B. robot peripheral would position the NES as a toy that didn't have to compete toe-to-toe with Atari. I really can't say which of these factors drove the masses back to video games in the form of NES, but the schizophrenic approach worked.

As the NES rose to dominate the video games market, Nintendo started practicing some anti-competitive business tactics whose benefit to their market share was questionable in the long run. Since a deluge of bad games brought on the video game crash of 1983, Nintendo limited the number of games each game publisher could release per year, and Nintendo manufactured all officially-licensed cartridges in-house. Game publishers were barred from porting their NES games to other systems for two years after their NES releases, which hurt upstart console manufacturers like Sega. (Sega eventually overcame this hurdle with an impressive lineup of games that were developed in-house for their Genesis console.) Nintendo eventually eased up when it noticed the success of the upstart Sega Genesis, which was a marked improvement over the outdated NES. It finally motivated the video games giant to produce the Super NES as a competitor to the "edgier" Genesis console.

Nonetheless, video games will always be an important part of my childhood and even my adulthood. Last night I gave my girlfriend a Nintendo Wii, rekindling some of the memories I had of the magical Christmas of NES. Wii is no powerhouse compared to competing video game systems, but its motion sensitive control makes it a completely different (and very immersive) gaming experience. For good measure, I asked her to play Super Mario Bros. on Wii's Virtual Console for old times sake. Needless to say, I'm almost as bad at Mario games as I was 20 years ago. But the challenge and fun that were perfected on NES are timeless and constant.