It’s almost impossible to play a 3DS in direct sunlight. The glare makes it too hard to see anything on either screen, with the images turning into faded nothingness the more intense the light. It feels like a million years ago when I actually coveted the blaring rays of the sun when I was trying to play a handheld outside. As a kid, Game Boy was the only portable I ever owner, and its notoriously unpowered screen required an external light source for any gameplay to be seen. The times I found myself outdoors with my Game Boy in hand were some of the best, because every little pixel came to life so much better than in the house playing under a lamp. I’ve always taken umbrage with the idea that gaming creates insular, mentally dulled people. I know it can and does for some, but my experience with video games has always been so much the opposite. It would spark my curiosity and creativity in countless different ways.
Summer vacation always meant days spent at my grandma’s house. Taking my Game Boy into her backyard added to the adventures I’d share with my sister throughout the afternoon. Super Mario Land 2 inspired numerous aquatic escapades in the pool, or running up and down the long driveway pretending to be the plumber himself. We’d explore the garden imagining being Link in the woods like in Link’s Awakening. Summer gaming was equal parts playing the games and expanding on them using our own ingenuity. It’s part of the magic of video games. The best titles always linger after they’ve been played. Nintendo’s different games are always great examples of this particular phenomenon, which is understandable given how vocal developer Shigeru Miyamoto has been about his own youth spent exploring Japan’s wilderness impacting his approach to game design. Nintendo titles are vehicles for getting inquisitive minds thinking. Once the first secret block was found in Super Mario Bros., fans the world over all paused and thought to themselves, “If there’s a hidden block here… then where else are they?” Nintendo makes mental gears spin.
This spurring of curiosity has always felt most at home to me in the summertime. When the weather turns hot, the natural inclination is to leave the house, but with the allure of a Super Mario 64 or Metroid Prime, sometimes it can be easy to ignore that impulse and remain indoors. I’d find myself sitting in front of my aunt’s television whiling away the morning hours playing something like Turtles in Time, and then after lunch would rush outside with visions of Raphael and Foot Soldiers dancing through my head. The above-ground pool that my aunt would erect each year would become the sewers, and whatever turtle was my favorite at the time (I rotated between the four brothers!) is who I became as I slipped into the water. This is what summer gaming was all about to me for years. It wasn’t just the games. It wasn’t just plopping down in the shade to play my Game Boy. Gaming was a compliment to the fun.
Of course, summer gaming sometimes was a matter of survival. For my family, our annual vacation destination was usually Reno. We’d drive from our home in the Bay Area to the Biggest Little City in the World, a four hour trip that meant a lot of time staring out the window… as well as down at the screen of my Game Boy. I used to take the utmost care (okay, I still do) deciding which selection of games to take with me. The Donkey Kong Land series was a favorite, but I also loved blasting through Kirby’s Dream Land and Double Dragon II. Determining the right rotation of titles based on my mood before embarking was always a serious undertaking, as whatever I picked would be fueling the drive up, time in the hotel room, and the drive back down. Just like at my grandma’s house, though, everything I played was part of the summer experience, not the centerpiece. Walking around Reno and looking at all the neon always brought to mind images of Sonic. My sister and I would engage in all sorts of nonsense in the hotel reenacting some video game moment. The best thing was when dreams and reality came colliding together in the form of the casino arcades.
Not every casino had an arcade, and not every casino that had an arcade was all that great. When you’re still waddling around in Power Rangers t-shirts, however, anything that can have coins pumped into it with a joystick to manipulate was good enough. My favorite places to game in Reno as a little boy were the Atlantis and Hilton (now Grand Sierra Resort) arcades. The Hilton’s basement was filled with different cabinets (not to mention a bowling alley) and pinball machines, and my parents would take the two of us there and spend hours playing them all. The Atlantis was always just a hair better than the Hilton, though, with its arcade high above the slot machines and table games. Its game selection was more up to date, and at the time the arcade remained graphically superior to anything on home consoles. The eye candy was irresistible, and even my mom and dad would stop to take in the sights of whatever my sister and I were playing. This was summer for me. All these games and trips, all these memories had a huge impact on me growing up, shaping my tastes and interests in so many ways. Gaming in the summer always takes me back to those days, especially if I have my younger cousins over and they’re getting to do the exact same things I did when I was their age. So if you feel the need to beat the heat or just sit under a shady tree this summer, be sure to grab your favorite handheld and take it with you; the best memories are the little ones, after all.