Ho ho ho and dreidel dreidel dreidel. I love this time of year. The holidays always remind me of the snowy white mornings as a young Connecticut boy going to Grandma’s house without a care in the world. I’ve often waxed nostalgic about it, but as a kid, I never had my own NES. My parents (properly) diagnosed my addiction at a young age and maybe rightfully kept mine a safe distance at Grandma’s house all the way across the state.
A visit to Grandma also translated into Nintendo for me, and never was this more true than at Christmas. Despite my addiction, I had a lot of fun sharing the NES and playing with all of my older cousins. This time of year, I get sentimental for a handful of video games from those years and beyond, mostly thanks to that old TV and old living room that hung around in the family deep into the PlayStation 2 era.
This time of year, I get most sentimental over these video games.
A favorite among my cousins since the days I can first remember. We always agreed to share until we got Game Overs, but little did my three-, four-, five-year-old mind grasp that you could put in a secret code to get yourself a whole extra bunch of lives.
Curse the limited functions of my developing brain! My cousins had it memorized, I did not. No matter how much they showed me, it just couldn’t stick.
That’s fine, I learned how to grind Contra the hard way and eventually could blast my way through the first four levels of the game on a single run at a tender young age. That’s how the NES hardened the souls of young 80s kids, through practice and trial and error. No hand-holding tutorials for you, buckaroo. Get back in front of that TV and try again… or play something else that will kick your butt. Maybe, Sesame Street 1-2-3.
We had plenty of games at Grandma’s house, but this is the one I remember all of us being able to master together and pass our skills on to younger cousins and eventually the younger generation of cousins. It’s not on the NES Classic though, so I’ll have to dig out the old NES to teach my son.
SUPER MARIO BROS. 3
Another game involving my cousins and myself. I’ve already talked about this one at great length, but I’ll dip into the story really quick because, hey, it’s my chance to be sentimental!
My grandmother rarely added video games to her collection because she wasn’t exactly a gamer. She only kept it for us. In fact, every game beneath the television set remained there from my very first memories until she moved out a few years ago, but the one game I remember being added to the collection was this one. The year it came out, all six branches of the family bought a copy and brought it along to grandma’s house.
We grabbed it at Toys ‘R’ Us while making the drive, but everyone else got the idea. Even my dear mom was excited to play, knowing that this was the big present of the season. We all bought it, we all brought it, we all played the hell out of it, even using the secrets bestowed up on by The Wizard, but my copy had to stay at Grandma’s because all of my other cousins had their own NES’ at home.
I’m not sure if Super Mario Bros. 3 was a Christmas release or not, but I always tie the game to the holidays thanks to it being my first game when I FINALLY got my own NES.
One last NES game, I promise. Tetris saw a nice revival this year, but I’d be lying if I said I was ever a fan of this game. In fact, I avoid it, one of the few that I avoided under Grandma’s television. I loved games with characters and settings and badguys and stories, and I never enjoyed puzzle games that featured blocks or boxes or no protagonist to relate to, something that still remains true to this day.
It’s probably why I was always a bigger fan of Dr. Mario.
However, I have more memories of Tetris on the holidays thanks to a fierce rivalry between my mom and dad. I’ve talked about this before, but my parents kept tabs on each other every year with a face off at Tetris, one of the few games they made me sit on the sidelines for. Maybe it’s because I got antsy watching or because I would rather be playing Wizards and Warriors or Castlevania, but memories of Tetris frustrate me to this very day.
Especially during the holidays. I still won’t play Tetris Effect because of it.
Devil May Cry, Grand Theft Auto III
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Final Fantasy X
Oct. 16, 2001
Oct. 22, 2001
Nov. 13, 2001
Dec. 17. 2001
Remember those dates because up until these four important moments in the history, even the Dreamcast looked like it had a chance. SEGA’s console handily soared over Sony’s early offerings with modern hits like SoulCalibur and Jet Grind Radio that would eventually become classics, while the PlayStation 2 was highlighted by middling fare such as The Bouncer, Dark Cloud, and Zone of the Enders.
Devil May Cry changed all of that first, followed by Grand Theft Auto III the next week. The first forever changed the action genre, the second created an entirely new genre, and both marked the true arrival of the PlayStation 2. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, unarguably the most anticipated of the four games, came out the following month to rave reviews, not yet burdened with the hindsight that now plagues it as the “weird” entry in the series.
And lastly, Final Fantasy X launched just before Christmas, and while I was skeptical with the series at that point, not being very big on either Final Fantasy VIII or Final Fantasy IX, I went to Funcoland to pick it up. When the clerk told me he was sold out, I shrugged, not caring too much, but a mystery box containing a shipment he didn’t know about turned up just as I was leaving the store. I bought it, played it, and fell in love. Final Fantasy X remains a favorite of mine to this very day, and it revived my interest in the series for years to come.
By Christmas, all four games became the foundation of my PlayStation 2 collection, the console that easily still takes up the most space on my shelf. And, naturally, I brought my shiny PlayStation 2 to Grandma’s house to show off to all my cousins.
Needless to say, Grand Theft Auto III and Devil May Cry didn’t really appeal to them, causing a few of my aunts to really question the presents I had gotten that year. We settled for some old fashioned Super Mario Bros. 2 instead.
Still was a fun holiday and a triumph of a year that paved the way for the biggest console of all time.
Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire
I can’t remember a time when we had a Super Nintendo at Grandma’s house for the holidays, but in the winter of 1996, we certainly had a Nintendo 64. Along with being huge Nintendo nerds, my cousins and I were all helpless Star Wars geeks. I don’t recall the first time I played Super Mario 64, but this excellent (at the time) Star Wars game was unifying for a single Christmas day.
Nintendo struck well with this one, scoring an exclusive Star Wars game that accompanied the launch of its latest console, a strategy it carried over into the GameCube, as well. Shadows of the Empire was huge in 1996, being marketed as the central pillar of LucasFilm’s first non-Star Wars multimedia project.
Of course I remember seeing Hoth in those muddy 3D polygons for the first time and being downright amazed. We managed to escape Echo Base and jump across the freight trains of Ord Mantell, finally coming face to face with Boba Fett himself on Gall before that holiday vacation came to a close. Had we been more attuned to 3D game design, we might have been able to make it further, but us grizzled Contra veterans struggled with the jumps and aiming.
Tough call, but 3D gaming was a new beast in those days.
Shadows of the Empire isn’t exactly a great game anymore, but I don’t care. Those first few levels are hard to beat.
Final Fantasy Adventure
When Pokémon first came to the United States in 1998, the Game Boy saw a huge resurgence in popularity that helped drag out its lifetime into the new millennium. Nintendo naturally benefited from this, but it wasn’t the only company to cash in on the booming sales.
Square also dipped into its retro library and re-released all four of its older Game Boy Final Fanasy titles. That Christmas, deep under Pokémon‘s spell, I asked my parents for one of these games, and they picked up this one for me. We spent Christmas at Grandma’s as usual, and when I opened this game, it was good enough to break me from my Pokémon stupor for a few weeks.
Final Fantasy Adventure remains a favorite of mine to this day, easily in my top five games from the series. Everything about it, from its melancholy atmosphere to its fun, simplistic translation, to how it shifts from chapter to chapter with minimal cutscenes just comes together so nicely.
I also have memories of this Christmas because I tried to share my excitement with my cousins, the same who I had beaten Sephiroth and groomed countless armies of Final Fantasy Tactics with just the year before, but they reacted with a meh. Mabe, just maybe, they had grown up without me…
…a fact that remains true to this day.
Whooooaaa, Gitaroo Man. The Christmas of 2003 was not spent at Grandma’s house but rather at my home in Delaware, and it was my first Christmas since leaving for college. My neighbors joined us for most of the day, and many of them wanted to see the new games I had gotten from Santa. They owned an Xbox, but myself as a PlayStation 2 owner, had access to stuff they didn’t have.
That Christmas, I got three shiny new video games: Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (a f*&%#ing beast of a great video game that I don’t nearly write enough about), Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (a decent licensed game from the studio that would eventually become Visceral Games RIP), and yes, Gitaroo Man, my gem, my obsession for a most of the way through 2004.
My neighbors were more excited about the other games, but when I fired up Gitaroo Man, their minds were obviously so blown that they immediately walked into the other room to do something else. They just couldn’t handle it. Okay, maybe they had no interest in this awkward, Japanese rhythm game, but I certainly did, and I held onto that memory like a badge of honor! I liked weird games, and Halo fans, they could just… disappear.
The beginning of my fanboy era… dark times.
Good stories and bad stories came out of Gitaroo Man. Bad news, I loaned it to a very musically talented friend who continued to beat the game in ways I could not… ugh, the Sanbone Trio is the hardest boss fight in gaming history, no contest. Good news, developer iNiS went on to make the Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan games and Elite Beat Agents for North American fans.
The worst news, Gitaroo Man is a lost victim to the advances of technology. Unless you have an old-fashioned TV, the game can’t be enjoyed properly on an HD one thanks to input lag ruining the pinpoint precise timing you need for this game’s nightmare mode.
Absolute shame. No more Gitaroo Man during the holiday season.
Phantasy Star Online
I just wrote about this one not too long ago, so you can go check out the full story. My Christmas of 2002 was dominated by dreams of not sugar plums and candy canes but rather… rolling the perfect FOmar or HUcast.
Good times. They don’t make online experiences like they used to.