Decades of Rust

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[The following blog contains mentions of child abuse and bullying.]

I bought my first Nintendo system (the original NES) when I was thirteen years old, around the time of my life when the abuse I was dealing with, both at home and at school, was near its peak. Really, for the first twenty-five years of my life, save my first all-too-brief stint at college, I was constantly being told by nearly all the people around me that I would always be a colossal fuck-up, and that I could never do anything right. With the exception of Mom and some transitory friends, I was constantly hearing those messages from literally everyone else around me, and in order to at least help myself feel that I wasn’t the total fuck-up that everyone told me I was, I obsessed over getting so good at some things that people just couldn’t deny that I had some ability, some talent, no matter how trivial. I’ve written here before about how this led to me wanting to give thirty-minute concerts at every piano I passed back in the day, just to show people that I could play piano at least halfway decently, but I think that video games helped fill that need in my life as well. Even if I kept my gaming mostly to myself, I was at least getting a little satisfaction at seeing messages like “Level Complete” and “You Win” on my television screen whenever I beat a difficult part of a video game.

Nintendo released their Super Nintendo system soon after I bought my first NES, and I bought mine within days of it coming out. The graphical and gameplay improvements in that new generation of video game systems was truly something to behold (I’d already bought a Sega Genesis), and especially with the new generation of role-playing games that were coming out — particularly my beloved Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger, both still tied for my second-favourite video game of all time — it felt like video games were truly becoming their own art form. More than a handful of bad games came out for the Super Nintendo, as they do with every video game system, but in terms of the average quality per game, the Super Nintendo may have been the greatest video game system of all time, possibly only matched by the Playstation 2.

Some of Nintendo’s games of that era, particularly Super Mario World and Super Metroid and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, remain classics to this day, masterworks of game and graphical and sound design that can still be appreciated today. I certainly appreciated the heck out of them back when I was in high school, and even if I hadn’t needed the escape that video games provided me back then, I probably still would have played them for hours on end, just because they were so good. While I’ve never had particularly great skills with video games, I could still do more than well enough in those games, getting through them without dying once, getting the best endings, and so on.

The Super Nintendo was far from the last video game system to be released, of course, and as I bought the next generation of systems that came out, I wanted to play the new games for those new systems. Given my preference for Japanese role-playing games that can take upwards of a hundred hours to complete, this meant less time to play my older video games, and then the house fire of 2001 (and having most of my stuff in a storage locker for the eleven months it took to get the house rebuilt) kind of limited my video game options there. By the time I got my Super Nintendo back, I was nearly two semesters back into college, and what time I had left for video games was mostly spent on the even-newer systems that had come out. I had also finally gotten back to a place where I had people around me who didn’t think I was a total fuck-up, so I just didn’t need the validation of being good at video games that had pulled me through my darker years.

After getting my degrees, of course, I had to busy myself with my teaching career and writing and all that other stuff. I wasn’t buying new video game systems any longer (or if I did, I’d usually wait for years after they first released to pick them up, when they were less expensive), and while I was still doing some video gaming , I didn’t have it in me to pull out my older systems and check them out again. On top of concerns that the systems just wouldn’t work after they’d been in storage for years, those early cartridge games that had battery back-ups to save your games with were only designed to function for about twenty years, and I was starting to pass that point with a lot of my most treasured games. Since video game manufacturers were beginning to reissue classic games, whether on their newer consoles or through dedicated devices, it just made more sense to pick the games up again, with brand-new batteries to help me save my progress in all those games that are just too long to complete in a single sitting.

I’d wanted to pick up the classic consoles with built-in games that Nintendo released a few years ago — first for the original NES, then the Super Nintendo — but that was the time of my life when I was dealing with Mom’s final hospitalization and passing, and then all the moving I had to do afterwards. Even if I’d had the money for those classic consoles, I certainly didn’t have the time to delve into them when I was fighting so hard every day to avoid having my life go completely off the rails. I didn’t get why Nintendo insisted on only offering the consoles for brief periods of time, but when they got taken off the market before I could get my copies, I figured that I could just buy the games I wanted on the online shops for the new generation of consoles, once I finally had the money (and the time) for those.

Not every game that was made available for those classic consoles is available on the newer systems, though, and so a couple of weeks ago, I bought myself a refurbished Super Nintendo Classic Edition, if only to give me a way to play a game I may need to go through again for a video project I’ve been ruminating about. The console comes complete with some of the best games ever released for the system, and while there are some painful omissions, I still think the console was more than worth the cost for me, and I suspect that will hold true not only for old-school Nintendo fans like myself, but also newer gamers and even people who are just getting into video games, and want something simpler than modern video games to cut their teeth on.

I needed to make sure my refurbished system was in working order when I got it, of course, and I wanted to revisit a lot of those classic Super Nintendo games, so I’ve been playing it a fair bit, both on my Twitch channel (when Twitch is nice enough to let me broadcast without massive frame drops), and on my own when I’ve been taking breaks from all the other stuff I’ve been working on. Even for the games I played the heck out of back in the day, I haven’t touched many of them for over twenty years, so getting to experience them all over again has given me a good dose of nostalgia at a time when I’m desperate for even the smallest feelings of comfort in an increasingly uncomfortable world.

Having not played most of these games for over twenty years, it’s understandable that I’d have forgotten some of their finer details in the intervening years, and that my reflexes (and, perhaps more importantly, my gaming instincts) just aren’t what they used to be when I was in high school. With the distance of time here, typing about this stuff days after I was doing it, I can see how that is perfectly logical, and that the fact that I’m not as good at these games as I was thirty years ago just isn’t that big of a deal. In the heat of playing those games, though, it was bothering me, and bothering me a lot. Whether I was forgetting details I used to be able to rattle off the top of my head without any effort, or messing up because my thumbs just don’t move like they used to, it didn’t just feel like I was failing at video games; it felt like I was failing at life. It was bothering me much more than it should have, and I had to take a lot of breaks there just to help me keep a level head.

In thinking about why I was having such a sharp reaction to these difficulties, my first instinct was to blame it all on unrealistic expectations, that I was incorrect to judge my performance on these games that I hadn’t played in decades based off how well I used to play them when I was completing each of them on at least a yearly basis. I also thought that maybe my frustration was a result of all the stress I’ve been under in my modern life, whether because of the pandemic or political stuff or what have you. While both of those things may be true to some extent, though, I really think the main culprit here is just the echoes of all that “you’ll never be anything but a fuck-up” talk I couldn’t escape back in the day. Getting good at those video games was one of the ways that I could at least prove to myself that I wasn’t a total fuck-up, and now that I wasn’t so good at them — as much sense as it made that my skills wouldn’t be what they were after not playing some of these games for more than twenty years — it was like I was back in high school, hearing those messages from my father and my teachers and my classmates all over again, only I didn’t have the small modicum of comfort I got from being good at a handful of video games.

I know that my upbringing was far from typical, and that I shouldn’t infer too much about the experiences of others based solely off my own experiences, but I’ve worked with enough students over my teaching career to know that bullying and other abuse in childhood often lasts well into adulthood, if not an entire lifetime. Video games were far from the only aspect of my life back in the day, and they’re certainly a smaller part of my life now, but the games themselves (and my skill in them) aren’t the real issue here; it’s what they represent, and how so many of us are pulled towards certain things when the rest of the world denies us what we truly want. When those other things start getting taken away from us, that can still feel like a major loss, even after we’ve been able to succeed in so many other ways. This is why I’m never going to stop advocating for better parenting, and better schools, and better teachers, because I know from my own experience, and those that my students have shared with me, just how damaging this kind of relentless abuse can be, even decades after it’s ended.

I did beat all those old Super Nintendo games again, even if my performance in doing so wasn’t quite what it was in my teenage years. I guess that counts for something, anyway. Maybe I’ll try to get my old skill at them back — that would give me something more to do on my Twitch channel, at least — but I think I’d much rather work on creating a world where fewer people can be so bothered when their performance at video games deteriorates. That would mean a lot more to me than getting the best ending of an old video game ever could.

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