Jeff Meets Video Games

I said I’d be using this more, and I still plan to. However, I’ve actually started journaling pretty often. It’s eating at some of the time I’d planned to spend writing for this thing. I’ve been journaling a lot about the given day and my thoughts on it, but also sometimes older memories. One that came to mind? “I’ve loved video games as long as I can remember.”

That’s a pretty interesting phrase to me. I was born in 1980. I have memories of my life before video games. I may’ve known they existed to some degree, but I wasn’t enamored with them or holding in the high regard that I do now. But I remember when that changed. I was around the age of six or seven when I saw Super Mario Brothers on NES. My mind was blown.

My story starts with my uncle in Japan who worked for Nintendo… Okay, actually it wasn’t an uncle. It was a close friend of my father named Mike who I called “Uncle Mike”. And he didn’t work for Nintendo. But he had been in the military, and was stationed in Japan. My memory tells me either he was stationed there in the early-to-mid 80’s, or knew so many people that he was still in touch with the culture to some degree, because as I remember it from talking to him as an older (but still young) kid, he was really impressed by the Famicom. So when Uncle Mike got back to the U.S., and got some spare money, (and actually found a NES,) he bought one. And at some point, he brought it over to our apartment, to show it to my dad.

Now, I was born in 1980. And these two were in their mid-twenties at the time. They also had these huge robotic models of dinosaurs that walked around that kid-me thought was the most amazing thing. So, y’know, they liked cool things. (I just did a little searching and apparently those toys were called Zoids, and I distinctly recall at least the Bigasaurus and Garius, who had comically silly feet for a robot dinosaur so awesome. Of course, to seven-year-old-me, in 1987 or 1988, they were insanely complex, huge, and very cool.) And in early 1986, my younger brother was born. So I’m thinking this was either at the very end of 1986 or 1987. It’s quite possible Uncle Mike bought this for himself as a Christmas present in 1986.

But to the point, Uncle Mike brought over his Nintendo, and I loved it. Fuck the Zoids he’d brought over before, THIS was the coolest thing ever! I desperately wanted to play it, and my dad wasn’t having it. I recall strong tones of “this is no toy!” and “this isn’t for kids!”, which is funny now. But obviously being so young and it being so advanced of anything I’d seen at the time, that seemed reasonable. But ultimately, Uncle Mike let me play it, and Mario was a dream come true. Several deaths later I got the same stunned reaction from the adults (my parents, Mike, his wife,) that all kids do when they accomplish something the adult can’t easily do. “Look at him! Wow! He’s great this! He’s a natural!” But far more important, at some point I think my dad saw an opportunity to make his son happy.

Soon he came back from his parents house with something special. He had an old, thick, cardboard box, which contained a thick black garbage bag, which contained his old Atari 2600, and a couple dozen games. He’d left it in “storage” at his parent’s house when he moved out. But seeing the opportunity to give me something to make me happy, he brought it to our home, and my mind was blown again.

Now, we’re talking Pac-Man, Combat, Warlords (with paddles), Breakout, Defender, Vanguard, Yars’ Revenge, Berzerk, a couple of Sears games… Just several games here that I adored. And that doesn’t even count Adventure or Superman, which I didn’t play until like a decade later when I met a friend who also had an old Atari 2600 and we broke it out again and hooked it back up. That thing actually was kept in that same trash bag, and in that same box, and drug out at least a couple of times a year, for a decade. At that point it was hooked up every few years until we would’ve had to have bought new hardware to hook it up to modern TVs. Now those games sit at my cousin’s house in his collection of gaming stuff.

Soon after giving me his Atari my dad learned he could rent an NES from Sunland Visions, the premiere local video store in Sylvester, Georgia at the time. (It was where he rented his laserdiscs, because he was a nerd; see above: Zoids.) I should write about that place some time. It’s not very well remembered on the Internet.

This is a screen capture of a Google search that shows one result for the quoted term Sunland Visions. It shows a website at, titled The Dream Machine, on a page titled Video Stores File #21, showing an entry for a listing of Sunland Visions. It shows the address 109 N Isabella Street, Sylvester Georgia 31791-2157, and the phone number (912) 776-5268.

But despite having a relatively new baby brother, this was a boom time for my family. Money was decent. Several weekends we rented an NES and a new game. And one Christmas? I actually got one! It was amazing. I can’t tell you how awesome I felt showing my grandfather (my father’s father,) Duck Hunt. See, he took me hunting a few times as a kid, and I LOVED the idea of going hunting with him. But when we got there, the gun was too loud and freaked me out, and I just really loathed the idea of killing a duck. But Duck Hunt? All the fun of shooting them without killing them! I was sold, and he could not have been less impressed by the “Ninteengo”, as he called it for years.

In addition to eye-rolling from a previous generation, there was something else that also happened after that which was pretty important in my gaming awakening. I learned what arcades were.

I vividly recall my dad and Uncle Mike taking me to a place that I recall thinking was just a laundromat. Thinking back, (and for my own notes,) I honestly can’t recall if it was at 446 N. Westberry Street, or on Monroe, just off Highway 82… I’ll have to call and ask my dad sometime… But the point here, is that I remember walking around and seeing pinball machines, seeing all these video games cabinets, being in this big dark room full of games, lights, noises… And realizing this was not a laundromat. That was just next door. This was something amazing!

And in the far back corner? A large sit-down cabinet with an enclosure, stowed away from what was probably a more popular run years prior, but kept me enraptured.

An Atari press image showing the 1983 arcade machine for the Star Wars game. It shows the stand-up cabinet on the left, and the enclosed sit-down cabinet on the right. In the background are space ships on a blue background with crude representation of vector lines, which would be the style of the game, and written above this is Atari Star Wars.

It’s funny. I remember sitting in the Star Wars sit-down machine and I remember hearing it. The cabinet speaking lines from the movie sealed the deal; this is where I’d be spending most of my money. I was killing TIE fighters, and bombing the Death Star over and over again. I was the kid of nerds. Of course I loved Star Wars. I genuinely thought this was the best thing ever. And if you recall an early experience like this, well, it’s easy to understand how that can still be formative to a degree. Sure, games look better, play better, are more immersive, etc., etc., etc. But when you’re a young child it’s easier to not see the world as it is, full of cool things but also lamenting unrealized potential. As a young child see new things you hadn’t thought of, and it can outpace your expectations for the potential of the world. It’s like magic. It leaves an emotional gap of that childlike wonder that’s more difficult to cross when you’re older. And for young me, it looked like this:

Now it feels obvious that my dad didn’t want me to play Uncle Mike’s Nintendo because he didn’t want me to break it, and for him to have to pay for it. Realizing I loved the games, my dad digging up his old Atari, and eventually renting an NES, were holdovers until my parents could justify spending money at Christmas. Especially with my younger brother just being born. I was very lucky to even get so many game consoles throughout my childhood, but the speed at which they let me dive into games was, for lack of a better word, spoiling. Hah, or at least enabling. I’m gonna have to call up my father and tell him “thanks” this weekend.