“How do you shoot?” On screen, Dad’s character barely dodges an alien missile as he searches for the correct button.
“Y,” I reply. Another shot whizzes by the orange-colored hero of Contra III.
“Because I need to know how to shoot!” comes the panicked retort.
“Y!” I say louder. Another wave of green enemies spawns, cluttering the screen and further hindering our movements.
“Look! I need to know!” he shouts as his character flails about the screen.
It’s a scene straight out of Abbot and Costello. Voices raise, tempers flare and for two solid minutes neither of us actually takes the time to fully construct the simple sentence that would have solved the miscommunication. Mom and my sister Karen appeared at the doorway to make sure everything was OK. No, everything was not OK; Dad’s orange soldier never stood a chance, because his apparent pacifist of a son refused to divulge the secret of returning fire.
That little episode aside, Dad and I have shared a unique relationship over the years. You see, Dad’s been in the business since people figured out there was money in these so called “video-games,” and it’s about the coolest business there is to a 7-year-old boy. My two older siblings, however, were less than enthusiastic. After a particularly colorful incident involving a taut power cord and my dad’s partially finished Monopoly pet project, my brother excused himself from the running and found something more constructive to do with his life. My other sibling, Karen, showed more promise. She and Dad would spend hours sitting in front of Sierra Entertainment’s 1988 classic Gold Rush! trying to plot her way from the comfort of 1840s New England to the wealth and fame of the California coast. She handled every step of the way masterfully: avoided being smashed by any runaway carts on the main road, successfully hid her mosquito netting from the murderous natives of the Panama Canal and had even made sure to sell the house before she left.
The problems began as the miles of dirt and sand added up. The wagon slowly made its way to the crest of some fateful hill. Here, the parched mule team happened to glimpse the cool rushing waters of a river far below. Instinct took over, and the mules lurched forward, pulling the wagon down at a perilous angle. Powerless, my sister watched in horror as the bounding stage coach toppled headlong into the rocky basin. As the skull and crossbones laughed at her from within the realm of megabytes and pixels, it became clear that Karen would never again be comfortable there.
That’s where I came in. I was my father’s last, best hope for keeping the gaming tradition alive in our family. After my siblings’ incredible failures, Dad couldn’t have been happier when I first showed an interest in his favorite pastime. I proudly made my entrance onto the scene as his copilot in Lord British’s Ultima VII: The Black Gate. During my apprenticeship, I learned timeless dungeon crawling strategies and tips from a master: Save your game in multiple files, eat food to heal your wounds and never, under any circumstances, trust a mage who joins your party “for his own reasons.” He will undoubtedly betray you in the final battle only to be reduced to dust upon asking for a reward from his dark master.
Over time, I began to fly solo – though not without occasional supervision. The games changed, but the basic pattern did not. Ultima gave way to Might and Magic, which yielded to Baldur’s Gate. There were other games, but to me nothing was ever as satisfying as simply hitting a goblin on the head with a hammer. I never could get into the train simulators my dad loved so much (the manual was roughly twice the size of my head) and was too terrified to touch any of his Riven games for fear of my head exploding.
Dad, on the other hand, never really got the hang of Super Mario World. To this day, I believe the man to be utterly incapable of finishing World 1-1 in any game starring the plucky plumber. This man was able to pull off deaths I still can’t begin to comprehend. I’m talking accidentally getting eaten by a Yoshi here. And that was on dry land – don’t even get me started on the underwater levels.
At some point, I realized he and I shared an unusual bond. It became apparent to me that my friends and their fathers didn’t laugh about some smarmy sentient sword in the middle of a serious discussion. That’s when it hit me: My father was the classic “child at heart.” After all, what says “childish” more than taking so much pleasure in walloping your son in a videogame?
And wallop he did. While Dad may not have been one for in-game plumbing, Super Mario Kart was a different story. I’ve fired a lot of green turtle shells in my day, but I was never a match for the four ton Donkey Kong Jr. powersliding through the inside lane as he careened down the speedway. For someone who apparently couldn’t handle simultaneously running and jumping, this man was clearly in tune with his inner Kong. When the green light flashed, family ties were suspended as the shells and peels rained down. One moment I’m pulling into the lead; the next I’m being fished out of a pond by an increasingly irate Lakitu.
It’s fashionable to blame games for any number of societal ills: laziness, obesity, aggression. But for me, games provided the foundation for a strong and healthy relationship with my father. Next time a politician gets in front of a podium and cites Mortal Kombat as being responsible for a kid’s bratty behavior, I suggest he or she square off against Donkey Kong with a handful of banana peels. That’ll teach the poor sod a thing or two about violence.
After all, that’s how I learned.
Robert Sullivan is a freelance writer and neurotic gamer who enjoys sharing his views on the subject while still acting cool. Those who cannot get enough of him are encouraged to visit his own publication at www.thesquonk.com.