Image: Sam Woolley
I dare say the Nintendo 64 is The Most Interesting Game System Nintendo Ever Made. It’s interesting for a laundry list of historical reasons.
This story was originally published in October 2014, and we share it again today to put a smile on everyone’s faces, and also as a small nudge to Nintendo that a mini N64 would be really sweet.
1. Nintendo stuck with cartridges when CD-ROM was clearly The New Thing. CD-ROM would have allowed full-motion video and digital sound. Nintendo stuck with cartridges for fast load times.
2. Nintendo pioneered several new game genres. Super Mario 64 legitimised the idea of a three-dimensional platformer. GoldenEye 64 brought original first-person shooters to consoles. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is still the gold standard in 3D action adventure games.
3. The controller was unconventional and bizarre at the time of its introduction. It had three grip-fins, an analogue stick, and a shoulder button positioned in a specifically trigger-like location. The analogue stick has been the essential directional game control implement ever since, and all game controllers still have triggers.
4. Despite the destined longevity of its many innovations, even the hardest-dying Nintendo fans today will freely admit that the Sony PlayStation conquered it at the time.
5. Most importantly, I consider the console interesting because it was the one game console I enjoyed both as a child and an adult at the same time. I was still very much – almost entirely – a child when I learned of the Nintendo 64, in an issue of Nintendo Power magazine, in the backseat of my dad’s car as we took my big brother to the train station to send him off to college. I was very much – almost entirely – an adult when I purchased The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on its release date in October of 2000, and I was even more of an adult when I didn’t play it (or even open it) until after Christmas.
I grew up, by coincidence, as the Nintendo 64 lived and died.
September 29th, 2014 marked the eighteenth anniversary of the North American release of the Nintendo 64. The Nintendo 64 is now old enough to vote in the United States. The Nintendo 64 is now old enough to purchase a pornographic videotape. The Nintendo 64 is now old enough to appear in a pornographic film. The Nintendo 64 is old enough to graduate high school. The Nintendo 64 will be old enough to purchase alcohol in the United States in just three years.
When I first saw Super Mario 64 on a demo kiosk in a Toys R Us, I knew it was the best graphics I could possibly ever need. Eighteen years later, I still think so. In fact, I may be machinating the development of a low-polygon three-dimensional platform adventure game right this second. Heck, that game might even have the number “64” in the title. This number might be both a reference to the Nintendo 64 and a reference to some tenuous thing or another in the game’s plot. Who the heck knows! This game is, at present, only hypothetical (unless you want to believe it’s not).
I was recently sitting on the sofa at Action Button Entertainment Headquarters in Oakland, California, with a good autumn breeze coming in the windows. Me and Action Button Entertainment programmer Michael Kerwin were working on our game VIDEOBALL. The breeze was excellent. The sun was bright. I opened a YouTube tab. I put on a thirty-minute extended audio-only video of the Super Mario 64 castle music. It filled the room. Kerwin and I worked while the music played.
It took a minute for me to notice I’d put on that music. Why that track, of all tracks? It’s a nice and friendly track. It sounds like a crisp late-summer day. It also reverberates like the interior of a building. I had the windows and door wide open. We were both outside and inside at the same time.
It was sunny and breezy and cool, and a strong memory of Super Mario 64 jumped into my skull with sudden ferocity.
So I thought about the Nintendo 64 for a couple of minutes, and five anecdotes emerged which I suppose summarize how I feel about the system.
1. Super Mario 64 (September, 1996)
I bought a Nintendo 64 with my own money. However, it was not the first video game console I bought with my own money.
The first game console I bought with my own money was the Nintendo Gameboy. I was ten years old. It’s difficult for a ten-year-old to get his hands on ninety dollars in 1989. I’d somehow not spent the birthday check my grandmother had sent. I combined it with my Christmas check, which took some self-restraint, because my birthday is in June. I pooled the money together and bought a Gameboy. I politely asked my mum to buy me a copy of Super Mario Land.
For six months, the only Gameboy game I had was Tetris. During the summer, my family went to Pennsylvania to visit my mother’s eight brothers and sisters. One of my aunts took me to the mall. She bought me a copy of Super Mario Land. I was ten years old, and I loved instruction manuals. I opened the box in the car. I read the manual. When my mum saw that her sister had bought me a video game, she was furious. She drove me back to the mall.
She tried to return the game. She couldn’t return it: it was opened. This was before they did pre-owned games. My mum let me keep the game. She made me do chores for the rest of the summer to pay back the twenty dollars I owed my aunt.
When the Super Nintendo came out, my parents had decided that video games were not something we’d get bored of. We sure hadn’t gotten bored of the Nintendo Entertainment System the way we’d gotten bored of the Atari 2600. They bought us a Super Nintendo.
By 1994, I had purchased a Sega Genesis. My little brother had a Gameboy. My big brother was seventeen, and he hated video games because they were all for babies and not for cool guys with girlfriends, like himself.
No one was going to buy me a Nintendo 64 for Christmas, and it didn’t matter, because I had a job.
The Nintendo 64 was the vortex moment – the moment my maturity as an ageing human young adult intersected games’ diminishing artistic immaturity. I just spent five minutes trying to make a graph to illustrate what I’m trying to say in this paragraph, and it made me scream, so I’ll just leave this as it is.
I was seventeen years old when the Nintendo 64 went on sale in the United States. I was working at a Target Store in Indianapolis, Indiana. I bought a Nintendo 64 with my own money.
I’d been working at that Target store for going on two years. When I first started working there, I was the “cart attendant”. I had to push carts in from the parking lot. I weighed over 200 pounds. I never talked to anyone. Maybe I had an attitude problem.I didn’t have an internet to look at. I read books, wrote novels and short stories on an old electric typewriter, studied foreign languages, and played role-playing games on the Super Nintendo. I had no friends. I kept to myself.
Shopping carts were heavier back then. Today, I am thirty-five years old. I went to Target the other day. As I suppose I often do, I told a friend that shopping carts today are much lighter than they used to be. They used to have chassis made of steel. The current standard shopping carts at Target are entirely plastic. I imagine it’s a lot easier to push ten carts at once at Target today. “Twenty years ago it was pretty hard,” I said, recently, realising that I’m now old enough to tell stories about “Twenty Years Ago”.
It took one summer pushing carts for me to learn a lot about nutrition and exercise. Target helped me lose fifty pounds. Also, my unrealistic body image helped me stop eating for a while, which I suppose made it more metabolically catastrophic to push the carts that made me lose fifty pounds.
The head cashier was a woman named Roma. She found me one 100-degree day, short of breath, dizzy, about to pass out, my back against the wall outside. She slapped me in the face and told me, “I’ve never seen you eat anything. Get in there and eat something.”
I got in there and I ate a soft pretzel from the snack bar. I joined the YMCA the next day and have been regularly running ever since. I’d probably name my first-born daughter Roma if it wouldn’t create silly alliteration and invite the nickname “RoRo”.
I found some confidence during those first two years I worked at that Target store. Pushing carts in the winter was worse than pushing carts in the summer. By the second summer, I was working at the customer service counter. I was the Nice Young Man who helped people get their money back. I also had six-pack abs. It was great. By the second winter, I was counting the store’s cash at five o’clock every morning before school. On weekends, I worked at the customer service counter.
The current cart attendant was an older guy named Jim. Jim lingered around the electronics counter during his breaks. So did I. One day, our breaks intersected. This was September 1st, 1996. I was buying Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. (I just checked Wikipedia: Lufia II in fact came out on August 31st, 1996. I was a day late for True Fandom.)
Jim was in the electronics department that day to play Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo 64 demo station.
Jim and I talked a bit about the Nintendo 64 and its chances against the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn. I was standing right next to him, playing NiGHTS on the Sega Saturn demo station.
“Have you tried NiGHTS?” I asked Jim.
He shook his head. “I gave it a shot. It’s too weird. The sixty-four is going to conquer the Saturn,” he said.
I found that peculiar: the console was twenty-eight days from release, and he was already calling it “The Sixty-Four”.
Jim and I became good friends over the next three weeks. He popped over to the service desk around break time and asked if I was ready for a break. We played Super Mario 64 on our breaks. We talked about what Zelda was going to be like on The Sixty-Four. We talked about what Donkey Kong Country would be like on The Sixty-Four. We talked about Final Fantasy‘s chances of ever coming out on The Sixty-Four.
We talked about how much it would rule if Star Fox came out on The Sixty-Four.
It was great. I realised I was the only person Jim ever talked to at the whole store. I took it Jim didn’t have any other friends. He talked about his mum and his dad and little brother. I surmised he lived with his mum and dad and brother. I never knew how old he was. His hair was grey. He looked like he could have been forty-five. He had a little bit of a stutter. He was just the nicest guy you’d ever meet.
I was working thirty to thirty-five hours a week, despite being still in high school. I packed in full shifts on the weekends and holidays to allow maximal time-and-a-half work hours. My college education wasn’t going to pay for itself. I didn’t mind working so much, because customer service is a job I was weirdly good at, and because all of the other customer service employees were attractive girls who flirted with me.
Target stores – back then, anyway – handed paychecks out to employees at the customer service counter anytime after four on Fridays. This meant that I handed Jim all of his paychecks in September. Every Friday, he came up to take his paycheck, and I asked him if he wanted to cash it, and he said yes, please. That guy worked a lot of hours. I counted him out a few hundreds. Every week, that month, he looked from me to the attractive female customer service employee out of the tops of his eyes, then looked back at me and made a clandestine reference to the Nintendo 64.
“I already know where some of this is going.”
On September 26th, 1996, my partner at the customer service desk was Jennifer. She was definitely the hottest girl in the store. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a more attractive girl than her. I don’t mean she’s the most attractive girl who ever lived: I just mean I can’t say I’ve ever seen a more attractive girl. What I mean is, I was seventeen years old, and it’s a strong memory to have known such a gorgeous human being at such a time in my maturation process. Jennifer later went to Notre Dame University, and though I never saw her in a Notre Dame letter jacket, because she never came back to that Target store, I assume she looked amazing and very brilliant in it. Jennifer was so attractive that I imagine she scared Jim even more than she scared me. Despite being terrifying to a sexually uncomfortable video game-playing young man who was a few months older than her, she was effervescent and nice. When Jim came up to the Customer Service counter, she jumped at the chance to help him.
“I know what you want!” she said. She fished his paycheck out of the lock box.
Jim looked troubled as she cashed his check.
“Hey – hey,” Jim said, under his breath. I feel shame to admit this: I ignored him.
Then he “Psst”ed.
I widened my eyes at him.
“You going on break soon?”
“Yeah, maybe soon,” I said. We were whispering at the end of the counter.
“There’s something I gotta talk to you about.”
“Oh. Oh. OK.”
I was drinking an ice-cold A&W Root Beer on my break. I was sitting on a wire bench outside. It was where employees smoked. No one was out there at that time. It was a good nice breeze, like the breeze today.
Jim exited the automatic doors. He strode right up to me.
He sat down next to me. He was treating this like a scene in a spy movie.
“They have them,” Jim said. “They’re in the back.”
“They have what?” I asked. I knew what he meant. I was being playful.
“They have The Sixty-Fours,” he said. “There’s a whole pallet of them in the back.”
“In the back, huh?”
“We can get one tonight. Arlo can get us each one tonight.”
This was before any internet forum had ever used the phrase “break street date”, much less overused it.
“My money’s at home,” I said. “I get off at ten. I’ll take my lunch break at nine-thirty, go home, grab my cash, and come back.”
“I’m going to be here at nine-thirty.”
I went back to play a little bit of NiGHTS on the demo Sega Saturn before returning from my break. A little boy was playing Super Mario 64. He was squeezing that controller so hard I could hear its plastic crinkling. When he was done, I looked at the controller. That controller had sustained some serious abuse.
I could see a ring of white paint-dust around the inside of the octagonal analogue stick gate.
I met Jim at the store at nine-forty-five. Arlo had left early because his wife’s truck had broken down. We had no connection to the warehouse. We slunk out.
I worked the service desk from one thirty until ten the next day. The head cashier was Roma. Roma had two grown-up kids. Every time a customer demanded to speak to my manager – usually that was the first thing such a customer said – I’d get on the PA and page “Roma to the Service Desk”. She was hilarious. We always had a good time talking about those customers after they’d left.
Jim came in while I was closing up the desk. He was wearing a winter coat. I found that strange. It was so nice outside. He strode up to the service desk.
“Arlo says he set two Sixty-Fours aside for us.”
“Whoa. Whoa. Do you know where they are?”
“Yeah. He told me exactly where they are, man. Did you bring your cash?”
“I did.” I had a big wad of bills in an envelope in my buttoned-up back pocket.
“You want to come back and get them with me?”
“I’m closing up here. Give me a minute.”
The clock struck ten. Roma got on the PA. She said the store was closed.
“Please bring your final purchases to the front of the store.”
Only one register was open. A long line formed. Me and Jim dashed to the back. There were The Sixty-Fours. Atop each Sixty-Four was a copy of Super Mario 64 and Pilotwings 64. Atop all that was a yellow sheet of paper: “HOLD FOR JIM”.
We grabbed our treasures and popped up to the front of the store. We waited in the long line.
Roma got behind a register. She called me and Jim over.
“Get over here, you two,” she said.
Jim and I were silent. This must have creeped Roma out: here were two guys with identical purchases of shiny primary-coloured cardboard box-stacks, and neither of them was saying a word. I wonder what my face looked like. I know that Jim’s was a look of terror. I think he felt like he was doing something wrong. What a nice guy.
“You, uh, you can go first,” Jim said.
“You guys are up to something,” Roma said. “I can smell it. What are you guys up to?”
“N-nothing,” Jim said.
She flipped over Super Mario 64. She looked at it for a couple seconds. She scanned the barcode.
I entered my Target employee discount number. I handed Roma the wad of cash. I fished change out of my pockets. I paid in exact change. I wonder how clear it was that I’d measured the cost down to the penny? Roma already thought I was enough of a psycho: here was another drop in the bucket.
I met Jim in the parking lot.
“Dude,” Jim said. “Dude. Dude.”
“Yeah, dude,” I said.
“Well, I’ll see you later,” he said. He walked off toward the post office. His apartment complex was somewhere beyond there.
High beams lit me up. It was my mum.
“What is a-wrong with you?” my mum asked as I got in the car. “You said you got off at ten.”
“I had to buy something,” I said.
“Is that one of them video games?”
“It’s a Nintendo 64.”
“Don’t you already have a Nintendo?” she asked.
“This is the new one.”
“I seen you buying games for the old one.”
“Those are different games, though.”
I took the Nintendo 64 into my bedroom. I took it out of its box. I held its controller. I already knew that controller well. I unboxed Super Mario 64. I looked over the manual. I have to say: I loved looking at game manuals. I sat at the dining room table, looking over that manual while eating a bowl of Corn Pops and drinking a tall glass of orange juice. I was carbing up.
My mum came into the dining room.
“What are you still doing up?”
“I’m just having some cereal.”
“We’ve got church tomorrow,” my mum said. She disappeared.
I went into my bedroom. I plugged the Nintendo 64 into the twenty-five-inch television. I put in Super Mario 64. I got the first star in Bob-Omb Battlefield. I went to bed.
My mum woke me up the next morning.
“We’re going to church. Do you want to come?”
“No,” I said.
“We’re going to go to the mall after. Do you want to come?”
“No,” I said.
I went swimming. I went home. My family was still out, either at church or at the mall. I plugged the Nintendo 64 into the 35-inch RCA CRT television in the living room. I let the sun and the breeze in. I got all seven stars on Bob-Omb Battlefield. It felt good. I put the console back in my room. It was one o’clock. I had a one-thirty-to-ten closing shift. I went to Target to work. Jim was there.
“I came in at seven-thirty,” Jim said. “I’ve been beat all day. I was up until two AM last night. I got thirty stars. How many did you get?”
I hesitated. “I got twenty-five,” I said.
2. Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (December, 1996)
“Look at this,” I said. I showed Jim a clipping from a Best Buy ad.
Best Buy was going to sell Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire for $US54.96 on release day. Target’s release price was $US79.99.
Jim shrugged. “I’m going to pass on that one,” he said.
“It’s going to be great,” I said.
“I’m more of a Star Trek fan.”
“It looks pretty cool though!”
“Yeah, it looks great.”
“I just bought Wave Race 64,” Jim said. He emphasised the “four” on “sixty-four”, as though the previous game in the series had been Wave Race 63. “I’m saving up for GoldenEye and Mario Kart 64.”
“Mario Kart is going to be cool,” I said.
“Don’t you know it!”
Later that week, Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire came out. It was a cold December Friday evening during Christmas break. Christmas hadn’t even happened, and the service desk was swamped all day every day.
I had the Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire Best Buy clipping in my pocket. I took it back to the electronics counter. The dude there – a guy my age named Byron – unlocked the glass case.
“Don’t you have a PlayStation yet?” he asked. “That Rebel Assault game is bad arse. My little brother has it.”
“I just have the Nintendo 64,” I said.
“Man, when is that Zelda coming out for that thing?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Next year?”
“Alright, give me your discount number,” Byron said.
“Oh, wait, uh, actually.”
I showed him the Best Buy clipping.
“Whoa,” he said. “Whoa.”
“Yep,” I said.
“I gotta call Jeff over,” he said.
“Alright,” I said.
Jeff didn’t like me. Every time he looked at me, Jeff let me know he didn’t like me.
“Hey there killer,” he said. Jeff called me “Killer” because he thought I was a serial killer, I think because the girl he liked talked to me more than she talked to him.
“Whoa, mister bargain hunter,” Jeff said. “That’s a find, there. Saving yourself twenty-five-oh-four,” he said. He turned his key in the register. “You’re good to go, boss,” he said to Byron. “See you around, man,” he said to me. I put in my employee discount number. I gave Byron some cash. Byron folded up the Best Buy clipping. He put it into an envelope in the register. He put the game in a little plastic bag.
“Keep it real, man,” Byron said.
“Oh,” I said, “it’s gonna stay real.”
I worked the rest of my customer service shift alongside Jennifer, who was still The Hottest Girl In The Store, with that chunky game box inside that plastic bag inside my cargo pants pocket. The game box was warm and heavy against the place where my thigh met my knee.
We were closing the store down. Roma asked if I could push some carts in from outside. I put up my hood and put on some gloves and braved the snow. The lot was a mess. The other cart guy hadn’t shown up to work. He never showed up to work again. His name was Jimi. He was the most popular guy at the store. Jennifer had once described him as a “babe”. I saw Jimi three years later, in a Hebrew bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana. It turned out he’d left his life behind to begin studying to become a rabbi. That day in the bookstore, the feeling washed over me that Jimi had beaten me again, and he was cooler than I could ever be. The night I bought Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, I distinctly remember thinking he was probably off smoking weed somewhere.
When I finished clearing the lot of carts, Jennifer had already closed down the store. I went to the back. I grabbed my things. I left. I began walking across the frozen parking lot. I was taking baby steps. I didn’t want to slip. I had a ten-minute walk home.
High beams flashed at me.
It was a little Honda Accord. Jennifer leaned out the driver’s side window.
“You can’t walk home in this,” she said. She was smiling. She had great teeth. “Come on; I’ll give you a ride.”
I got in. She gave me a ride. She noticed the giant rectangular bulge in my cargo pants pocket.
“What’s that in your pocket?” she asked. “Did you buy me a box of chocolates?”
I’m thinking this over eighteen years later, and it’s still such a weird, little, cute thing for her to have said.
“Nah,” I said. I figured, what the heck: “It’s a video game.”
I unbuttoned the pocket.
“It’s a Star Wars video game.”
“My brother has that game,” she said.
“It just came out today,” I said.
“Yeah, my mum bought it for him this morning.”
“Isn’t that game, like, eighty dollars?”
“I had a price match from Best Buy,” I said. “I, uh, I saved twenty-five dollars.”
“Hey, that’s smart.”
I told this story in front of hundreds of people at a “soapbox” session for the Indie Game Summit at GDC in 2013. I had written my talk with precision, so I kept the story short. Keeping the story short means I had to leave out what Jennifer said next.
“He says the game is hokey. He likes the Star Wars games for the computer better.”
I loved Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire. I still do. I loved its level designs. Gall Spaceport remains one of my most-remembered 3D action game level designs. It’s one I’ve brought up in design meetings and even demoed for other game designers handfuls of times. It’s big and persistent. I love how the interior geometry of buildings always matches up to the exact shape of the outside shape of said building. When I first laid my hands on the Unreal Editor, years later, Gall Spaceport was in the front of my mind.
3. GoldenEye 007 (August-December, 1997)
GoldenEye 007 was delayed. GoldenEye 007 was delayed again. It was supposed to come out in Spring. It came out in August of 1997. I rented the game before buying. It was great, if not as big, messy, and weird as Shadows of the Empire. The rental convinced me to buy the game. I guess renting convinced everyone else to buy the game, too: the game slowly sold out everywhere within weeks. It didn’t help that I was looking for GoldenEye in the vicinity of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, where I was a student. GoldenEye was all the rage in the dorms.
I couldn’t get a copy of GoldenEye until Christmas 1997, one year after Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire had come out. I was back in Indianapolis for winter break. Being back in Indianapolis meant working at the Target near my parents’ house instead of the Target at the mall in Bloomington. I never made friends at the Bloomington Target. I judged the employees there as snobby. Maybe that made me snobby, in my own way. The kids working at the Target in Bloomington had attitudes that struck me as unreal. It felt like they were working for “life experience”, not so they could pay for college. I was always sad at the Bloomington Target.
Back at my home Target in Indianapolis, I knew everyone. Jim was still there – only now he was working in electronics. Now he had the power he’d always wanted.
Four copies of GoldenEye came through on a black-skied morning of impending snow. I had him hold two for me – one for me, and one for Jennifer’s little brother. The sun set early. The parking lot was black and shiny with puddles of freezing rain. Snow began dumping from the sky. The supervisor pulled me away from the customer service counter so that I could clear the lot of carts.
I pushed ten carts inside, boiling with a feverishness beneath my dad’s old fat military coat. My fuzzy hood was wet with rain and snow. I clunked the carts into the cart corral. I was ripping my mittens off when I heard Jennifer calling to me.
Jennifer was with Roma at the head cashier’s station. Roma was opening the lock box. Jennifer’s mum and Jennifer’s little brother were standing nearby in wet-snow-glistening puffy ski coats. Roma retrieved a copy of GoldenEye from the lockbox.
“I can ring you up here,” she said to Jennifer’s mum.
Jennifer called to me again. I went over to her.
“This is the guy who got GoldenEye for you,” she said to her little brother.
I wanted to say, “Well, actually, your mum is paying for it.”
Instead, I let the kid thank me and tell me I was “awesome”.
I squatted down to high-five him. My right knee touched the ground. I reckon the kid was seven years old.
4. Banjo-Kazooie (June-July, 1998)
Jim was excited about Banjo-Kazooie. I wasn’t excited about Banjo-Kazooie. I didn’t know why I’d be excited about it. School was over for the semester. I was counting the cash at Target every morning before attending summer classes at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. I was sort of an idiot about summer classes: I stacked my summer sessions full of back-to-back four-hour maths lectures. I was going to bed at five PM and waking up at three AM. I was showing up at Target at five AM and leaving at eight. I was in lectures until five PM and then closing the Target customer service desk from six-thirty to ten.
One slow night, Jim came by the customer service desk to collect returned electronics items.
“We still have a couple Banjo-Kazooie preorders left,” he told me.
I finished closing up the service desk. I went back to electronics. I piddled around with Banjo-Kazooie on the Nintendo 64 demo station.
“Pretty good, huh?” Jim said.
“It’s alright,” I said. “It will hold me over until Xenogears.”
Jim shook his head at the mention of Xenogears.
“I don’t see the appeal,” Jim said. “It’s, what, it’s about robots and teenagers?”
“Didn’t you diss Final Fantasy VII because it was ‘dark and grimy’? Isn’t teenagers better?”
“My money is on Zelda.”
“Isn’t Link a teenager in that?”
“He’s Young Link and he’s Adult Link,” Jim said. “He’s not a teenager.”
I have an excellent memory, so believe me when I say that, five months prior to the release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, IGN readers such as myself and Jim were in fact using the exact vocabulary “Young Link” and “Adult Link”. That is how hyped we were.
I was, of course, more hyped about Xenogears, because it was coming out sooner.
I paid ten dollars for the Banjo-Kazooie pre-order. I got a free extra-large T-shirt with a tiny “Banjo-Kazooie” logo on the front left pectoral region, and a large “Banjo-Kazooie” logo across the back. This was every video game preorder T-shirt in the 1990s.
I turned nineteen years old. There was a woman I’d met at college. I liked her. I figured she liked me. She was a teacher. She wasn’t my teacher: she was a lot of other peoples’ teacher. She was a friend of a friend. She was working on a PhD in physics at Harvard. I swear to you, I’d broken the ice at our first meeting – we were the bored people at a party – by stating my years of Target shopping-cart-pushing experience as my own “honorary PhD” in physics. She thought it was at least funny enough to keep talking to me that night. Afterward, she emailed me every day. She called me whenever she was coming to Indiana to give a lecture. We met for dinner every time. She was smart, mature, and elegant, and whenever I mentioned I was going to go to law school, she didn’t narrow her eyes or scoff even once.
I worked a morning customer-service shift on the Sunday before Banjo-Kazooie came out. This was June 28th, 1998. It was hot out and I still had six-pack abs. My partner at the service desk was a girl named Laura. Laura was her middle name. A year earlier, she’d been going by her first name, which was Jolene. I loved the name Jolene. It reminded me of the Dolly Parton song. She didn’t like people mentioning the Dolly Parton song, so one day, at age seventeen, she reoriented her identity. This was, of course, before The White Stripes covered that Dolly Parton song. I wonder if she ever changed it back?
I liked her a lot. I think she liked me. She made good weird jokes, she liked Star Wars, she aspired to study neurology, and she always told me she liked my shorts, when I was working a dedicated cart-pushing shift. I always took “I like your shorts” to be a compliment on my calf muscles, though thinking back on it as an adult, I realise it’s possible she was complimenting my glutes.
Me and Jolene-Laura had a good day at the customer service desk. Jim came by. He was chipper. He made eyeball gestures at me. He went into the employee merchandise holding room. I went in there with him.
“We’ve got Banjo back there already. Come by later and I can ring you up.”
They wanted me to clear the shopping carts from the lot. I did that. I got real sweaty. I got a walkie-talkie call from Jim near the end of my shift. Jim told me he was heading home soon, so I should come by and “help” him. He meant he wanted to ring me up.
I went by the electronics desk. A young guy in a suit – no tie – had his hands on his hips. He was looking over the video games. Jim was behind the counter. He was avoiding the customer. It’s easy to avoid a customer: most of the time, the more they want your help, the less likely they are to ask you for anything.
The suited gentlemen singled me out.
“I’d like to buy a Sony PlayStation,” he said. “And I’d like the game Porsche Challenge. Also, I’d like this steering wheel here.”
This took me aback. This man knew what he wanted.
“Oh, hey, I don’t have the keys,” I said. “Hey Jim, this guy here wants to buy a bunch of stuff.”
“Yes I do, my friend,” the guy said. He was calling Jim “my friend”! This impressed me. “I hope you get a commission.”
“I wish!” Jim said. He unlocked the glass case. He retrieved the games.
“I’m going to pretend Jim does get a commission,” I said, “and I’m going to recommend you this game right here: Gran Turismo. Jim, let him see that one.”
Jim was silent. He removed a copy of Gran Turismo.
“Have a look at that,” I said. “Over sixty cars to choose from. They’re all lovingly modelled after real cars. Heck, they recorded the real engine sounds of the real cars by sticking microphones in the engines and driving the god darn things. It features over 178 cars. It’s the most realistic racing game ever made. You might have read about it in Road and Track, or Motor Trend. It’s the biggest thing in games. Now, you can drive your Porsche in Porsche Challenge – and you can drive Anything Else in Gran Turismo.”
“Ha! You know, I do recall reading about this in Motor Trend.”
“So we’ve got a sale!”
“Are you sure you’re not getting a commission?”
“Heck naw – I just got to recommend good games to cool dudes.”
The man put his hands on his hips again. He faced the glass case.
“Anything else you’d recommend?”
“No,” I said. “I think you’ve got all you need.”
Me and the guy talked about cars. Jim rang the guy up in silence.
“I’m going to need someone to help me carry this to my car.”
“I can do that for you.”
He carried the PlayStation on his own. We talked about Toyota Supras. It turned out his car was a brand-new Porsche Boxster with Illinois plates. He put the PlayStation in the passenger seat. He gave me a twenty-dollar bill.
“I can’t take tips,” I said.
“Ah, sure you can,” he said. I took the money.
He gave me his business card. He worked for Ernst & Young in Chicago. I took the card. I was just being polite. What was I going to do with his business card?
I didn’t realise at the time, of course, that I’d later tell this story, right down to the business card detail, to Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi one day in 2010.
I walkie-talkied Jim. “I’ll be back there in a second,” I said. I went back in the store. Jim retrieved my copy of Banjo-Kazooie from a box under the counter.
“That guy, huh?” Jim said.
“People go nuts over that Gran Turismo.”
“Give me Mario Kart Sixty-Four any day.”
Well, I bought Banjo-Kazooie. I put on that T-shirt, and I ate a punchbowl of macaroni and cheese. I refilled that punchbowl three or four times over the course of a weekend. The first summer session ended. I had a week off. I sat in my teenage bedroom like a dumb jerk, sweating all over myself, doing pushups, eating macaroni and cheese, mowing the lawn, eating popcorn, running, drinking Sprite, swimming, and one-hundred-and-two-percenting that brick-stupid inelegant technically sound overwhelmingly British-humored cackling gargling clunky dumpy Super-Mario-63-and-a-half-ish This-Is-What-You-Want-Isn’t-It winking-nudging-elbow-jabbing primary coloured young-adult-cartoon of an electronic interactive video-contest.
My next summer session was double-packed with statistics courses. Between the first lecture and the second, I went to the library. I checked my school email. I hadn’t checked it in a week. I had several messages from my internet penpal in England. I had several messages from the woman I liked. I read through them.
It turned out she’d been in West Lafayette for a week. She was attending an engineering seminar at Purdue University. I had been too busy sleeping, running, swimming, biking, and playing Banjo-Kazooie to drive all the way to the Indianapolis location of Indiana University to check my school email. Years later, I figure she could have coordinated better with me, though at the time I couldn’t help feeling like the worst person alive.
In the second of the emails, she told me she was in a hotel room all by herself for the next five days. She said I should come up and keep her company.
I was a newly-turned-nineteen-year-old American male, and I had not yet been intimate in any way with this woman. I felt stupid and bad for having missed an opportunity.
Banjo’s sneering bucktoothed bear face and his primary-blue jeans snuck into the corner of my subconscious. I shuddered.
I emailed her an apology. I told her I was upset. I said I felt stupid. I told her, hey, I like you. She replied with, hey, I like you, too. She said she’d be back in Bloomington “eventually”, and that we’d “see each other” then. She didn’t say we would “hang out”. She said we would “see each other”.
I worked at Target that weekend. Jolene-Laura was my customer service partner for Saturday. We had a high volume of returned merchandise. It took a while to close down the store. She invited me to sit with her while she smoked a cigarette. She said her parents were driving her insane. She asked if I could give her a ride home. I gave her a ride home. I didn’t see her for a couple of weeks. Then she stopped showing up to work. She’d quit. One of her friends came in the store one day. I asked about her. She’d moved to North Carolina for medical reasons.
5. The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time (November, 1998)
I was already back in Indianapolis for the Thanksgiving break. I worked an early shift at Target on Saturday, November 21st, 1998. Jim had opened the electronics counter. I stopped by the counter as I was getting off my shift. He handed me his Electronics Boutique receipt. I drove to Castleton Square Mall in the dark grey afternoon mist. I turned in my Electronics Boutique receipt and Jim’s. The man behind the counter was big and goateed. He was the guy who sold me Sega Saturn games with a straight face. Today he was beaming.
He handed me two golden plastic bags. Inside each bag was a T-shirt and a copy of the special gold-cartridge, gold-box edition of The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time.
He saw my Target shirt under my coat. “Did you just get off work?”
“Heck yeah,” I said.
“I’m so jealous. I’m counting down the minutes, man.”
“Oh, I feel you.”
It was raining softly when I got back into my car. I drove back to Target. I met Jim at the electronics counter. I presented him the bag.
“Oh my god. Oh my god, dude. I have off tomorrow. I know I won’t be sleeping tonight.”
“I won’t, either,” I said.
I drove home. I took a shower. I changed my shirt and pants. I made a phone call to the woman from Harvard’s hotel room. I told her I’d be in West Lafayette in an hour and a half. I got into my car. I put on my The Jesus Lizard mixtape. I got onto I-465. I got onto I-65 North. I was halfway there when I realised The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was still on the backseat.
Epilogue: Super Mario 64 (September, 2006)
I make this sound like this is where I quit playing video games. That’s not the case at all. Video games and I went on to have many adventures together, including professional adventures wherein I got paid to make video games, market video games, or simply offer guys in suits my opinions about their video games.
Lest I suffer loss of old-school game cred, allow me to disclaim that I got all 120 stars in Super Mario 64 within a month of its release. I bought Wild Arms, Suikoden, Suikoden II, Vandal Hearts, Final Fantasy VII, SaGa Frontier, Final Fantasy Tactics, SaGa Frontier 2, Legend of Mana, Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy IX, Xenogears, Metal Gear Solid, and Vagrant Story all on their exact release days, and played them all to completion at feverish speeds. And of course, I played the living heck out of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – I just didn’t start it until three days after it was released.
For those three days before Thanksgiving, 1998, I enjoyed the company of an adult person whose intelligence and beauty continue to inspire me every time I remember her.
She died a year later.
I moved to Japan three years later. I lived in Japan for many years.
I was working at Sony Computer Entertainment in the fall of 2006. My friend Brandon Sheffield came to Japan for Tokyo Game Show. He stayed for the week after Tokyo Game Show. I let him stay in my apartment.
2006 was a landmark year for me. After years of uncertainty regarding my career, I was finally on the right track. I had a nice little apartment with a high-definition television and comfortable furniture. I had a great girlfriend. I was in a stupid band.
Me and Brandon skipped Tokyo Game Show on its last day – Sunday, September 24th, 2006 – and went to Akihabara instead. He wanted to buy some used PC-Engine games before such PC-Engine games became too much of a collector’s item. We went to the weirdest, darkest stores. He got a lot of games. I didn’t buy anything.
A week later, Brandon had left. It was Saturday. At sunrise I went for a run around the train yard near my house. I went home. I took a shower. I went outside. It was not yet nine in the morning. I walked to Akihabara. This took about an hour and a half. I bought a used Nintendo 64, a used controller that wasn’t broken, a Rumble Pack, and a copy of Super Mario 64 Rumble Pack Edition.
I didn’t realise until today that that day would have been September 30th, 2006, which in the Japanese time zone lines up with the exact tenth anniversary of the Nintendo 64’s release in the United States.
I walked back home. I opened the windows and the curtains wide. The breeze was wonderful. My girlfriend came over. We got all 120 stars and then went to bed. When we woke up, it was October.