Back in the late ’80s the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was the thing to have if you were a kid or kid at heart. My earliest memories of video games are of the Atari we had at home and occasionally going to the mall arcade to play Pole Position and Pac-Man (and being traumatized, yet fascinated with Splatterhouse). When the NES was released, it was a literal game-changer.
I recall mom and dad not being super-stoked about it at first, but as its ubiquity increased so did my desire to have one. Not long after its release, our local video stores started renting out consoles. This was pre-Blockbuster in our town and the choice was between Videorama and Video Plaza; the latter won out.
Every week as Friday approached, I’d begin pestering whichever parent was closest about renting a Nintendo for the weekend. Even during our vacation to Hawaii one summer, a condominium complex we stayed in for a few nights had the consoles available and we rented one there. The only available titles were Gyromite and Jaws so I still wound up spending more time outside, but if I needed my fix, it was there.
This cycle went on for the better part of a year and it was okay. I accepted this arrangement of temporary possession as a way of life.
One week in March I began my usual weekly ritual. I noticed dad having some covert conversation with mom before answering. Instead of the usual, “Make sure your homework is done on Thursday” the answer was, “We’ll see.” The problem with that response was there was usually a greater chance it would not work out to my favor.
Friday rolled around and as soon as I got home from school I asked, “Can we please go rent a Nintendo?”
“Wait until your dad gets home,” was mom’s answer. My spirits sank; dad didn’t usually get home until later in the evening. That wasn’t necessarily a problem as the store was open until 10, but there was no way I’d be able to stay up late and get in any good gaming time.
Dad got home about 6 or 7 and I didn’t even give him time to get in the door before I assaulted him with my earnest request. He stifled a bemused laugh, tried to maintain a stoic demeanor, and said to let him come in and rest a bit first. I knew time was of the essence but decided it was best to not come at him with too strongly, so I disappeared to my room and tried to distract myself with Encyclopedia Brown and Calvin and Hobbes.
When it was time to sit down to dinner I was on my best behavior: I was generous with my “please & thank you’s” and was even polite to my sister. When the opportunity presented itself I asked, “May we please rent a Nintendo tonight?”
Dad looked at mom. Mom looked at dad. Something was going on and I had no idea what. Dad responded with, “I’ll entertain the possibility.” That was dad’s go-to answer when he didn’t want to say “YES” too quickly, but still allowed for an unfavorable outcome. I wasn’t thrilled, but I was a little encouraged.
After dinner I asked again.
“It’s a little late son. How about we go first thing tomorrow morning?”
It wasn’t ideal, but hey, at least I’d have Saturday and Sunday after church to play. I agreed and went to watch TV or to my room or something.
DAWN OF A NEW DAY
The next morning I woke up super early, ready to go. I downed a bowl of Cocoa Puffs, watched a cartoon and then dad was finally up.
“I don’t think the store’s even open, yet,” dad observed. “But I have to run some errands first, anyway.”
I said that was fine and headed for the door; dad headed for the kitchen. My sigh must have been audible as he told me to be patient. Mercifully he skipped breakfast and only made himself his usual ginormous cup of coffee. Of course he had to sip it down a bit to mitigate spillage, but after an interminable five minutes we were on the road.
“I need to go by my office and then the post office,” he told me.
“Okay,” I said.
The video store was a 10 minute drive from our house to the shopping center on the corner of Kildaire and Cary Parkway. Dad’s office was a 30 minute drive toward north Raleigh. But it was okay, because it was early and I always enjoyed that drive.
We pulled into the parking lot and I thought maybe I’d go in, but he told me to wait in the car. Dad went in for not even a full minute and then came back out. What was so important yet so brief that we had to really come here? I wondered, but in the terms of a 7-year old.
From there we headed not back toward Cary, but toward Crabtree Valley Mall. When I asked about this, dad said he needed to go to that particular post office. I was trying not to go nuts.
We pulled into the mall parking lot, drove around to the post office and didn’t even stop.
“Huh, looks like it’s closed,” dad observed. “Maybe what I need is in the mall.” So we parked, entered the mall, and somehow ended up at the toy store. I stopped at the video game counter and just gazed longingly at the games locked up in the glass cabinet.
“Can I help you?” the clerk asked. Dad told me to go see if there was a Ninja Turtle I might want. With a sigh I left and halfheartedly surveyed the action figures. Donatello was the only turtle I cared about; completion was not an issue with me at the time; I hadn’t quite leveled up to that particular nerdset. But there was a Shredder figure I hadn’t been able to find yet – – “Cliff! Time to go.”
As I rejoined dad he thanked the clerk, the clerk said no problem, looked at me and winked. I thought it odd, but didn’t give it more thought than that.
“Do you still want to rent a Nintendo?” dad asked me in the car.
“Yes, please,” I said, my fervor rapidly diminishing.
“Well don’t sound too excited,” he said with a chuckle. “We have to make one more stop before going to the store.” This restored a measure of hope.
Going back down the beltline I noticed us approaching Cary Village Mall. What’s with the malls? I wondered, again in 7-year old terms.
Again, we entered the toy store, again I briefly lusted after the 8-bit entertainment and again I was dismissed to the action figure aisle; but this time I kept an eye on dad and his apparent clandestine dealings.
He was engaged in deep conversation with the clerk at the video game counter. I feigned interest in some Duplo sets to get within earshot and overheard him asking about what games might be included…what in the world? The clerk then held up the box for the NES Power Pad.
“This would be good exercise?” dad asked.
“Well, it’s kind of a gimmick, really,” the clerk said. “I’d wait for it to come down in price.”
Dad shot a sideways glance my way and I was immediately engrossed in…a Barbie. I course-corrected to the cap gun section, doing the fastest about-face in recorded history; dad must have bought it because he didn’t say anything.
“Okay,” I heard him say. “We’ll go without that.”
“Good choice,” the clerk said.
“But it does come with two games?”
“Yep; Mario and Duck Hunt.”
My heart raced.
“Son, come here, please.”
I slowly approached my dad, wondering what in the world was going on.
“This nice man here is going to help you out. If you could pick any game, which would you choose?”
I was dumbfounded. I turned to the clerk and he laughed.
“Any of these blow your hair back?” he asked. I was temporarily puzzled as I sported a buzzcut in those days, but then understood.
I looked closer. Some titles I recognized, most I didn’t. But there was a gold box – Zelda? But the lettering on Zelda was red; this was blue…no, it was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.
“There’s a second one?!” I said.
“You talking about Zelda? Yep! It’s way different, but I think it’s alright,” the clerk said.
“That one,” I said, pointing at it and looking at dad.
The clerk unlocked the cabinet and pulled out a copy, laying it on the counter next to a black box I hadn’t noticed earlier. It had a picture of a Nintendo, two controllers, and a Light Zapper on it.
I…I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
All the words, all the noises inside me exited so fast all I could do was breathe.
Dad knelt down, put his hand on my shoulder and with a smile said, “I’m sorry son, we’re not going to rent a Nintendo today.”