Hyper Mode: Epitaph for a Game Boy

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It’s two days before Christmas, I’m ten years old, and a videogame has just broken my heart for the first time. It’s called Link’s Awakening, and it might be the first game with a “real story” that I’ve ever played.

It’s also the first Zelda game I ever played, although I didn’t do it without help. Of course, I had no access to internet, no friends, and no idea that Nintendo Power existed (if you’re one of those gamed-since-I-emerged-from-the-womb types, just know that my childhood was “sheltered”). But I had an older sister who could beat all of my games backwards and sideways, a cousin with a brain for puzzles, and an entire Christmas vacation to finally find out what the heck this “Wind Fish” thing that everybody kept talking about would turn out to be.

I did have a bad feeling that the entirety of Link’s Awakening would turn out to be a dream. It occurred to me because Marin all but says that to you (well, to Link), and so do a handful of other characters. But they all had to be wrong, had to be mistaken—Nintendo wouldn’t make me play this entire game and then tell me that all of it hadn’t been real, would they? They would never do that to anyone…would they?

With a title like Link’s Awakening, I guess I should have known. The game should really be called Link’s Dreamland, but, uh, I guess Nintendo was saving that title for a different game. I still hold up the end of Link’s Awakening as the most heart-wrenching, screw-you twist that a game ever pulled on me, even though everybody else saw the “twist” coming two billion miles away. I didn’t know the Zelda canon, so for me, Link’s dream felt—and still feels—more real to me than the “real” Hyrule. (I still call Malon “Marin” by accident, sometimes.)

There is no Princess Zelda in Link’s Awakening, by the way. (I had assumed the owl’s name was Zelda, since the owl was on the box, plus the owl seemed to be in charge of all the legend-related exposition delivered.) As far as I was concerned, Link’s Awakening was a heart-breaking action/romance about Link meeting his literal dream girl and then losing her. Without the rest of the context provided by the other Zelda games, Link’s Awakening feels like an absurdist tragedy about the meaninglessness of our actions, designed to destroy the hearts of children.

When I first found the game’s second dungeon—this took me goodness-knows-how-long to get to in the first place—I accidentally progressed through the locked rooms in the wrong order and barred myself from getting the Power Bracelet. I couldn’t advance in the game without that bracelet, though. I wandered around the game for months, not understanding what I had done, where the missing Small Key for that locked room had disappeared to, never knowing how to proceed or that I even needed a bracelet at all. Eventually, my cousin told me I’d have to start the whole game over again to get the bracelet I needed. I almost didn’t believe him. I kept wandering around in my version of the game for a while longer before finally giving in and starting a new game.

That old save file is still on my cartridge. Link is still in a coma, somewhere, never to be awoken.

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Television was “not done” in my household, and without friends—due to my own crippling shyness—I had no way to know which videogames to buy. I based my selections entirely on what the front of the box looked like, what the back of the box told me, and what my Mom okayed. This complex set of interlocking factors led to a specific and miniscule gaming catalogue that did not look particularly “hardcore” until I went to college and began to buy my own games with my own money. I had my Mario, and Kirby, Donkey Kong, Zelda—the usual family-friendly suspects.

At age 12, I began watching some television on the sly. I also got Pokémon Red that same year. Every day, after school, I had from twenty minutes to an hour between when I got off the bus to when my Mom got home. I spent this time inhaling cookies and ice cream as fast as possible while watching whatever was on television. When I saw my Mom’s car pull in, I’d turn off the TV before she got to the front door. TV wasn’t prohibited, per se, but it wasn’t respected, either, and I always wanted my Mom to think I was doing something smart, like reading a book. But actually, I was watching Pokémon. Sorry, Mom.

It wasn’t cool to watch Pokémon at age 12, and it was roughly one trillion times less cool to play Pokémon on a Game Boy. At age 12, I was supposed to be mimicking teenagers, not kids who were younger than me. Instead of growing up too fast, I was rushing home to watch a cartoon show that was meant for kids five years my junior. I loved Pokémon—the game, and the show—with intense, shameful passion. I would sing the theme song to myself in my empty kitchen. I would “name that Pokémon” at the end of every episode. And, damn it, I would meet my rival Gary Oak in epic combat, and I would win, and he would eat shit.

The more logical reason that I watched Pokémon was because absolutely nothing else was on television between the time that I got home from school and my Mom got home from work. If anything “cool” had aired during that time, like The Simpsons or South Park or whatever, then maybe I would have been popular at school.

Just kidding. I was doomed.

I remember very little about playing Pokémon other than that I felt very disappointed that the differences between Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue were negligible. What a waste of asking for two videogames, I had thought! Also, I wasted my Masterball on a Ditto because the Ditto just seemed so damn cool that I couldn’t even imagine a cooler Pokémon ever showing up.

My love of Pokémon eventually led to me finally making another friend my age who played videogames and who wasn’t a genetic relation. My new friend Ryan idolized James from Team Rocket and had also wasted his Masterball on a Ditto (how many people made this mistake? It can’t have been just us). We’re still friends. We’re still “too old” to be into Pokémon. We are also, thank goodness, too old to care about that anymore.

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My final, and most recent, Game Boy memory happened at age 15, shortly after the September 11th attacks. I remember being selected for a random search at the airport—you know, back when the searches really were random, as opposed to now, when the searches are “random” in name alone. A tall, muscled man took apart the contents of my painstakingly packed, Game Boy-specialized miniature messenger bag, investigating every pocket, scanning every cartridge, and opening up the backs of both of my Game Boys’ battery sliders (I had a Game Boy Color as well, by then). I hung back, my face flushed in shame, until each piece of hardware littered the long table. Satisfied, the man gave me a thin-lipped smile and walked away, leaving me to pack it all back up again.

I had never realized how irritating my Game Boy and all of its accoutrements were until I was packing them all up on that table next to the plane’s docking bay. My parents stood by and watched. Irritated passengers squeezed past, staring. The damn thing had so many little bits and pieces—so many tiny crappy plastic parts that could be lost, or broken, or crushed accidentally by a wheeled-suitcase. Why did I even like this thing? Why on earth had I brought this with me on a plane?! By the time the parts were all packed, I was too angry to take them out on the plane ride. I don’t remember if I ever did take them out again after that day.

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It’s hard, even now, to justify why I loved my Game Boy so damn much. That tiny, awful, eye-aching screen. The specialized “backpack” itself, which couldn’t carry quite enough games and which I over-stuffed regardless, straining its zipper beyond repair. The games themselves, many of which were sad oversimplifications of “real” games that other people were playing on “real” consoles.

By the time I was 15, I knew about the rest of the gaming world, all of which had been completely opaque and unknowable to me as a child, but which had been ever-so-slowly emerging as I got older, made a handful of friends, and explored the delights of internet access.

As an elementary school kid, though, I didn’t even understand that the Zelda and Donkey Kong and Mario games everybody else talked about at school were totally different than the ones I played on my Game Boy. As far as I was concerned, they were the same games, except the other kids played their versions on televisions. My Game Boy was my own tiny television, the only television that I was encouraged to look at for hours on end, since my parents figured gaming might help my hand-eye coordination (I was awful at sports—are you surprised?).

I was impressed beyond belief by every ounce of entertainment the Game Boy provided. I also had nothing to compare it to. Would it have held up, if I had?

My parents also told me that dried figs were chocolate, and I had no idea they had lied until I finally tasted real chocolate. Up until that moment, I thought, “yeah, chocolate is pretty good!”

The Game Boy is still pretty good.

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My original Game Boy doesn’t turn on anymore. I left the batteries in the back for about a decade—probably longer—and the battery acid corroded the insides. I think I thought, back then, that I wouldn’t need to take the batteries out because I was planning to pick it back up at any time. Or maybe I just forgot. The Game Boy is dead. Or it sleeps.

Either way, I’m not throwing it out. It’s already all packed up in its little backpack. May as well keep it in there.

Hyper Mode is an occasional column by Paste’s assistant games editor Maddy Myers. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.

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