The 32-bit generation of the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo is widely considered to be the pinnacle of gaming. But during that era, most of the current editors of major gaming websites were twelve. When I was twelve, the Nintendo 64 was king, and I believe that no graphical monstrosity or million-dollar production could ever top the masterpieces that came out of that unassuming curved black box. To me, the N64 was and is perfection.
Kids in the sixties found heroes in Spiderman, Batman, and the Hulk. I found mine in Link. My generation came of age with the strapping fairy boy from “Legend of Zelda,” and we dreamt that we too could take the master sword from its pedestal and be transformed from children into Heroes of Time. We cowered before the terrible Ganondorf rearing his horse in the pounding rain, and we gasped when we found the bustling market town a wasteland crawling with tall, leathery zombies. When I was twelve, the thousand-year-old chants that echoed through my cavernous synagogue bored me, but in the Temple of Time, I was a believer.
The N64 was the last console system to use cartridges. Nintendo seemed unwilling to accept that CDs, with their superior storage capacity, were the way of the future. Even when Nintendo made its first concession to the mainstream with the Gamecube, it did so with inexplicably tiny discs. Cartridges, unlike flimsy CDs that stack nine to an inch, have heft to them. “Where’s the game?” you might ask. The cartridge answers, “It’s right here.” When the N64 first came out, we thought that the reason the cartridges were heavier than the old Genesis ones was because the games were that much more awesome.
The N64 came from a pre-iPod school of design. The aesthetics were less conscious and the curves less slick than those of the generations of sexier electronics that would follow. It was just a rounded, matte-black square with a slight bump in the front. It was a throne for the game, which would protrude triumphant and awkward from the slot in the top. The controllers came in five garish colors, and three-pointed limbs extended from their bodies to give the player something to hold onto. After a while, the joystick would begin to wear away at its cradle, and you’d have to blow the scrapings out to use it. Of course, the only thing that really mattered about the controllers was that there were four of them.
I’m not saying that the N64 was the reason I got friends, but before fourth grade I didn’t really have any friends, and the N64 came out in fourth grade. You couldn’t play four-player “Goldeneye” with someone and not be friends. All of a sudden, I felt I was friends with every kid my age in the country. Everybody knew that playing as Oddjob or Moonraker Soldier 2 was cheating, because they were small targets. Everybody knew that strafing was faster than normal walking. Everybody knew that if you hit A and B at the same time after throwing a remote mine, it would detonate instantly. Everybody knew a kid who liked to play proxies on Temple. He was a son of a bitch.
My game was “Goldeneye.” If we were in Max’s basement, we’d play “Mario Kart,” and I’d lag behind in time trials. In Resio’s basement we’d play “Smash Bros.,” and I’d bow before Ben’s savage Jigglypuff. In Conor’s basement we’d play “Mario Tennis,” and I’d flail at Boo’s wicked slice. But with automatics in Caverns, power weapons in Facility, or, God help us, pistols in Stacks, I was invincible. I wasn’t always the most gracious winner, but I didn’t need to be liked. I was feared.
At my tenth birthday, we stayed up all night playing “Diddy Kong Racing.” In the morning, we wandered outside bleary-eyed and ran a victory lap around our school, which was across the street from my house. But not all my memories of the N64 are nice. I remember when Conor accidentally erased my “Banjo-Kazooie” game right as I was at Gruntilda. He bought me a Dr. Strangepork sandwich from Papa Charlie’s to try and make up. It didn’t make up. Max came over to my house every fucking day in sixth grade to play “Rogue Squadron,” as if my N64 was some cheap whore that could be rented for a quick and dirty ride in an X-wing. I still shake thinking of Jolly Roger Bay in “Super Mario 64,” where you had to get the star from the eel’s tail. I got 119 of 120 stars in Mario, but the vision of that last tantalizing yellow star just out of my grasp still wakes me up at night.
The world of Mario, Bowser, Link, and Zelda has faded. It was never without its challengers. In 16-bits, the clean, meticulous Mario was already under attack by a flashy, Gen-X hedgehog named Sonic. Even during the glory days of the N64, audiences were being stolen away by teen and mature-rated games like “Metal Gear Solid” and “Resident Evil.” The orchestral arrangements that underscored the dark visage of Solid Snake began to make the beeps that accompanied an Italian plumber jumping on turtles sound a little silly. By the time Nintendo came out with the Gamecube, the biggest players in the videogame world were the savage crime sandbox “Grand Theft Auto” and the slick brawny shooter “Halo: Combat Evolved.” A gaming company from the start, Nintendo is now being muscled by names like Microsoft and Sony.
But videogames don’t die. An N64 in 2007 can work just as well as it did in 1998. The games are as good as they ever were — their elegant simplicity and painstaking refinement make the showy graphics of games on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 look futile. But “Smash Bros.” in Resio’s basement… that’s a world that won’t fit inside a cartridge. One night, freshman year of college, my roommate Rudnick and I came back drunk and angry after a party and played “Diddy Kong Racing” until dawn, nine years and a bottle of Southern Comfort away from the chilly February night of my tenth birthday. Last year, I learned to pick the tune of Zelda’s Lullaby on my mandolin. The first three notes bring me back to a boat on a black river in the Shadow Temple. Even in a dark place, the melody feels safe.