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My uncle's secret SNES is about to become a family heirloom

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

I miss Uncle Bob. He was a good man, a world traveller and one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. His loss is still felt at every family gathering.

Only in the past year or so have my in-laws found the strength to go through his things and finish settling his estate. It's hard work. Mostly paperwork, but also some legitimate heavy lifting and going through boxes.

Being the family’s designated techie, I have been charged with evaluating several categories of stuff to be thrown out. One box, carefully labeled as containing "the Chalice, organ, teddy bears and rubber rafts" was, thankfully, only filled with antique board games. Another, though was a real treasure.

There, still in a box from Funcoland, was this beautiful 89 year-old man’s Super Nintendo.

The ghosts of gaming

No one had ever seen Bob play a video game, nor remembered him talking about them. What was a WWII veteran doing with a secret SNES? It may be impossible to know now but, since no one else wanted it, the system is now mine.

Or at least, it will be until Christmas morning. Then it’s going to sit under the tree. Uncle Bob’s SNES will be my daughter’s first console.

What on was this 89 year-old WWII veteran doing with a secret SNES?

It makes sense to me, especially after reading Andy Baio’s piece on playing games with his son. Why not start my daughter here, in the same generation where I began? Let’s get this kid a good, classical games education.

I guess playing 90s platformers for fun is the new taking Latin in high school.

But it makes so much sense to start a 4 year-old out here. Three dimensions are just too much for her at this point, if only because her hands don’t quite work two thumbsticks very well at the same time.

And she'll need someone to play with, won't she? As a Sega kid, I didn’t have a SNES growing up. I don’t… how you say?… play the Marios well?

And so we can expand our range together. Maybe next year I’ll head into my parents’ basement and dig out the old Intellivision, and then we can get properly old-school. But this will work for now.

intellivision MobyGames

I needed games though, and instead of clicking buttons on Amazon I wanted to feel just a little bit nostalgic. So I Googled used games stores in Chicago, and came across a little gem called People Play Games.

Buying in person

Just a few blocks down from Wrigley Field is a store that looks like the old games section from my local Family Video mixed with a Babbages. One entire wall is Neo Geo games, another devoted to classic Atari. Pristine copies of He-Man for the Intellivision sit inches away from a working demo station of a Sega Saturn. Across the room is a pile of boxed Sega accessories, all in working order.

I had to pick up a Menacer and lock the buttstock on, just once. For old time’s sake.

While my visit was somewhat less breathless, it was still pretty great. After a placid conversation with the knowledgeable staff, I had a copy of Donkey Kong Country and a promise of a phone call the next time Super Mario Brothers came back in stock. And thanks to them, my Christmas will be a little brighter for it.

And so will my daughter’s.

So with us all trapped here in the waning moments of shopping season, maybe think of heading down into your basement or up into your attic instead of over to the mall. Emulators work fine and all, but there’s nothing quite like opening up that box, plugging in those cables and blowing off those cartridge contacts for the first time. It’s magic, and I’m looking forward to sharing it.

Heck, maybe do a factory reset on your PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 and pass it on to the next generation. It will be worth it.

Happy holidays, everyone. Thanks, People Play Games. And thanks, Uncle Bob.

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