Over the last year I’ve been doing my best to connect with my family in a more meaningful way. We’ve always been close, or at least, I always viewed us as close- but due to some wake-up calls recently, we’ve all made an effort to become more transparent and tight-knit. My dad is preparing for some fairly invasive back surgery in the near future, once my parents’ insurance approves, and so I’ve been driving to Orange County from Los Angeles about twice a month to visit.
The last time I drove down, I decided to bring my NES Classic. My immediate family didn’t grow up with a Nintendo Entertainment System but every now and then my cousins would visit and bring theirs, and the weekend would be filled with Duck Hunt and Excitebike. My mom was particularly fond of Dr. Mario and so I figured it might be fun to play together, a kind of nostalgic blast from the past. I also have a compulsion to be a sort of video game evangelist, and I wanted to test the simplicity of the NES Classic on my parents who haven’t touched a controller in probably a decade.
My dad is mobile but recently has had to make use of a cane to hobble from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen to living room. He has to prop himself up on pillows when he sits in a chair, and is often in extreme pain because he has several fractured vertebrae in his spine. It’s difficult for him to focus on anything for long periods of time because the pain is distracting. He’s cheerful and upbeat for the most part but I know it hurts him. My mother is the most empathetic person I know and she suffers with him, feeling his pain while knowing there is only so much she can do.
Obviously a Nintendo set isn’t a pain pill but it can be a powerful placebo. Once he was settled in to his chair I asked my dad if he wanted to play some Dr. Mario and he said, “Fire it up!” I set up the NES Classic while we talked. My mom commented on how small and cute the device is; my dad asked how you fit the games in it since the micro-console doesn’t open up. I explained that the games are preloaded onto it, that it has 30 of them built-in. He nodded and said, “I see, that’s great.” I talked a little about the baffling decision Nintendo made to keep the controller cords short, but that I had gotten an extension cord so my dad wouldn’t have to lean forward or get out of his chair.
Jaunty menu music playing, we scrolled through the games and my parents commented on the ones they remembered from my childhood. My dad remembered “you guys used to play the shit out that” in regards to Super Mario Bros. but seemed surprised when I told him that we couldn’t play Mario Kart. I started to explain that Mario Kart didn’t come around until the Super Nintendo, but then I realized he was talking about Mario Kart 64 and smiled to myself. He was a little out of step, but hey, what dad isn’t?
I found Dr. Mario in the menu and started the game. My dad asked which buttons do what, and I gave him the rundown as best I could. He put the game speed to low and gave himself a medium amount of viruses to eliminate, not a bad choice. He opted for the less-iconic “chill” music over the more instantly-recognizable “fever” theme. Once the game started, he had some trouble lining up the right color pills over the viruses that needed to be exterminated, and he asked if I wouldn’t mind retrieving his glasses from the bedroom. He didn’t clear that first round so my mom, who had been watching this development off to the side of the room, asked if she could step in. She proceeded to empty that bottle of viruses with a surprising amount of efficiency, while standing in the middle of the room and never once bothering to sit down. My mom and dad talked about my mom’s sister, and how she used to play Dr. Mario too; I guess the skills are more on her side of the family.
After Dr. Mario my dad picked Excitebike but asked if I would show him a race first. I went through the first level, making a few solid jumps but crashing more often than not. He noted that I kept overheating the bike, and I instinctively apologized; my dad is an avid motorcycle fan (when I checked the mail later that day he had just received a copy of Cycle World magazine with a note saying he should update his subscription, which was set to expire next month). I placed ninth in that race and passed the controller to my dad, who completely blew me out of the water with a third place finish. Grinning, he said we could stop there; the classic end-on-a-high-note gambit.
He asked me what games I was best at and I replied, “Mario, probably,” so we went to Super Mario Bros. He recognized Koji Kondo’s iconic overworld music immediately and smiled because what kind of monster can hear that theme and not smile? He commented how amazing the concept of the game is, especially for the time period- “When was this game made again? Early 90s?” and I reminded him that no, Super Mario Bros. came out in 1985. I made it through World 1–1 and as I went through World 1–2 he asked suddenly if there wasn’t a secret way to to run along the blocks on the top of the screen; I thought to myself that he must have paid more attention to when my brother and I played as kids than I remembered. I told him he was correct, but that I could only get up there if I was able to break through the blocks as Super Mario, that “regular” Mario just bumped up against them. He nodded and said, “I see. Well, at least you’ve got some squished penguins.” He was looking at some Goombahs onscreen, the leftward-marching mushroom based enemies, but I didn’t want to correct him.
I eventually rode up the rising red platforms at the end of the level to show him the Warp Zone and moved on to World 4–1. I told him about the Spinies and how they’re basically the worst, how the best way to get through that level is to run straight through. World 4–2 begins with a tricky jump over a pit which I managed to mess up four times in a row, which promptly resulted in a Game Over screen. My dad asked, “Is that a ‘fail’?” and I said as honestly as I could, “It absolutely was.”
He told me a story then about Enzo Ferrari who, when asked to showcase one of his cars, immediately drove into a tree. He managed to get out of the car and explained the safety features of the vehicle, then hailed his driver, got in the backseat of the car, and never drove again. I haven’t fact-checked this story and I’m not going to, because I like that my dad compared my wanting to show off the game I’m supposedly “best” at to a famous entrepreneur wrecking the main thing he’s known for.
The rest of our visit was routine, but at the end of the day my dad asked if I wouldn’t mind leaving the Nintendo there, at least until the next time I came down. Surprised, I said of course I wouldn’t mind, and explained to my mom how the reset button worked. I had brought an extra controller in case they wanted to go head-to-head in Dr. Mario, so I left it on the counter and told my mom to go easy on him.
I drove back to Los Angeles that night happy, but not because I had managed to open someone’s eyes to magic of video games. I felt like I saw a different side of my father, and I think he saw something in me, too.