something about 20 classic games and super ghosts and goblins

My alarm went off at 3:30 in the morning. I’ve worked at coffee shops since I was fourteen so getting up early isn’t really an issue- but there’s always a moment of disconnect from reality. Why? Why did I set my alarm this early? As I stared at the ceiling in the darkness it came to me- it was time to get in line for a shot at a Super NES Classic.

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I pulled on jeans, a shirt and a jacket. I had loaded up my backpack the night before with all the essentials: water bottle, tablet with downloaded episodes of 30 Rock and MS3TK: The Return, journal, Playstation Vita. My phone and my devices were charged. I toyed with the idea of stopping at my local Starbucks but realized they weren’t open yet. Whenever I have to go anywhere I operate under the mindset of “I want to leave at [time], so I had better be ready to leave by fifteen minutes prior to [time]” and as a result there’s always a couple minutes of just sitting, waiting. Around 3:45 I (quietly, so as not to awaken my girlfriend and the cat) crept out of the apartment and walked down the street to where my car was parked.

Early mornings in Los Angeles are singular. Our bars close early, so there aren’t people stumbling home; our public transit isn’t particularly robust. I didn’t encounter anyone on the walk to my car and did that thing where you turn the music down after you start the engine so you don’t annoy your neighbors (even though the windows are all rolled up and there’s no way they can hear you).

Why was getting up early to stake out a Target in Eagle Rock so appealing? I didn’t play much SNES growing up (with the exception of Mario Paint and Primal Rage at my cousins’ place). My introduction to video games was an “original Nintendo”; I was a Super Mario Bros., Dr. Mario, Excitebike, Duck Hunt kinda kid. My brother and I skipped the Super NES, though he had a friend with a Sega Genesis (I still contend that no one actually owned a Sega Genesis, but everyone knew someone who did. Same goes for Sega Game Gear). Years later, during the Nintendo 64/ Game Boy Color days, my friend Brad would tell me about Super Metroid and Mega Man X, and something called A Link to the Past, but I never felt compelled to break away from what I already had and go back to something older.

There were already people in line when I arrived at Target, but not too many. I put myself around number twenty, twenty-five in line. The rumor was that this Target would have at least 200 consoles. I felt an instant wave of relief that was followed immediately by a wave of frustration as it sunk in that I probably could have slept an extra two hours and still been OK. But I’m stubborn to certain degree so I stayed put. I sat on the cold curb in the dark and snuck a glance at what the guy on my left was doing- playing the newest Metroid remake on his 3DS. Samus Returns Again? Metroid: Back to Zebes? I genuinely didn’t know. I’ve been trying to get through the original Metroid on my NES Classic (yes, I did this last year too. Different Target, though) but life and dozens of other games have gotten in the way.

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This guy is a diehard, clearly. I think his hoodie has Nintendo characters on it and I wonder idly if I should wear what I like on my sleeve more literally. Another man arrives and sets up a folding chair on my right and I think why didn’t I bring a folding chair? or a blanket? or a goddamn cup of coffee and a donut? He breaks out a Nintendo Switch (with neon green Joycon- did he mod them? I thought the thing only came in grey, or the less dour red-and-blue) almost immediately and plays a little Mario Kart 8. I feel traitorous knowing my Vita is in my backpack. Maybe I ought to have brought my 2DS instead, shown my love of the Big N by playing Majora’s Mask or something. The guy with the Switch and the guy with the 3DS start talking to each other (I’ve got headphones in and I’m half-watching 30 Rock, I’m not really up to talking to people about video games this early and I think my goodness isn’t that a contradiction) so I listen in.

My friend Aaron had a Super Nintendo at his mom’s place. His parents were divorced and I didn’t sleep over at his place very often (we were friends, we would even go on to share a locker my freshman year of high school, but he wasn’t one of my best, BEST friends like Brad or Josh or Will. He was one of the kids slightly on the outside, who experienced a growth spurt early and watched Dragon Ball Z before it became cool and caught on with the rest of us. I think he’s married with kids, now) but occasionally we would hang out. I was always a little nervous hanging around with Aaron; I didn’t really know any divorced kids my age except Curtis and he had problems, or so we all thought. Aaron and I stayed up late playing Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country 2 and some platformer where the characters were cavemen and you fought dinosaurs. I loved riding Yoshi in Super Mario World but I didn’t understand how to make the cape work for me and I was impressed how easily Aaron could make Mario fly up to the top of the screen where the 1ups, extra coins and secret exits were.

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“Whatcha playin’?” “New Metroid.” “Oh yeah, Metroid 2- what’s it called again?” “Samus Returns” (I was close!). “How is it?” They talk for a few minutes about Metroid and the Switch and new games coming in the future (apparently there was a demo for something but it didn’t grab Switch Guy as much as he thought it would and I think they never do). There aren’t a lot of women among the 4am crowd, but couples and families start to trickle in around 5 or 6. They’re mostly dressed in sweatpants and hoodies, and practically everyone who’s lined up after I did has brought a folding chair. I’m envious and my butt is numb from the curb. By this point I’ve pulled out my Vita and am playing XCOM (as anyone who’s played XCOM knows, the game has a special property that makes hours go by in what feels like minutes. Scientists have no explanation for this phenomenon, just like there is no explanation for why my soldiers will consistently miss a shot with 94% accuracy). I think about engaging with my linemates but I’m feeling awkward and a little out of sync with my non-Nintendo stuff on display.

My best and fondest SNES memories are with Will. Neither of us had an SNES growing up but what Will had and I didn’t was knowledge about emulation and no inhibitions about getting things for free off the internet. I was a loyal Nintendo Power subscriber at this time and I had vague unease about doing this- it felt wrong, I had read somewhere that Napster and torrents were taking money from artists, filmmakers and the like. Once we started playing Sunset Riders and Kirby Super Star though, any notions I had of Nintendo being disappointed in me melted away. He would take the left side of the keyboard and I the right, and we’d make our way through as best we could before his mom, Kim, would make us play hide-and-go-seek outside.

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Around 7:15 the Target manager comes out flanked by two other employees (security?) and goes down the line, counting under his breath. Every ten or fifteen yards he’ll stop and explain to us how this will work; they’ll bring the line in, ten customers at a time, and take us straight to a register to be rung up. Line cutters will be punished by being kicked out of line and the manager says that he’s monitoring the line from inside the store. I think is that true?The line is excited, chatty. I notice the people in the front of the line and wonder if they’ve really been there all night, as someone has spread a rumor that they have. They must be tired. I wonder if they’re thinking just another hour. I wonder if they think will this be worth the wait? When the first guy finally enters Target (a couple minutes before 8am) and emerges with what we’ve all been waiting for, the line, or at least those of us close enough to see him go in and come back out, spontaneously burst into applause. He blushes and raises the system over his head as if to say I did it! You guys are all next!

3DS Guy and I have finally started talking. He asks my name, and I get his in return: Charlemagne. I think of course that’s his name. I think why did I just think that? I ask him what he wants to play first and he says Final Fantasy, or maybe Star Fox 2, once he unlocks it. I say I’m going for Super Mario Worldbecause how could I not? What I didn’t explain was that it somehow felt wrong to play something besides a Mario game the first time I turned the SNES Classic on. Like it wouldn’t be an authentic experience unless I started with the original launch title for the Super Nintendo. The logic was sound, at least to me.

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A few early morning shoppers have come into the parking lot and emerged from their cars looking confused. Is there a new iPhone or something? Did Black Friday happen early? An older man is standing by the entrance, not trying to cut in line or anything, just engaging with whoever will talk to him. “I can’t believe there would be this many people up so early for a video game!” I think that’s twenty-one games, buddy. Charlemagne and I are talking about how smart it was that they included two controllers with the SNES Classic- the NES Classic only came with one- when it comes time for us to go in Target. The whole in-store experience takes probably four minutes (however long it takes for the chip reader to do its thing- I feel like they’ve gotten faster now than they were) and somewhere in there Charlemagne and I are split up. I didn’t say good-bye to him or “have fun!” or even “good luck with Star Fox 2!” and I feel a small pang in my chest.

Instead of rushing home and firing up Super Mario World, I go back to my girlfriend’s place. I’m tired but I can’t stop smiling. She, a saint, asks how everything went and if she can see the SNES out of the package. I unpack it and marvel at how small it is, and click the buttons on one of the controllers. She’s reading the back of the box, and says something like “Now these look like games I would play!” I agree with her and feel excited about her wanting to dive into these virtual worlds. She surprises me by saying, “I’ve always wanted to play Zelda.” I say we can make that happen.

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When I finally arrive back to my place a little later in the afternoon, Super Mario World is indeed the first game I play. The menu music is an instant nostalgia blast, and I think is it nostalgia if I didn’t play it at the time it came out? Is nostalgia just that syrupy feeling in my chest that reminds me of family and fifth grade and Ovaltine and sleepovers? Do I go left or right from Yoshi’s house? I make it through the World 1–1. I take a nap and instead of turning the system back on, I get ready for work. There is plenty of time.