Let us give thanks for all that is good in the world. Especially video games. What would we do without them? Where were you when you first discovered this portal to pleasure, this escape to ecstasy? We asked Polygon staffers to travel back to their own particular moment of revelation. Feel free to share your story in the comments.
I’m not sure how old I was when I first held a Nintendo 64 controller.
We were standing in a Toys R Us, the games section, my sister and me. We’d always flocked to it, despite having no games and no consoles. But we had interest, and our eyes were huge as we stared up at a display that seemed to have the biggest TV ever created. I grasped the N64 controller underneath it knowingly, left thumb on the joystick, right thumb on the A button. We were going to make this adorable, dumb-looking bear run around, just like the people who were playing before us.
What would we do without video games?
I don’t remember the level of Banjo-Kazooie we played, or for how long we lasted. Whatever we did in that platformer — which must have been a few years old by the time I got to trying it — was enough to sell me on the N64 for good. It did more than that: It sold me on video games, period.
"Look at this big dumb bear in shorts!" my sister and I exclaimed. "He’s running! He’s jumping! He has a bird in his backpack! And everything he does is because I told him to do it!"
Maybe Banjo-Kazooie wasn’t a perfect game in the grand scheme of things, but this was a perfect moment and it was a long time coming.
Look at this big dumb bear in shorts.
I’d been obsessed with games for a long time, obsessed with Pokémon and Zelda and Mario characters and the like. But I’d rarely had the opportunity to play one of their games, or any game at all. A toy store demo of Banjo-Kazooie was enough to convince me that it was time for that to change, after years of watching cousins play PlayStation while I sat idly, dreaming about owning my own console one day.
I didn’t actually get my Nintendo 64 until it was on its very last legs, but Banjo-Kazooie was the first game I picked up. Turns out I … didn’t really love it! But that’s OK: It was my entry point into the rest of my life, and that’s important enough.
The first game I ever played was The Lion King on Sega Genesis. I can't really tell you how old I was, but old enough to say in less explicit language, "HOLY SHIT, WHAT IS THAT?"
It was bright. It was colorful. My small child brain couldn't comprehend it — all I knew was that I wanted to touch it. Of course, it wasn't mine (and I never went on to own a Sega Genesis) and of course it was my cousin's. But that didn't stop me.
I don't have an exact memory of how far I progressed, but I do remember the impossible giraffe level. Even as an adult — and speaking to other adults — I can still conclude that level was way too much, especially for children. Maybe I'll revisit it some day. Until then, I'll keep reminiscing about crouching on the lower half of a bunk bed, gripping a beautiful piece of clunky plastic until it almost cracked.
The first game I ever played — I don't remember the particular system — was Asteroids. I was a really young kid. My cousins had a console in their house. They let me try it.
I had never seen anything like it before. It felt like I was in space, fighting for my life. Those lines and simple interactions felt huge.
But just as important to me was the fact that this was an advanced piece of technology, and that they left me alone with it. I was able to play as much as I wanted. It was wonderful, and a bit awe-inspiring to me at the time.
This computer was down there in the basement, and it was designed for playing games. All that power, crammed into a toy. It felt like a window into my imagination, and it impressed upon me the kind of wonderful sense of whimsy that the human race exhibits. All that science, all that progress, crammed into a box that connected to the TV just so someone could create dreams for me to play.
I never looked back.
My very first console was the Intellivision, an unholy amalgam of coiled rubber cabling and wood grain. The Hall family Intellivision was trotted out every year around the holidays. For a good decade at least before my brother and I got our Sega Genesis, there were always one or two new games under the tree for our old, reliable Intellivision.
I’m positive that had something to do with the collapse of the gaming industry in the mid-’80s and my father’s ability to stock up on discount cartridges looted from the neighborhood Toys R Us. which he then doled out over the course of said decade. But I digress.
The game that I spent the most time with, the game that I remember playing the most, was called Night Stalker. And, like just about everything else made for the Intellivision, it made almost no sense.
You start each game inside your cell, which sits in the center of the map. It’s the only place in the game where you’re actually safe. Outside your cell, the spider, the various bats and the crazy-ass robots all patrol the hallways at various speeds.
The spider moves slowly, carefully ghosting your movements through walls. It’s easy to avoid, which is good since when you trip over it you’re dead. The bats are more of an annoyance. When you stumble into them, they put you to sleep for a few seconds.
But holy smokes, those robots were merciless.
After a few rounds you can end up with two or three different robots, all chasing you around at different speeds. It eventually becomes a kind of dance, where you have to plan your routes ahead of time by anticipating their movements, their locations and their speeds.
The Intellivision was a good system, but those controllers ... what were they thinking?
At the top of each was a numeric touchpad. It was clever in that you could slide a button map, in the form of a thin plastic sheet, over that pad for each game. At the bottom of the controller was a disk. We had an aftermarket joystick stuck to one, and left the other vanilla. Neither were ideal.
The real killers were the triggers. There were four of them, two on each side of the controller. They were murder on your fingers and wrists.
Listening to the sounds of Night Stalker, I’m immediately brought back to that living room. I can remember the brown shag carpeting underneath me, feel the chill still coming off the fake tree, fresh in from the garage. More than anything, though, I remember how much it hurt, physically hurt, to play with that damn controller for so many hours at a time.
I loved Night Stalker anyway.
Having seen the explosive popularity of Pokémon Go among people my age, I know my earliest gaming memory is likely one many people share: the day I was introduced to Pokémon.
Typically, my brothers and sisters and I would wait in the basement on Christmas morning before opening the presents Santa had left us under the tree. But this year, my older brother was given a gift early and shared it with me in the basement while we waited. It was the Prima strategy guide for Pokémon Red and Blue.
This was the first time I’d ever heard of Pokémon.
We pored over the pictures and stats and maps, learning all about evolutions and TMs before we ever set hand on the game. I decided then that Charmander would be my starter because I wanted the Charizard that was on the strategy guide’s cover.
Later that morning we opened copies of Red and Blue, as well as another Game Boy so my brother and I could trade and battle each other. I immediately chose Charmander; my brother picked Squirtle.
I found out later that Mom had stood outside Target for hours in order to make sure her sons had "Pokey-man" on Christmas. My brother and I started playing. A rivalry soon developed. In typical older brother fashion, he picked the water-type counter to my fire-type.
Mom stood outside Target for hours.
We agreed to battle each other every time we defeated a gym. He won the first three matches easily. But then I got stuck in Rock Tunnel without Flash. While I wandered around aimlessly, I unintentionally began to XP grind my Charmeleon. Before I finally escaped Rock Tunnel, I had an unruly level 40 Charizard.
When my brother and I next faced off, I had the pleasure of finally defeating his Blastoise with a single Slash attack. It’s a video game memory I’ll never forget. Thanks, bro!
My memory holds a blur of green lines on a black background, a dark screen in a dark room, a sense of claustrophobia, surrounded as we were by the hum of machines.
I must have been about 7 years old. My friends and I had been on an evening swimming trip to the indoor municipal pool in Luton. I probably ordered a packet of pickled onion flavored Monster Munch from the pool's snack dispensing machine, still something of a technical marvel, the way its spindles and coils wound their way around our favorite treats.
My friend Clem's father was driving us. He was a tall, serious man. Most of our dads worked in factories. He worked in an office.
He asked us all if we would we like to come to his office and see a real computer? We agreed this would be marvelous. I had previously only seen computers on television, mostly Doctor Who.
The computer wanted us to tell it what to do.
We trooped up the stairs, past the stale-smelling reception area and into a room that was actually called 'The Computer Room.' Three sides of the room were occupied by banks of machines. You're probably thinking about those things with whirling reels, like the 1950s. But these were more like an array of photo copiers. There was a chair, a keyboard and a screen.
Clem's dad sat in the chair and switched on the computer. Words appeared on the screen. This in itself was a revelation. I lived in a world where the sound of typewriters and the smell of Tipp-Ex were commonplace.
The words on screen were about as un-office-like as you can imagine. Something about a knight, dungeons, monsters. The text posed a question; it requested direction. A blinking cursor waited. The computer wanted us to tell it what to do. We looked at one another.
Whether it was "Go North" or whatever, I don't recall. I have no idea what the game was called. It's not important.
All of us boys were familiar with Star Trek and the concept of computers. They were something yet to come, like robots and space tourism. Yet here we were, in the presence of the future.
Computers weren't merely about calculating incomprehensible math problems or sending rockets to the moon. They were capable of creating magical stories and placing us inside those stories. The 1970s was an age of wonders. It was impossible for us to guess what might come next.
I was born in 1987, into a home that was already full of NES classics like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. My family absolutely loved playing those games.
But the first time I can remember a game being important to me — beyond just being a shared family hobby — was Final Fantasy 4 (FF2 in the States) for SNES. I was 4 when that game came out, and played it constantly whenever the console was free. That game taught me a fondness of RPGs that has persisted my entire life, and also taught me to, you know, read.
My first memory of playing a video game also includes the first time I committed a crime. Hear me out.
When I was 8 years old, Pokémon Blue was released for the Game Boy. My parents weren't big believers in letting their kids have expensive electronics that we would inevitably leave behind at a McDonald's, or break in frustration. I remember my older sister, who was 18 at the time, had a Game Boy, but I was barely allowed to look at it, let alone touch it.
Luckily for me, however, my parents also worked late and I had to go to a local after-school program to chow down some stale crackers and play with other kids until they picked me up. Some of these kids were 12 or 13, and as such, were given far cooler toys and electronics — like the Game Boy.
There was a boy who was playing Pokémon. I remember standing over his shoulder as obnoxiously as I could as an 8-year-old, watching battles occur on the tiny screen. I was captivated and I knew right there and then I needed it in my life.
I waited until he got bored of the game and casually tossed it aside, going to play with some other kids. I grabbed the Game Boy, hid it under my jacket, and carried on with my day like nothing had happened.
Unfortunately, my child logic ran out pretty quick when he returned to his original spot to continue playing and noticed it was missing. He started crying, and while I felt really bad, I did not want to give up the chance to have my own Game Boy and Pokémon Blue, so I said nothing.
I handed it back, tears streaming down my face.
Along with the teachers minding the after-school program, we all searched for it until my guilty conscience finally became too much and I handed it back, tears streaming down my face. Upon finding out what I had done, my parents refused to buy me a Game Boy for a couple of years, until I turned 11. Looking back on it, the punishment was more than just.
I'm sure that I played another game before that. We had an NES and SNES at home that my sisters had grown up on, but the first really clear memory I have of a video game involves Pokémon Blue, watching the little pocket monsters come to life before me. As I'm writing this, I have Pokémon Moon on pause, the light from the 3DS' screen catching my attention every few minutes.
Just like that 8-year-old, I'm still mesmerized by Pokémon, but I now pay for every single Pokémon game that comes out. Lesson learned.
The first video game I have a concrete memory of playing was Big Bird's Egg Catch for the Atari 2600. I am impossibly old, just shamefully old.
If you don't reserve a space of your memory for early ’80s licensed games, allow me to refresh you. Chickens lay eggs and Big Bird catches them while "Turkey in the Straw" plays at a steadily increasing tempo.
The game is played with the Atari Kid's Controller, which was actually kind of genius. It was an oversized number pad, and games would be sold with an overlay that would label the buttons with the actions they triggered. For Big Bird's Egg Catch, this was a whopping two buttons: Left and Right. It is not a good video game.
Since the game was released in 1983, I probably played it in 1984. But I know for certain it was on a Memorial Day in Ironton, Ohio. I remember these facts because Memorial Day is a massive holiday in Ironton, where my dad was raised. In fact, the city plays host to the oldest continually running Memorial Day parade in the nation. I played Big Bird's Egg Catch with my friend Eric, my first best friend, whom I still keep in contact with today, even though he's since moved to Nashville.
I guess Super Mario Bros. would have been a cooler answer, but Big Bird's Egg Catch is the truthful one. I grew up alongside video games, and in those days, they didn't really have to be fun. It was wonderful enough, I guess, that they simply were.
I miss those days a lot, sometimes.
I can’t remember if it was the first game I actually played, but the first game I remember playing was the arcade version of Gauntlet at an arcade on Catalina Island.
It was a simple enough game for someone young, since I had other people to show me where to go, and I could basically just follow them and mash attack to grind through.
It’s kind of interesting, actually, because these days when I play something like Super Mario 3D World with my niece, I see this from the other side, playing chaperone to someone who doesn’t always know what to do or where to go. So to everyone who put up with me slowing them down in arcades back in the ’80s, thanks.
Also, years later I played Gauntlet briefly with Whoopi Goldberg in that same arcade. That’s not really part of the story, but I need to fill up my word count here and she was pretty famous at the time!
The first game I ever played is sort of a technicality: Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis. My cousin had gotten the console and the game as a Christmas gift, and I don't think I'd ever really seen video games before that point.
There was a slight problem, though. At the time, I was just 1 year old. So, tragically, my "playing" only really constituted sitting in front of the TV, pressing the Reset button on the Sega Genesis, watching the Sonic title screen all the way through, then pressing Reset and watching it all over again. It was ... lightly interactive, at best.
But! It kicked off a lifelong obsession with video games (and, whether I like it or not, with Sonic the Hedgehog) that hasn’t waned a bit in the years that have followed.
I was 4 years old when my family bought an NES in the late ’80s, which meant that while my older brothers were losing their mind over Mario Bros. and Mega Man, there was only one game I wanted to play: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Developed by Konami, this was (as far as I knew) the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game ever made. As a kid raised on a steady diet of Saturday morning cartoons, I could not wait to play as Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo. And I guess Donatello, sometimes, if I had to.
There was just one problem that anyone who has played this game already knows I'm going to bring up: that f*cking water level. Most of the game was a side-scrolling beat-em-up that was, well, inoffensive and fitting with the source material, if not particularly great.
But a few levels in, you had to enter this underwater level that was just miserable. In addition to dodging electric bolts, dangerous seaweed and underwater mines, you had less than three minutes to find and disarm a bunch of bombs.
I cannot imagine how many times I must have attempted and failed to complete this single miserable level. I only remember doing so once, and it was an occasion where I had to call my brothers into the room to show them that it could actually be done. I died and had to restart the game five minutes later.
It's a testament to how much I loved video games that this experience didn't turn me off to the medium altogether, but my appreciation for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has never quite been the same.
For someone my age — I turned 30 two weeks ago — I got started on video games relatively late. My brother and I grew up in Queens, New York. We were not poor per se, but money was tight. My parents were more concerned with being able to afford necessities like groceries, school supplies and clothes rather than frivolities like video games.
I remember attending a holiday party at the apartment of some family friends in Flushing sometime in the early ’90s. The Bengali people in New York have always been a tight-knit community, and as far as I can recall, basically everyone at the party was, like me, Indian. The adults would sit in the living room, discussing local gossip and national politics — both American and Indian — over shingaras and ghugni. Meanwhile, we kids would hang out in the bedroom of the hosts’ children. At this particular party, the kids had a Sega Genesis with something magical: Super Baseball 2020.
Back then, I wasn’t quite the avid sports fan I would soon become, although I had started playing Little League baseball and following hometown teams like the perennially mediocre Yankees. (Like I said, it was the early ’90s.) Nevertheless, I was really into the idea of sports video games.
In case you hadn’t guessed, Super Baseball 2020 presents a modified version of baseball that takes place in the year 2020. Robots join the fray, along with men and women; the teams have names like Naples Seagulls and Taiwan Megapowers. In the sole ballpark in the game, Cyber Egg Stadium, glass covers the majority of the stands — shots that would ordinarily be foul balls or home runs turn into base hits after bouncing off the glass, while a drive must be hit to straightaway center field to end up as a home run.
The adults would sit in the living room, gossiping over shingaras and ghugni
But in all of that futuristic madness, what stuck out to me the most was the Crackers. You see, baseball is apparently a boring enough sport that transporting it three decades into the future and adding frickin’ robots wasn’t wild enough. No, the good people running this cybersports league decided to further spice things up by throwing land mines onto the field. If a fielder touched one of the Crackers, it would explode, sending them flying into the air and leaving them temporarily incapacitated. Steve Bartman ain’t got nothing on these things.
My parents eventually bought my brother and me a Genesis, but we never did get our own copy of Super Baseball 2020. That was fine. We almost forgot about every other game on the planet once we got our hands on NHL 95.
OK, so let me preface this by saying I played all kinds of games growing up. I have memories of Age of Empires and Civilization 3. I played City of Heroes for years. I played F.E.A.R. for about 10 minutes before I gave it up, and wrote my first "game review" on my blog. (It was mostly me capslocking about Samara from The Ring.)
But at some nebulous point in my childhood, my mom took my brother and me to Costco and said we could each pick out a game. Now, Costco is a magical place. It smells warm, and kind of weirdly sweet. There are people there who give you free food! And there are piles of video games. I could spend an entire trip just picking through them.
This time I left with a horse game, because deep in my heart, I am a Horse Girl. Every grade-school class has a Horse Girl, sometimes more than one. They love horses. They role-play horses. They read books about horses. They might even ride horses, if they’re lucky, which I was.
I left with Barbie Adventure Riding Club.
In this game you are Barbie’s friend, and she has a riding club on Mystery Island. Her friends Christie and Theresa are also there, and there are four horses to choose from, all different colors!
I had to brush and feed these horses, and then I had to take them out for their exercise. In real life, you can’t start galloping on a horse right away. They have to warm up: first by walking, then trotting. Then you can canter or gallop or whatever. I obeyed these rules in Barbie Riding Club, because dammit, I knew how to treat a horse. So in each play session, I painstakingly walked and then trotted my horses before going on galloping circuits around Mystery Island.
Off the computer, I made maps of the whole island. I planned renovations. I think I wanted to put in a hotel. I developed a resentment for Barbie and Theresa. I can’t remember why I didn’t like them, but I do remember that once I took over Mystery Island I was going to tie them to a log, and send them out to sea. I wrote it down in my notes: Send B and T out to sea. That was the exact wording.
Christie was cool. Christie could hang with me.
The moral of this story is that kids are weird. Really weird. And if you see a little girl playing a horse game, don’t judge her. She might also be plotting a murder.
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