The Special Nintendo Entertainment System

When video games become more than simple entertainment.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 12/25/2014 09:00 2 Comments     ShareThis

Emma’s room was always cold.

When winter arrived each year, with it came a biting chill that crept in through every crack and gap and hole in her family’s old house. The heater was an ancient furnace that filled a massive chunk of the basement, black and foreboding with a roaring fire in its belly, but somehow never enough to truly dent the frosty air that slithered into their lungs and nipped at their ears. Emma had to wear layers inside after coming home from school, but she didn’t mind– her Super Mario Bros. scarf and Pikachu sleep socks made it fun to fight the cold.

Emma was ten. At school, it was hard fitting in with the other kids. Not because they didn’t like Emma; she could draw cool things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Link, and it made her smile when the other children would ask her to make them art. Emma was their friend, and they always played together, laughed at Mr. Aleshite’s name (he was the music teacher, and would make a sound like a snake’s hiss when they misbehaved), and spent recess and lunchtime together. It was Emma who felt like she didn’t fit. She didn’t do everything the way that all her friends did. All the other kids brought their lunches from home in shiny, colorful lunch boxes, with cartoon characters and superheroes on the front. Emma always got her lunch from the cafeteria, but even then it wasn’t like the rest– she never gave the lunch ladies any money. Sometimes, her friends would ask her why, and Emma would say she didn’t know.

It was other things, too, that made Emma feel different. She had shoes, but the other kids’ could light up, or had Skylanders on the sides. When she’d see kids wearing those neat shoes, she’d look at her own and her brow would furrow. “Why does mommy put tape on my shoes? Why don’t I have shoes like those?” she’d wonder. Emma asked herself those sorts of questions more the older she got, not understanding why it mattered to her, but knowing nonetheless that it did, in some indistinct way. Other kids would come to school wearing a pair of shoes one day, then a different pair on another. Emma’s shoes came from a store where they were all stuffed on big, metal racks, and didn’t have boxes. And she sure didn’t have a pair for each day of the week.

When the school day would end, Emma took a long ride on the public bus back to her home with her older brother, Rickey. Rickey was fourteen, and he worked some days after school doing yard work around their neighborhood. The Adlers down the block were very old, and their son lived somewhere far away and only came at Christmas. Mr. Kanu lived next door and had trouble with his right arm, but he still liked to play catch with Rickey and Emma sometimes when the weather was nice. Mrs. Alves was at the end of the street and told Emma very long, funny stories about working in a place called a “cannery” while Rickey did his work in her backyard. Her brother took care of all their trees and lawns, shrubs and flowers, and every week they’d each pay him a little money.

Rickey saved all the cash in a shoebox, and at the end of the month he’d give what was inside it to their mom and dad. Well, he used to do that, but for the last couple of years, their parents had Rickey keeping some of it for himself. Emma remembered the day their parents told Rickey to hold onto a bit of the money very strongly in her mind. She couldn’t understand why, but Rickey wasn’t happy when they made the change. He wanted to give it all to them, but their parents insisted no.

“You’re getting older, Rickey. Just be smart, son, and don’t spend it all at once. Maybe think of your sister sometimes, too, I’m sure she’d like that,” her dad had said gently to Rickey. Emma didn’t know why, but it made Rickey cry when their dad told him that. Her brother had just turned twelve and was acting differently, and Emma remembered their dad shooing her off to the other room with their mom as he took Rickey in his arms. Ever since then, Rickey would take the money that their mom and dad let him keep, and he’d put it in an old Pop-Tarts box under his bed. Once a week, they’d get off the bus a stop early and go to 7-Eleven for a Slurpee to share as they walked the rest of the way home.

Their dad would pull into the driveway at 4:30 every afternoon, like clockwork. The tires of the car would crunch gravel in the driveway, and as they heard the clunk of his door closing, Emma and her brother would drop their homework and rush to the door to greet their dad. Partly just to say hello, but also because when dad was home, they got to do their favorite thing in the world: play video games. The routine was always the same. Their dad would give them big hugs, then he’d go to the kitchen sink and scrub the dirt and dust from work off of his dark arms and face. The clinking of ice being cracked into a glass sounded from the kitchen, as he poured himself iced tea out of an old plastic milk jug from the fridge. Emma and Rickey would be sitting in the front room on the couch, pretending to continue doing their homework as their dad finally made his way to his big recliner.

Then, the magic happened. Their dad would put his glass of iced tea on the little table next to his recliner, and then head for the TV. Like her shoes, Emma knew their TV was different from the other kids’: a hulking black, square box that had pointy metal sticks shooting from its back. Rickey would groan when their mom would have him move the sticks until the picture on the screen satisfied her scrutinizing gaze. Their dad, on the other hand, hardly ever dealt with the sticks, because he only ever really used the TV for one thing: the Super Nintendo. Its plastic had turned a deep yellowish color many years ago, and a bit of the front right corner had chipped away, but their dad would often remark that it worked as good as the day he first got it. Always on a shelf high out of their reach, their dad would bring the Super Nintendo down from its perch, plug it in, and bring out the games.

There were only four to choose from: Super Mario World, Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (simply written “Street Fighter 2” in black marker on the cartridge– the sticker was lost long ago), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. A Link to the Past was the favorite of the three (their mom would usually just smile and roll her eyes when she’d see them all playing video games); they’d probably played it as a group at least seven or eight times, from beginning to end. Emma used to be so scared of the evil knights around Hyrule Castle when she was younger. Her brother would make Link charge at them with his sword swinging, and she’d scream and grab her father, who would be chuckling as he consoled her.

Their father insisted that playing the Super Nintendo was a treat. Only after they’d done their homework and chores would he concede to bring the system down and plug it in so they could play. Some days, they’d only get to play for an hour or two, but on others their dad would let them go longer. Despite calling it a treat, it was something Emma and her brother looked forward to every day. Whether one sibling was playing and the other watched, or if the two played together, or even if their dad was playing and they watched (he knew all sorts of secrets and wouldn’t tell them where he learned them), there was no greater joy in their house than playing video games together. The Super Nintendo was like the fifth member of their family.

Playing video games took Emma to a whole different world. Moving Link through the dangers of Hyrule was like stepping into his boots and seeing an entirely new place. When Emma would eat dinner sometimes and still feel hungry afterwards, Zelda made the rumbling in her stomach vanish. The real world melted away, and Emma would find herself somewhere else, if only for a brief while, when she played her games. If her dad seemed sad sitting at the kitchen table, its surface covered in envelopes and pieces of paper, some white, others pink, Emma would tug on his arm to come and play Street Fighter with her. He’d pull the console down, plug it in, and for a little while Emma’s dad would play with her, and he didn’t look sad anymore. Even her mom, who came home late most nights, would plop down and try to get Luigi (her favorite of the two plumbers) through a level of Mario World when she’d see them playing.

The Super Nintendo also helped Emma feel more like the other kids at school. On the rare times one of her friends came over, she’d ask her dad if they could play video games, and he’d grin and bring down the system from its roost. Emma’s friends would always exclaim, “Oh, cool, your dad likes classic games!” or “Wow, you have the original Nintendo!” and as they’d play, she’d show off the tricks and secrets that she’d learned from watching her dad and brother. The Super Nintendo let Emma be part of something, which felt wonderful after all the time she spent feeling apart. Video games were the great unifier in Emma’s life. Mario and Link and Michelangelo were common ground for Emma and her friends. Her shoes might not have been the same, her lunch might have been free, but her love of video games and the special worlds they offered a glimpse into was no different than her friends. When Emma played video games, the only thing that mattered was having fun.

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