The best Christmas I ever had as a kid was in 1985. I was 12, a gangly only child whose days were largely defined by playing video games, watching cartoons after school, and dealing with the devastating psychological nightmare that is seventh grade at an upper middle class public school just north of Dallas.
That was the Christmas that my parents bought me an Apple II along with The Bard’s Tale and Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. These twin classics went on to monopolize my attention for months to come and eventually would help define the kind of gamer I grew up to become.
I remember excitedly bounding out to the living room that morning and discovering the jackpot awaiting me. I imagine it felt as good as winning the Showcase Showdown on The Price Is Right. I could almost hear Johnny Olson announcing it as models with frightening smiles gestured at the box. “But that’s not all,” he would have said. “It’s a brand new Apple computer.” The audience in my head cheered in ecstacy.
Even though my illusions of jolly elves committing rooftop petty trespasses had passed a few years before, the joy of tearing into that wrapping and revealing my computer is imprinted as inexorably in my brain as my first kiss, the day my kids were born, or that time I passed out playing the saxophone in the high school gym during a Memorial Day remembrance.
My family wasn’t particularly religious, so to me the holidays of my childhood are about Rankin/Bass stop motion Rudolph, a week and a half off from school, and the impressive string of vulgarity my father would spout while untangling last year’s Christmas lights. But 1985 was the capstone on everything, and now as a father of two boys I harbor a secret desire to try and create that for them.
Which consistently precipitates my downfall.
About a year and a half ago, my boys simultaneously became obsessed with retro gaming. This isn’t surprising in and of itself. I barely know anyone who plays games who hasn’t become at least briefly interested in dredging up some “old school” system or emulator and discovering all the ways games have dramatically improved. What’s surprising is that their interest hasn’t waned.
Retro, to me, is an entertaining exercise in discovering the many ways I’ve lost my capacity for putting up with inconvenience and lack of polish in gaming. Usually within just a few minutes of playing an old classic I’m internally complaining about the user interface, or the lack of some quality of life feature to which I’ve become accustomed. “What?!” I exclaim like a pampered emperor lounging decadent and reclined who has just been informed that the court grape feeder has taken the day off from feeding me grapes. “There are no context sensitive menus in this skill tree! What am I, a caveman?”
My kids, however, seem to delight in delving into games twice their age and enjoying rather than enduring the bare-bones classics that spawned the games of their generation. I submit the following into evidence: a picture of my youngest son’s Christmas wish list.
The fact that a Sega Genesis is among his top four 2018 gift ideas is both charming and bewildering to me. I myself was a Sega man back in the day. When basically everyone else was playing Mario and Zelda games, I was cultured in the realm of Sonic, Altered Beast and the superior console port of Mortal Kombat. If I had even suspected that someday I would have children who wanted such relics, I would never have pawned it for a pittance at a retailer whose name I shall not utter but which rhymes with “Shame Swap.”
When my boys began their campaign for retro gaming paraphernalia in early fall last year, I was confident that it was a curiosity that would quickly pass. By November, I knew that I would fundamentally disappoint them if I did not deliver a variety of 8- to 16-bit options, and as we established I’m deeply interested in providing a morning moment like the one I enjoyed in the early ‘80s.
So I began the process of gathering a cavalcade of retro gaming options: a Nintendo 64, a Game Boy Advance, and a moderately impressive collection of games and accessories. Eventually our plans for the holidays would see us on the road visiting grandparents a thousand miles from home, and so I made sure I planned well in advance, leaving only the question of how I would hide the collection from prying eyes on the road.
When at last we loaded everything into the rented van and set out on our 20-hour drive with kids, gifts and dog in tow, I was confident we had set ourselves up for a grand and memorable holiday. And, to be fair, it was quite memorable. Yes, I remember it all very clearly now. It’s hard not to, considering how wrong it went.
Picture if you will a middle-aged man in the deep quiet of a Christmas Eve night slipping into the early hours of a Christmas morning, digging into every crevice imaginable within a passenger vehicle searching for a video game system old enough to rent its own car. The man, who is inexplicably looking for an N64 in a glove compartment, has long since come to the conclusion that it isn’t there, but is unwilling to accept it. Occasionally, this man looks up and explains to the night that this absolutely cannot be happening. The night, noticing the facts of the matter, seems unconvinced.
As I look back to this time last year and recall how I felt as I realized this perfect collection of gifts was nowhere to be found, I still can’t quite describe that emotion. It’s insufficient, but the portmanteau that springs to mind is shameggedon.
Though we would find the presents when we finally returned home a couple weeks later — resulting in the particularly delightful inauguration of what we now call Second Christmas — at the time we (and more particularly, our children) were left high and dry for the main event. Which is all an elaborate way of trying to explain why my wife and I ended up doing the bulk of our shopping in a largely empty 24-hour chain pharmacy at 1 a.m. on Christmas Day.
There was not a wide selection of gift options.
Christmas morning saw a lot of handing out of various gift cards to various retailers. And, to be fair there were enough gifts from grandparents, who at no point seriously considered whether Altoids count as stocking stuffers, that the boys seemed none the wiser to our failings as both parents and guardians of unmarked boxes with gifts inside them. In fact, it turns out that gift cards are exactly what our teenager actually wants. Though it was a pale comparison to the real thing, we included a verbal IOU on their retro dreams.
On the upside, the bar for providing a better Christmas morning experience for my kids this year is not all that high. There’s a lesson in here for me about not trying to force some perfect nostalgia I have for a past that was likely more complex than I remember, and maybe if I temper my own expectations then things will work out for the better. Yeah, that’s how it will go down this year.
Just like that.