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No One Forgets Their First

By Milan Bhandari

In grade school, you fall in love to be like the cool kids—the ones someone actually loves back. You watch them smiling and laughing and think to yourself, “I’ll have what he’s having!” In the fall of 1987, every boy was having a Nintendo Entertainment System.

One by one I watched as my eight-year-old friends were seduced by the lures of this new, white-hot game system. And though a few were gracious enough to invite me over to sit in front of their televisions and watch them play Duck Hunt or Ghosts and Goblins, I spent most of the time outside throwing a tennis ball to my little brother Neil, wondering when my day would come.

Like most Indian immigrants in those days, my parents were cautious buyers, vigilantly guarding against costly fads that threatened to rob us, their three children, of funds meant for our college savings. Their affection for us always eventually got the best of them, but to achieve anything on a timely-basis, we kids had to convince them that the object of our desires could not be lived without. Once their reflex catchphrase, “There’s no need,” gave way to, “We’ll see,” it was only a matter of time. The world, however, was not waiting for me.

My best friend David Sanchez, a curly haired Mexican boy four years older than me, would come by the driveway of our suburban Chicago home after school just to give me updates on his progress at Zelda. Using terms like “Link” and “Gannon,” he spoke in a foreign language I was desperate to learn. After reminding me how much I needed to get with it and get an NES, he would abruptly turn and run back to his home, and back to his Nintendo. (Our friendship ended that year.) Even my otherwise stern third-grade teacher, Mrs. Seiler, a conservative, forty-something, began breaking character in the afternoons to chat up my Nintendo-owning classmates. Saying things like, “I love Super Mario!” while standing over their desks, she behaved as if she were amongst judgmental peers rather than kids her son’s age. Frustrated and unable to concentrate, I would put my pencil down and listen to these conversations with a steaming, bitter envy.

My time finally did come in February ’88. After various visits to Indian family friends whose children had their own Nintendos, my parents decided to fold. Yet, by this time demand for the systems had reached levels unseen since the Cabbage Patch Kids era, and achieving one was no easy task. Thus, instead of coming home from our trips to Kmart and Venture and Toys ‘R’ Us with my arms wrapped around a giant box, I returned home with moist cheeks and small stacks of rain checks.

In the meantime, I obsessed. The giddiness I felt when thinking about Nintendo made me suddenly say dumb things. “When it comes,” I told my mom, while stretching my leg on her bed like a ballet dancer and staring at my reflection in the headboard mirror, “I promise I’ll stop watching wrestling.” After all, I didn’t foresee myself having time for wrestling, or much else for that matter. “It’ll be like having our own arcade,” I said to Neil, not paying attention to how stupid I sounded, but only to how true it was. Nothing I’d ever gotten up to that point had lived up to its expectations, but this was going to be different. Nintendo was going to be the one.

When it finally came in early March, it sat inside its box in my parent’s room. Due to the proximity of its arrival to my birthday, March thirteenth, it was instantly designated as a birthday gift, not to be opened before my special day. During that interminable week, I counted down the many endless hours while lying on the carpet next to my Nintendo-to-be, staring at its box with rapt, hungry eyes. I imagined it lying there, inside, and could hardly believe that this object of so many other boys’ fantasies was now all mine. The thought of finally getting to touch it was enough to fend off the frustration of having to wait. Soon enough, I would taste its pleasures.

In those early days, life with Nintendo was everything I dreamt it would be. On weekdays, I’d wake up early and sneak downstairs for a quick game before getting ready for school. While slaving away in class, I would suddenly picture it and something within me would stir. I could never wait to get home, and would even sprint the ten-house distance from the bus stop, just to get to Nintendo faster.

On weekends, when there was no rush to be anywhere, I found reasons to be around Nintendo even when I wasn’t playing it. I would lightly dust it off with one of my mom’s bright blue feather dusters, and even use a little Windex when needed. After also wiping down the TV and Betamax (to keep anyone from getting too suspicious), I’d plant myself directly in front of Nintendo and marvel at its form. Its body (9”—7”—3.5”) was just the right size to comfortably fit within my small hands, should I ever need to pick it up. Its shape was that of a trapezoidal prism, with a trim, tapered base and buxomous, cube-like top. The two tones of gray—lighter up the top, darker on the bottom—struck me as just the perfect combination of serious yet playful. On the lip of the cartridge door were painted the bright red words: Nintendo Entertainment System. And best of all—the ridged stripe that, like a beauty contest sash, started at Nintendo’s rear, and wrapped around its entire body, right of center, leading all the way down its front, to the holes where I plugged in the controllers.

Every great love story has a Summer of—and ours was the Summer of ’88. That year, I spent most of the hot (“don’t go outside and get dark!”) afternoon hours in my air-conditioned family room playing Metroid. With my brother by my side, taking hold of the controller every two or three lives, and Nicole “the navigator” Longfield, a skinny redheaded neighbor whom my mother babysat, holding my copy of The Official Nintendo Player’s Guide open to the eight-page Metroid map spread, I traversed the many tunnels of the Fortress Planet Zebes in search of the weapons I would need for my impending battle with the planet’s evil power source, Mother Brain. (Although Nicole was the same age as my older sister, she was a confirmed tomboy and wholeheartedly joined in our excitement, screaming things like “Get the bombs! Get the bombs!” and slapping high fives for each small battle won). We would commandeer the television area promptly at 1 p.m., as “All My Children” ended and my mother headed upstairs for a nap, and wouldn’t budge for hours, save for the moments we would pause the system to discuss strategy over ice cream or cereal.

The game was long and difficult, and the journey to Mother Brain (literally, a red brain in a glass jar) was an epic one. Before one could even attempt to make it to Tourian, the region where she dwelt, there were the two sinister mini-bosses, Ridley and Kraid, who first needed attending to. Each had his own lair, located at opposite ends of the planet, thereby rendering the prospect of defeating them all in a single sitting highly improbable. Yet, I was persistent in my daily attempts, eager to join the ranks of my friends who had already solved the game. I was aided by the record heat wave that hit the Chicagoland area that summer, providing me with a legitimate excuse to stay in and never leave Nintendo’s side.

I’m not sure when I stopped seeing Nintendo in that old, original way—as something always worthy of my attention. My friends, all of whom had their systems before me, had never displayed the careful regard that I did for mine. I recall walking into their houses while I was still on waiting lists, to find their systems sprawled about haphazardly on the carpet in front of their televisions, unkempt and in constant danger of being stepped on or getting dirty. These, my previously reasonable friends, seemed less like civilized boys than beasts as they violently shoved cartridges into their Nintendos, or slammed on the “POWER” button without so much as a gentle pat on the compartment door, or a brief pause of adulation. My mental notes of disapproval piled into books on protocol; I would eye their controllers, whose long cords were messily tangled and untethered, and tell myself that I would be different. I would not throw away the twist-ties that those cords came wrapped in.

Sometime late in 1989, Nintendo released its breathtaking new portable game system, Game Boy. Measuring approximately 5” x 3” x 1”, it was every boy’s dream—a compact, slimmed down Nintendo that could easily be taken out on the town and shown off. For the first few months it was in stores, I played it cool. It wasn’t that I hadn’t swallowed hard when I saw the sales paper ads, or that I wasn’t secretly thinking about it at night, but there seemed little point in bringing it up. I knew my parents would be defiant, and rightly so, perhaps. To trade Nintendo for Game Boy after only two years would be a sign that my desires couldn’t be trusted, that I had become part of a wasteful, materialistic culture that didn’t seem to know the meaning of “repair.” My only hope was to somehow convince my parents that Game Boy was not an outright Nintendo replacement, but rather an answer to my need for more Nintendo, especially when traveling.

It was around this same time that Nintendo started breaking down on me. In the middle of playing, games would freeze for no apparent reason, and the only solution would be to start over. Other instances, upon my reaching a particularly critical moment in a game, the system would inexplicably reset itself, sending me back to the beginning. To play a game, I had to accept the idea that at any moment hours of work could be undone, at the system’s whim. Thus, I was tossed into a state of constantly worrying when Nintendo would let me down. In short, I lost trust.

I had seen this happening to my friends, and the desperate remedies they had adopted of blowing into cartridges and pounding on their systems, but I never thought it would happen to me. After all, hadn’t I done everything possible to take care of Nintendo? Early on my parents had purchased the fifty-dollar NES control deck case—a giant plastic pedestal to lift the system off the ground and properly store the two controllers as well as up to twelve games. On top of the case rested a semi-clear plastic cover that was to be my fail-proof against dust and other menacing threats. Left with few options, I chose from the many Nintendo cleaning kits on the market, and tried to continue playing as if nothing were wrong.

There’s a picture of my brother and me playing Game Boy on the day I finally got my way. Curiously, we are not in the family room where, aside from our shared bedroom, most of our game playing ordinarily took place; rather, we’re awkwardly squeezed onto the landing just above the stairs. And while I don’t recall the circumstance that led to our sitting there, I understand it. I’ve heard relationship experts discuss the precise definition of “cheating,” and agree that doing anything that one wouldn’t do in the presence of their partner amounts to some form of cheating. The fact that I couldn’t take my new Game Boy downstairs to be played in the presence of Nintendo was telling. To be so obsessed with this new something that offered little more than what was waiting for me downstairs, pointed to one thing—it was over.

When you’re young, everything is for forever. When you get something big, you don’t think about the fact that eventually it might get old and fall apart. Or even that one day you might simply get bored of it. In fourth grade I got my first pair of Nikes, and I took extra good care of them so they’d still be good-to-go in fifth grade. The fact that I’d be at least a full size bigger by then didn’t occur to me. And if it had, I’d probably still plan on squeezing into them for as long as I could; for forever, if possible. It was the same with Nintendo. I never thought there’d be another for me. But this wasn’t really about Game Boy or even the next Nintendo (Super Nintendo) that Nintendo Power magazine said was already being tried out on lucky teens in Japan.

In one of my favorite lines from the novel Tender Is the Night, the protagonist’s wife Nicole says to him, years before their marriage fails: “Think how you love me. I don’t ask you to love me always like this, but I ask you to remember somewhere inside me there’ll always be the person I am tonight.” Whenever I read this passage, I’m struck by its melancholic wisdom—to experience real love and simultaneously acknowledge its inevitable demise doesn’t seem like an easy thing. If my Nintendo would have spoken to me, I can only guess it might have uttered something similar during our magical summer. I was always the na•ve one.

Later, as I unceremoniously packed it into the flimsy, white J.C. Penny gift box, it might have said, “We did good, Milan. Three years is a long time.”

Even now, if I flip through the pages of The Official Nintendo Player’s Guide and read the details of the games, or look at the back-cover photograph of Nintendo posing with about twenty of the original game cartridges, I feel a loss. I stare at the crude, pixilated illustrations on the game boxes and recall the excitement with which I once held each one. The thrilling feeling of reading the back of the box, and the wonderment of the mystical, exotic worlds I would encounter when I would slide that game into my Nintendo and turn it on.

The Player’s Guide describes the circumstances of Metroid as such: A terrible incident takes place in the year of 2005. A cosmic warrior, Samus, must find ten different items. Then he will have to destroy the Mother Brain, located in the center of the Fortress Planet Zebes. There was a newness then, and an urgency—one that would not allow me to let this “terrible incident” go unanswered. Every game was like that—a bell, tolling for me.

I know it’s not the games or the system or myself that I really miss, but the way it all made me feel, the way it all added up to my life. I can buy a Nintendo off E-bay tomorrow, but I can’t sit on the school bus with my ten-year-old friends and argue about which Mario Brothers is the best. I can’t challenge my brother to a game of Bases Loaded and beat him up when I lose. I can’t call up Toys ‘R’ Us (with the number I had memorized), and ask the lady in the sight & sound department if they have Baseball Stars in stock. The feeling itself, a product of that brief moment in time, is gone; in its wake, the wish that I had somehow done more.

I never beat Mother Brain. I never even got to her.

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