Rampage, for the Nintendo Entertainment System, was the first videogame I ever beat. I was maybe 8 or 9. As you may recall, Rampage was predicated on one timeless principle: Nothing is more fun than tearing stuff down. With that in mind, I spent an entire Saturday merrily laying waste to the continental United States. As soon as Washington was a pile of smoking rubble and charred bones, I sprinted out of the room, legs and thumbs aching from disuse and overuse, respectively, to go find my older brother, Tom.
Sibling rivalry between brothers is one of the great constants in life. But anyone who has ever been on the younger end knows that there is never much joy for the little brother. In fact, until the day I razed the Lower 48, I had never beaten my big bro in anything. So to have beaten a game – any game – before he did was a sweet thing indeed.
But it was never about being better than him. It was about impressing him. Every time we competed, I did so in the hope of achieving some abstract status of “cool” that only a big brother can bestow. It was a long time before I learned that you can never win your way out of being a kid brother.
I don’t remember where I eventually found him, but it might have been our backyard tree house that I was too small and too scared to climb.
“Guess what!” I demanded, craning my head upward to address him.
“What?” He asked, legs dangling down from high up in the branches where he often sat, quietly, preoccupied with things that no one else understood.
“I beat Rampage!”
“Oh, that’s nice.”
Tom has very sad, earnest eyes, and they make him the worst goddamned liar in the world. For as much as he wanted me to believe he was impressed, his eyes gave him away like they always did, always do and always will. Yes sir. His indifference was epic.
That was surprising mainly because videogames were Tom’s thing. Our parents had held out on buying a Nintendo, citing all the usual excuses about rotting brains, encouraging violence, the wholesale vending of immortal souls and whatever the hell else people are still pontificating about. But Tom, who so rarely asserted himself in those days, kept at them. And somehow, somehow he convinced our parents – who didn’t even own a microwave – to buy us a Nintendo.
I was there with him, like I always was, when my father first installed that first grey and black box. The combined time I spent watching my brother play games while pestering him to let me have a turn adds up to roughly seven whole months of my life. When he wasn’t playing, he was pouring over issue after issue of Nintendo Power. And when he wasn’t reading, he was talking about games or running around pretending he was a character in a game. Truth be told, I wasn’t into most of it, but damn it, if Tom was going to do it, so was I.
I have always been that particular type of person for whom all of life is a competition. Losing anything is abhorrent, from ping pong to Parcheesi, and I never cared for a man who lost and laughed. Accordingly, I spent a good chunk of my youth playing competitive tennis. Tom, on the other hand, played a year of pee wee soccer and quietly decided that he had better things to do than chase a ball around an empty field and get kicked in the shins. While I juggled school and sports, he read a lot, made lasting friendships, became something of a movie buff and, of course, played his videogames.
I was always right there with him, looking over his shoulder as the polygons grew sharper and the colors crisper with each successive console generation. Even if I didn’t get as many turns as I wanted, there was a thrill to watching him play, and I liked to see how animated he got when he talked about frame rates and graphics engines and other things that I didn’t understand and didn’t care about in the slightest. There was never any doubt about who loved games and who was just tagging along after his brother. As an unspoken rule, he has eternal first dibs.
I’ve never purchased my own game, just played the ones Tom buys after extensive research and much soul-searching – the product of a certain frugality passed down from our Scotch-Irish mother. And even though the images on the TV screen are the same, the games we play are very different. Same world maybe, but universes apart.
The other day, I watched him play Skate 2. He sat forward, elbows on his knees, furious fives clenched around the controller while his thumbs danced. But he wasn’t stressed, nor worried nor anxious. He was poised. Those sad eyes were bright and keen, hard to recognize as they focussed on his electronic alter ego who, unnervingly, looked exactly like him. The two Toms had an easy, almost transcendental rapport. They got each other. So much so that I began to understand that it wasn’t two Toms in one world, but one Tom in two worlds.
This isn’t my style. A few years ago, I took part in a heated Mario Tennis match against one of Tom’s friends. I had spent the afternoon trouncing every other guy in the house and being less than gracious about it, so when the best of their crew wiped his fallen comrades’ sweat off the controller and selected Princess Peach, I felt a twinge of pressure to beat him. We cursed and leaned our way through four long sets. We yelled at our cartoon avatars as if they might take our advice. We got up and paced between points. We pleaded like zealots for the balls to fall into play. By the time my Yoshi smashed the final inside-out forehand winner, I had sweated through my shirt. After that, both Yoshi and I needed a break. Sadly, that was a pretty typical session of Mario Tennis for me.
The difference in the way Tom and I approach videogames has always been most apparent in Street Fighter II. Before we owned a Super Nintendo, we would rent one from the local Blockbuster. Tom was always in charge of hooking it up, and he performed the task with the solemnity of a religious ceremony. First he would set the machine carefully in front of the TV. Next came the methodical examination and connection of all the inputs and outputs. Then, the partition of the controllers, mine always being the one with the broken R button – sorry, no fierce attacks for you, kiddo. The last step was to blow into the port – amen. Suddenly, after what seemed like years of anxious waiting, we were ready to play. I would choose a fast character – Chun-Li was an early favorite – and you could bet that he was going to find the most “classic,” in this case Ryu – never Ken. We always turned off the time limit, then sat back in our corners to try out moves. “Don’t hit me, I want to try something … wait, that’s not it … wait … okay.” Then we would call “time in” and he would slowly dismantle me one polygon at a time.
A decade and a half later, the system has changed, but this is still our basic routine. He methodically hands me my ass, round after round, until I drop the controller and walk off, disgusted with Chun-Li, humanity, the world. I always come back though, unable, in my masochism, to accept defeat. A lot of times, I return to find him playing against the computer, or sublimely shadow-boxing the now unmanned second player. He patiently runs through different combos until his limp opponent runs out of life and its back to the Choose Your Character screen. When I do beat him, he just shrugs and mumbles something like “should have blocked that spin kick.”
“Playing” is the wrong word for Tom. That boy lives it. Every time he hits the power button, he shrugs himself into the white gi with the tattered shoulders and ties a red bandana across his forehead. He spends whole afternoons and more evenings than he will readily admit blasting blue flames from his wrists and hucking hurricane kicks accompanied by silly sounds – which, by the way, he loves. He parkours through Persia, has a homunculus named Clank and stands in the shadows of colossi. Lord only knows how many gallons of alien blood he’s spilt while trying to save the world.
I eventually found the strength and cojones to climb the tree in our backyard. I beat Tom in a race. I grew taller than him (the longest inch of my life), and I learned to stop following him everywhere he went. But I never grew out of the desire to. When we were young, my bedtime was 9 o’clock and his was an hour or two later. After that dreaded hour, my brother entered into an exclusive realm – one where I was not allowed to follow. To this day, any time after 9 p.m. feels late, forbidden.
And that’s what videogames do – they take Tom past 9 o’clock and into a world off limits to me. The bastard actually found the one place where his little brother couldn’t tag along. Games make him happy, though, and you can’t begrudge someone what they love. So I let him play, and I bide my time – right there with him, looking over his shoulder. Just like I always have. Just like I always will.
Tetsuhiko Endo stays up as late as he damn well pleases.