To provide context in this story, at the time of writing this piece in January 2021, I have just turned 33 years of age, born in January 1988. I grew up in England - just south of London to be precise. I grew up (as did the video game industry) in the 90s and early 00s. To this day, my thumbs are arthritic from all the video gaming I did in my childhood. Every morning, I have to ‘click’ the joints in the middle of my thumbs back into place. However, I can honestly say that it was all worth it (and is more of an issue for future Steve to worry about).
I’ll begin with a whoppingly obvious observation. One of the main differences between video gaming in my childhood and video gaming now is the advent of the internet and, of course, every element of life has been changed or influenced by this in some way or another. People will point out the internet existed in the 90s, and yes it did, but it wasn’t readily available and no ‘normal’ household had any internet access at the time. The other thing to bear in mind when reading this was that back then, the general public was less privy to how and when games were released around the world. Being in Europe, we were in the ‘PAL’ region, and the ‘PAL’ region was often the last place on the face of the earth to see a release of a video game. Sometimes, a game would be released here months or even a year after it had been released in other parts of the world; or with some games, they wouldn’t even be released here at all! This is very different now where most games have a ‘worldwide’ release on the same day. In lieu of the internet, the only way I would get up to speed with video game releases was via magazines. I was an avid buyer of the Official Nintendo Magazine and also Gamesmaster (the magazine not the TV show). More on this later.
My first exposure to video games occurred in the early 90s. Probably around 1992/1993, we as a family/household had procured a Nintendo Game Boy and a Sega Megadrive (or Sega Genesis to American readers). I can’t remember which one we got first, but I do remember playing them with my older sister Hayley cross-legged on the living room floor (in the case with the Megadrive) or playing with the Game Boy on the sofa or on family holidays. One particular memory was taking the Game Boy on a holiday to north Wales and dropping it at the top of the stairs and seeing it bounce on the solid stone staircase stair-by-stair down to the hall. My sister and I were horrified, however upon rushing to the Game Boy, we discovered it was fine! Just a couple of scratches. The Game Boy is notoriously bullet proof and I can attest to that!
However at the time, our game collection for the Game Boy was vanilla at best, or ‘basic bitch’ as the kids would call it these days. All we had was Tetris, Asteroids and Super Mario Land. Super Mario Land was certainly the most expansive of the three in terms of gameplay but at that age, I struggled to get very far in the game at all. My sister, being four years older than me, was that much more dextrous and intelligent to get further in said game, and I would often look over her shoulder and watch her play and marvel at how far in the game she could get, and be angry that I couldn’t do the same.
In 1994, the situation with our Game Boy collection changed. A guy called Dean moved into our road, about four doors up, and he also had a Game Boy. Being of a similar age (Dean was also born in 1988), we became friends and we ended up becoming best friends which we still are to this day (aww). Dean and I were each other’s best men when we both got married in 2020. Dean’s Game Boy game collection, compared to mine at least, seemed a lot more exciting and diverse. Though looking back, maybe it was an element of the ‘grass is always greener’. Games he had that spring to mind were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan and a game called Sneaky Snakes which was developed by Rare and was a little known sequel to the better known Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll. There was also one other game he had; The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. We would swap games and looking back, I have no idea how I managed to negotiate swapping Tetris for Link’s Awakening, and even more so I have no idea how we became best friends after that!
Link’s Awakening, to my sister and I as kids aged 10 and six respectively, was MINDBLOWING. And I mean that. The level of intricacy in the game and the size of the world was incredible compared to what we had been exposed to previously. Having recently bought and played the Link’s Awakening remake on Nintendo Switch, it really made it clear to me how the experience and excitement of gaming correlates to your age. You compare me playing Link’s Awakening on the Game Boy as a six year old and honestly believing or feeling that the game world had no physical boundaries, compared to playing what is effectively the same game 25 years later, and thinking, ‘Wow this is pretty small’. This sense of scale which changes and reduces as you get older is one of the main reasons why video gaming as a kid is just so much better.
Anyway, one other strand to this story is that my family was going through a bit of turmoil at this time in the mid-90s and I moved house with my mum around this time. Upon arriving in my new home, we left all of my toys behind and there was nothing at all there for me to entertain myself. I soon became bored. Very bored. A common way we spent our Sundays back then was going to car boot sales (basically a flea market or swap meet to Americans). There used to be one in the car park of St Helier Hospital in Carshalton. While the hospital is still there, the car park is now a multi-storey car park, but at the time it was a field of rubble that got taken over by a car boot sale every Sunday. My mum took me there one Sunday shortly after moving with the aim for finding me a video game console to play.
I have to emphasise my previous statement at this point regarding the internet or lack thereof; I had no way of finding out how many games there were in a series. And at this point of my story (circa 1995), it was just before I had started reading video game magazines. These days of course, if you played a new game that you enjoyed, you would immediately check it out on Google or Wikipedia and you could find exactly how many games there had been in the series. So as far as Link’s Awakening is concerned, I just thought it was a standalone game. Little did I know there had been three games previous to this one in the series and of course, Zelda games are generally not numbered unlike other game series (apart from Zelda 2 on the NES). I had no idea that the game I had been playing was effectively Zelda 4.
Back to the car boot sale at St Helier Hospital; we had settled on buying me a Super Nintendo. I was vaguely aware that it was made by the same company who made the Game Boy, but didn’t really know much else. The SNES we picked up was one of those bundles that originally came packaged with Street Fighter 2 Turbo. I have never really got into fighting games, apart from a brief obsession with Dead or Alive games when I was about 14 for obvious reasons. Therefore, and not to sound like a spoiled brat, I was a little disappointed with just the one game. Mum generously let me pick one other game. So I stood there and picked my way through the hundreds of SNES games that were crammed into cardboard boxes – spines facing up. What happened next is what I can honestly describe as one of the most exciting moments of my life. There, staring up at me, was a logo/font style that I instantly recognised… Zelda! The distinctive sword and shield logo and the big ‘Z’. It was Zelda, but on a different console. I instantly picked it as my second game. I remember it didn’t come with the box or the instruction manual but it did come with a Hyrule map that folded out to about an A3 size. This added to the wonder and excitement as on the car journey home, I unfurled the map and again became mind boggled at the sheer size of it.
I remember getting home and firing up the SNES on the small TV we had in the kitchen (the only other TV in the house was in the living room for the adults). For those familiar with the beginning of A Link to the Past, you start in a very stormy Hyrule trying to find a way to sneak into Hyrule Castle. As with most Zelda games, you start with no weapons or equipment and to get into the castle, you have to lift up a bush revealing a hole beneath, seeing as you can’t slash the bush (being swordless). It was an early and very simple puzzle in the game (bearing in mind I was about 7) but I was hooked. Over the coming weeks and months, I played my way through A Link to the Past. My sister by now had started to move on to other interests (like Boyzone), so it was left to me to find my way through. I was starting to get a bit better at games as I got older too. I enjoyed this newfound responsibility and playing A Link to the Past, solving all the puzzles as you go, was so rewarding to me.
In the following years (about 1996 through 1998), I was getting more and more into my gaming and would buy the aforementioned magazines on a monthly basis with my pocket money. This meant that when it came round to the fifth game in the series, Ocarina of Time, there were no surprises or happenstance. I pored over any articles mentioning it and I was beyond excited for the release. When I got my SNES in the mid 90s, it was still the ‘current’ Nintendo console, albeit on its last legs. You could still buy new SNES games in the shops then; I remember buying Super Mario Bros. 2: Yoshi’s Island for example in Tesco (kind of like the UK Walmart) in its Nintendo cellophane wrapping. The PlayStation had come out by this time but I didn’t have one. As a family, we were financially comfortable but by no means wealthy enough to keep buying consoles and games. Most of the games that I bought (Yoshi’s Island aside) were second hand. By the time of Ocarina of Time’s release, I had played Super Mario World and Super Metroid which are both still in my top ten video games of all time. So by this time, I was a Nintendo fanboy, but my one true love remained as Zelda.
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