Here is the enhanced version of the opening of ANESthetized. Enjoy, and don’t forget to get the book at Smashwords!
The Nintendo Entertainment System Catches My Attention
“I’m thinking of asking for a Nintendo for Christmas.”
That’s what I said to a group of my friends on the last recess of our sixth grade year. We were walking around the playground and talking. That is what we did during recess in those days. We never played. We were too old for that. We just walked and talked. On this last recess, we were talking about life beyond the summer break. That life seemed too distant to ever arrive, but we were talking about it anyway. And that’s when I said it. That’s when I said, “I’m thinking of asking for a Nintendo for Christmas.”
The Nintendo Entertainment System, a new home video game console whose name my friends and I were already shortening to Nintendo or NES, had been released in select American markets in the fall of 1985, but we didn’t learn about it until the spring of 1986. That’s when it started appearing in local stores and on weekday afternoon TV commercials. That’s also when I began thinking about asking my parents for one.
Just thinking about it? Yes. Just thinking about it. Today’s kids don’t think about asking for the latest Nintendo console. They don’t need to. They know what Nintendo is and they know they want whatever console Nintendo makes. But it wasn’t that way back then. I didn’t know what a Nintendo Entertainment System was. I knew it was a home video game console, but I didn’t know what it or its games would be like. I didn’t even know what Nintendo was. I had never heard that name before. Yes, it was right there on the side of my local arcade’s Donkey Kong cabinet, but I hadn’t noticed it. Nintendo and its Entertainment System were complete unknowns, at least to me.
Not only so, but home video games were not popular at the time. Arcade video games were. I had been eagerly dropping quarters into every arcade cabinet I could find for years and was still doing so. But home video games were not. The luster had long since worn off the Atari 2600, which had been the reigning home console since 1977. I wasn’t playing it as much as I once did. I wasn’t buying games for it. I wasn’t talking about it with my friends and they weren’t talking about it with me. Home video games were not a big part of our lives.
So I was just thinking of asking for a Nintendo. I wasn’t sure I was going to ask for one. I wasn’t sure I wanted one. But since there was nothing else in the department stores and toy shops that interested me, I was at least thinking about it. And I told my friends I was. That made me the first in our circle to say he was thinking of Nintendo. It may even have made me the first in our school.
As it turned out, I did ask for a Nintendo for Christmas. Did I do so because I had gotten more excited about it over the summer? Or was it because there was still nothing else that interested me? I don’t know. I just know that I asked for and got a Nintendo for Christmas 1986.
Or perhaps I should say Nintendo got me, because that’s what really happened. From the moment I pulled that Nintendo Entertainment System out of its wrapping paper, I was won over to Nintendo and all things Nintendo. As I like to say it, I was aNESthetized at that moment. I was not just temporarily aNESthetized but permanently aNESthetized. I was aNESthetized for life.
What was it that so aNESthetized me? What was it that won me over to Nintendo and made me such a Nintendo fan? Turn the page and I’ll show you.
The console and controllers are probably not the first things that come to your mind when you hear the word Nintendo. The games probably are. I know that’s the first thing that comes to my mind. The games I what I played. The games are what I loved. The games are what Nintendo was all about.
But the console and controllers shouldn’t be completely overlooked. They were a legitimate part of the Nintendo experience as well. They were the very first part of the experience, actually, the first elements of the Nintendo universe I ever encountered. They were a vital part of the Nintendo experience, the part that made the games possible. They were the only constant part of the experience. The games came and went, but the console and the controllers were always there. And they certainly were a part of my aNESthetization.
The Nintendo Entertainment System
The Nintendo Entertainment System can be described in one word: impressive. It was impressive right out of the box. Heck, it was impressive even in the box.
My Nintendo came in a shiny black box. Not a dull white or cardboard brown. A commanding shiny black. This box was labeled with a silver Nintendo logo and the words “Control Deck”. That’s right. What was in that box was not a unit or component or device. It was a Control Deck. Below that was the golden “Official Nintendo Seal of Quality”. I knew right then that this was an extraordinary piece of equipment. How could it not be? It had a seal of quality right on the box!
What was inside the box was even more impressive. There, sitting in individual sections of Styrofoam packing and encased in clear plastic bags were all the parts of the Control Deck set: the Control Deck, two controllers, the Super Mario Bros. game, the power cord, and the TV connector.
The power cord was a power cord. I don’t remember much about it.
The TV connector, on the other hand, I do remember. It was an RF switch. The Atari had also connected to the TV with an RF switch, but its RF switch wasn’t anything like the Nintendo’s. The Atari’s RF switch had two horseshoe-like prongs sticking out its side and a sliding knob on its face. These prongs screwed to the antenna terminals in the back of the television. Screwed with a screwdriver. When you wanted to play, you had reach behind the TV, grope around until you found the switch, and then slide the knob from the antenna input to the Atari input. But the Nintendo connector had no such switch, nor did it have the two antenna prongs. Instead, it had a coaxial input and output. You slipped your cable feed on the switch and then slipped the switch on your TV. When it was time to play, you just put the TV on channel 3 or 4 and turned the Nintendo on. No manual activity was required.
The controllers were even more memorable. I was used to joysticks. That’s what the Atari 2600 had. A box with a stick and a red button. But the Nintendo controllers were gamepads. These gamepads had a cross-shaped directional pad on the left side. Not a stick you grabbed with your right hand but a cross you pressed with your left thumb. They also had four buttons. Not just one. Four. There was a “Start” and “Select” button in the middle and “A” and “B” buttons on the right.
As I would soon find out, there were certain hazards to playing with these gamepads. Extended play would tax the knuckles of your index fingers, giving you a kind of pre-teen arthritis. Even worse, the thumb that worked the d-pad often developed cracks or blisters. This was known as “Nintendo thumb”. In the most intense cases of Nintendo thumb, the arrows on the d-pad were visibly imprinted in the thumb flesh. I saw this on more than one occasion. I suffered it on more than one occasion, too.
The Super Mario Bros. cartridge was unlike any other cartridge I had ever seen. Most game cartridges were squat and thick like 8-track tapes. But the Super Mario Bros. cartridge was a bigger yet thinner gray square. On the cartridge face was the game label. This label was not centered on the cartridge as the labels were on Atari cartridges were but set to the upper right, and it didn’t have elaborate artwork as the Atari labels did but just the game title and a single game graphic. That simple design gave the cartridge labels and the cartridges themselves an air of existential elegance. They were like little pop art statements on the struggles of life. This is especially true of the Super Mario Bros. label which showed Mario in the midst of a failed jump, milliseconds from plunging into a lava pit. In the bottom of the cartridge were the gold-pins of the circuit board. You weren’t supposed to touch those pins, and I made sure I never did.
In the top of the cartridge was a ridged indentation for handling. This indentation was just wide enough for the right thumb and the right index knuckle to fit inside, and the manipulation of the cartridge with a thumb-top/knuckle-bottom grip quickly became second nature to me.
And protecting the cartridge was a thin black plastic sleeve that covered the bottom and about half of the cartridge body. Sleeves like this came with every game, and you were supposed to put your games in them to guard against dust and water. Being the obsessive that I am, I did so, but I was pretty much the only one. Others gamers just lost or threw away their cartridge sleeves. Few games I borrowed from friends still had them.
Then there was the Control Deck. This Control Deck was almost a cube. I say “almost” because it wasn’t a perfect cube. While the top was a cube, the bottom tapered in at a slight angle. That taper turned the Nintendo from a cube into something more exotic. A Nintendozoid, maybe, or a NESagon. There was also a ridged black strip that ran down the right side of the Control Deck’s gray housing. Neither this taper nor this strip had any practical purpose, but they did make the Control Deck look high-tech.
The Control Deck didn’t just look high-tech, though. It was high-tech. It had several high-tech features other consoles did not have.
There were two square plastic buttons on the front, one marked “Power” and the other “Reset”. There were power and reset buttons on every console out there, but they weren’t as cool as the Control Deck’s. Those two buttons were just the right size and placed in just the right spot to be visible but not obvious. They could easily be depressed with a slight push, but more often than not I jabbed them as fast and hard as I could.
There was also a red LED light next to the power button. This LED lit up whenever the system was on. I’d never seen a console with such a light, but I instantly understood the benefits of one. I imagined conversations with my friends such as:
“Is the Nintendo on?”
“Let me check. Yep, the light’s on.”
“Dude, you left your Nintendo on.”
“How do you know?”
“The light’s on.”
There was a cartridge input that took the entire game into the Control Deck. Atari cartridges simply stuck out of the Atari. But Nintendo cartridges slid inside the Nintendo. The input door was opened, revealing the cartridge tray. The cartridge was inserted into the tray and depressed, the input door was shut, and the game was inside. Inside! Completely contained! Out of sight!
And there was the pause feature. With a push of a gamepad button (usually Start, but sometimes Select), you could pause your Nintendo games, suspending play in mid-action. You, your enemies, even the music would freeze and stayed freezed until you unpaused the game by hitting the pause button a second time. This pause feature allowed you to put the controller down, take a break, even leave the room. You could not pause an Atari game like this. Once you started an Atari game, you could not stop. If you put your controller down or left the room, the game would continue in your absence and you would be killed. When you returned, the game would be over. Have to go to the bathroom? Sorry. Mom tells you to take out the garbage right now? Tough luck. Your favorite show is coming on? Them’s the breaks.
But you could pause Nintendo games. You could pause a game and go to the bathroom. You could pause a game and take out the trash. You could pause a game and watch your show. You could pause a game and do anything for as long as you wanted. It wasn’t uncommon for me to start a game before school, pause it when I had to run for the bus, and unpause it hours later when I got home. It was a technological breakthrough.
But this and all the other technological breakthroughs were not without a few technological problems. The cartridge input was one such problem. There were times when it didn’t work so well. You’d put in a cartridge and hit Power, but the game wouldn’t start. All the TV showed was the same blank screen you saw if you hit Power when there was no cartridge inside. I figured out pretty quickly that the game was not making a connection with the Control Deck. I also figured out pretty quickly how to fix it. I blew. Sometimes I blew on the cartridge, lifting it to my lips and blowing across the circuit board pins. Other times I blew into the Nintendo, lifting the input door and blowing into the Control Deck itself. I’m not sure where I learned these techniques, but they usually worked.
The slowdown was another problem. There were moments when games would suddenly go from normal speed to slow motion. You, your enemies, and anything else that was moving would keep moving but at a much reduced pace, a molasses-flowing-uphill-in-January pace. Nothing else would change. Projectile paths wouldn’t be altered. Jump trajectories wouldn’t be cut short. Game elements wouldn’t disappear. Everything would just get super-slow for a second and then return to normal. This slowdown only occurred when several things were happening on screen at once. Because of that, I figured it was a processing issue, that the Nintendo was struggling to keep up with the onscreen action. Since I wasn’t a tech guy then and still am not one now, I’m not sure how accurate that was. What I am sure of is that you could sometimes turn the slowdown to your advantage. It gave you a little extra reaction time you could use to avoid enemies you might otherwise hit or grab power-ups you might otherwise miss. A small help, maybe, but as hard as some games were, I would take any help I could get.
A similar problem was the flickering sprites. On certain occasions, the player and enemy sprites would fade in and out. Sometimes they would fade in and out of visibility. Other times they would fade in and out of transparency. Still other times only some of their horizontal lines would fade in and out of visibility or transparency, so that they looked like colored bar codes. These flickers didn’t affect the game play, but they were noticeable. Like the slowdown, they typically occurred when several things were happening on screen.
Those technological problems were miniscule, though, in comparison with the technological wonders in that Control Deck. And to let you know where all these technological wonders came from, the Nintendo name was printed right on the front of it. Blazed in red on the cartridge input door were the words “Nintendo Entertainment System”.
Impressive? It was very impressive. It was even intimidating. Nintendo’s motto was, “Now you’re playing with power.” And there did indeed seem to be a power radiating from that system, an innovative, cutting edge, almost alien power.
Controllers, Robots, and Magazines
The Control Deck Set I got for Christmas contained all the basics needed to play Nintendo, but there were several other accessories that added to the Nintendo experience. Some of these accessories came in other sets and some were sold separately.
The most common accessory was the Zapper light gun. It came in the Action Set with a combination Duck Hunt/Super Mario Bros. cartridge. I had played with light guns prior to the Zapper. There were arcade games that had them. There were even home systems that had them. But the Zapper was a big step up from those. It looked great, having a sleek, lightweight design. It felt great in your hand, resting securing in the web between your thumb and forefinger. And it worked great with the games, responding quickly and accurately. That’s how I remember it, anyway. I realize in retrospect that this speed and accuracy could have been due more to my proximity to the TV rather than to the Zapper itself. I usually sat just inches away from the TV screen when playing Zapper games. I wasn’t as close as the guys who put the Zapper against the screen, placing the barrel directly over targets so that they could not miss. But I wasn’t that far back, either. That closeness probably increased the performance of the Zapper. I still think, though, that the Zapper was much quicker and more accurate than any light gun I had previously used. And I know that the popping noise generated by the trigger added a little tangibility to the game. It gave you the sense of the recoil and cartridge ejection you would feel if you were firing a real gun. I thought so, at least.
Much less common was the Robotic Operating Buddy, or R.O.B., a little robot who came in the Deluxe Set with the game Gyromite. He was fairly cute as robots go, looking something like a cross between Short Circuit’s Johnny Five and E.T. the Extraterrestrial. R.O.B. was featured on all the TV commercials, posters, and other Nintendo paraphernalia. But that’s the only time I ever saw him. I never saw him in real life. I never had a R.O.B. and never knew anybody who did. I didn’t even know anybody who wanted one. Most of my friends thought he was for little kids and so held him in the disdain we held all things for little kids in. The fact that he was expensive and only worked with two games didn’t help any. By the time we got to high school, he had been forgotten.
The Power Pad came in the Power Set along with World Class Track Meet. It was a vinyl mat with sensors. You laid this mat on the floor and operated it with your feet to simulate running and jumping. This made it a good controller for athletic games and a good way to get kids to exercise. Well, it would have been a good way to get kids to exercise if they hadn’t figured out that it was easier to kneel on the Power Pad and beat the sensors with their hands. That’s what my friends and I did. We never actually used our feet. It was a nice try, though.
The MAX was a redesigned gamepad. It was more ergonomic than the standard gamepad, being an oval rather than a rectangle, it had a circular d-pad instead of the cross-shaped d-pad, and it had turbo A and B buttons under the standard A and B buttons. This turbo feature was such a defining part of the controller that it was often called the “Turbo MAX”.
The NES Advantage was a joystick controller. It replaced the d-pad with a traditional joystick. It also a turbo feature, but it did the MAX one better because the speed of its turbo feature could be adjusted to the player’s preference. Another, even stranger addition was a slow motion feature. This slow motion was nothing more than a repeated pausing and unpausing of the game and wasn’t that helpful, but it was another nice try.
The Four Score allowed for the connection of four controllers and thus four-person games. It was used for sports games like Nintendo World Cup and came in the Sports Set. The Satellite also allowed for the connection of four controllers but it had the additional distinction of being wireless. The only problem was that both required you to round up three friends who could cooperate long enough to play. That was always easier said than done, so the Four Scores and Satellites usually just sat there.
The Power Glove was a plastic glove with a gamepad and a dozen or so other buttons on its forearm and allowed players to control the game with hand movements. This made me very excited because it seemed to be the one thing I wanted more than any other: virtual reality. It wasn’t virtual reality, of course. It wasn’t even close. But it seemed like it at the time and so got a lot of points for innovation.
There were also some non-gaming accessories. One was the Nintendo games poster. This poster came with every Nintendo set and showcased all the official Nintendo games. There were a couple versions of this poster. Mine had the motto “Now You’re Playing With Power” at the top, a close up of R.O.B. at the bottom, and a grid of screenshots from games such as Excitebike, Mach Rider, and Rad Racer in the middle. Next to the screenshots were little white boxes. You were supposed to check off those boxes when you got those games, which I of course did. There was also a variation of this poster that showed fewer games and replaced the “Now You’re Playing With Power” motto with the line “The Nintendo Game Plan”, and another variation that showed even fewer games and had the line “The Player’s Choice”. There was also a completely different poster which showed the red Nintendo logo bursting through a pane of glass on which were screenshots of the games. This poster used the “Now You’re Playing With Power” motto but showed different and newer games. Every Nintendo set came with a poster, so everybody had one these posters on their bedroom walls.
Nintendo Power was a magazine that gave reviews of Nintendo games and tips for playing them. Issues of Nintendo Power often came with posters or maps, making them highly desirable not just for gaming but also for collecting.
The Official Nintendo Player’s Guide was a large trade paperback book that likewise gave tips and maps for games. It came in some Control Deck sets in the place of the Super Mario Bros. cartridge and covered all 90 Nintendo games in existence at the time of its printing. I read through The Official Guide several times, not just to learn about the games I had but also to lust for the games I wanted.
Control Decks and gamepads. Gray cartridges and black sleeves. Zappers, robots, gloves, and magazines. That was the Nintendo Entertainment System hardware. More than a quarter of a century later, this hardware is undeniably outdated. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s never been outdone.
As you can see, I’m not done enhancing the text yet, but I am working on it. Stop by again soon to check on my progress!