I grew up in Iowa where the summers are too hot, the winters too cold, the springs too rainy, and the falls too sad. Most weekends, my brother and I would stay inside. We’d rent a game like Rygar or Ghosts ‘N Goblins from Movies2Go or Sounds Easy and hunker down in our upstairs bivouac for what we hoped would be an epic but ultimately victorious campaign against the game designers at Capcom and SEGA. Custom dictated that I play first because I sucked. My spatial relations were cockeyed and my mind-thumb coordination was always on the fritz. I yelled at the controller, groaned, threw things.
And then, it would be my brother’s turn. He’d knuckle his glasses up on his nose, settle in cross-legged on the turquoise carpet, and then rip through whatever traps the numbnuts at Konami thought could stop him. Fools. He had actual physical trophies from Super Mario tournaments where the video store would roll out a big TV and pit scary college-aged shut-ins against nine-year olds with bowl cuts. He was truly a marvel, and he was older, so I was always sort of amazed that he would tolerate playing with me, especially for hours and hours like we did. Now, thinking about the zoned out look on his face, I wonder if he even realized I was there. But then, not knowing better, I tried to prove my worth by providing color commentary on the game’s design, character development, plot. I did the voices. I sang. I was really into Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Keith Olbermann-era SportsCenter. It must not have been terrible for him, and maybe in my small way I helped him concentrate on destroying bosses at an astonishing rate.
Now, my brother is a lawyer in Washington D.C., and I work at Greenpeace, write novels, impersonate the Chamber of Commerce with the Yes Men, write poems, etc. Makes sense, right? My brother and I are still close, but we hadn’t actually played a videogame together in decades. So, I thought it might be fun to drive over to Bethesda, Maryland and see what was new on the Wii U.
I realized as I settled into the basement sofa that I was probably a marketing segmentation for somebody over at Nintendo—nostalgic 34-year-old worried about climate change, bills, wife, kids, time—which is why the Wii Store offered me the chance to download all the arcade “classics”, as well as the newest iteration of Super Mario Bros. Just like old times! Except downloading! And a controller the size of a toaster!
The thing about the Wii, and even I know this, is that it is not cool. It’s the console for housewives, really, and maybe head-injury patients. If I really wanted to dive into the contemporary-gaming world, I’d have some sort of chopped and screwed Xbox where I could play some version of Leisure Suit Larry in which the controller-buttons were embedded in a drug mule. I mean, dude, I GET it. But I felt like I needed the training wheels, and the guys I work with who talk about Xbox actually kind of scare me. I didn’t want to be traumatized, I wanted to have fun. So I fucked around with New Super Mario Bros. U for a while, which was sort of cool, though mostly exactly like how I remembered the old games. The newest version reminded me most of Super Mario Bros. 3, when I felt like the franchise kind of went off the rails. The raccoon-tail thing just seemed silly to me, so when my brother came down after putting his oldest daughter to bed he suggested we move on to BitRip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, a game that looked like like Pitfall on PEDs and sounded like a Jamiroquai song. It was just a little Kokopelli-looking guy running really fast horizontally through game screens. I loved it. My sister-in-law came down and settled into the couch, watched for a few minutes, and then said, “Guys, this game is really lame. It’s like an app.” This was true, but I had the old-time fever. My wrist started feeling slightly numb and a callous developed on my thumb. The music was strangely compelling, and despite the fact that nothing really happened in the game and the graphics got redundant quickly, we started giggling. My brother started doing some play-by-play, the type of thing that is only funny in the moment, but in that moment is nearly the funniest, most spot-on thing anyone has ever said. Just a deadpan, “Oops,” when my guy didn’t jump when I TOLD HIM TO had us doubled over. My sister-in-law said, laughing, “This is so stupid! Why is it fun?”
Travis Nichols is the author of two collections of poetry, Iowa (Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (Copper Canyon Press), as well as two novels, Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder and The More You Ignore Me (Coffee House Press). He lives in Takoma Park, Maryland and is a media officer at Greenpeace.