When I was a kid, I made a crucial miscalculation. I turned up my nose at the hugely popular Nintendo Entertainment System, with its seemingly underwhelming Mario and Duck Hunt, and begged my parents to give me a Turbo Grafx 16 for Christmas. They indulged my impulses, and that Christmas I found myself playing Bonk’s Adventure while all my friends played Super Mario Bros 3.
I genuinely thought I’d be the envy of all my friends. Instead, I was a laughing stock, and so was the poor Turbo Grafx 16 mascot, Bonk. Essentially a big-headed cave-child, Bonk was no Sonic the Hedgehog, no countercultural answer to a silly looking plumber. He was an unnerving little man who seemed incessantly hungry and strikingly lonely. Even the “princess” he attempted to rescue turned out to be a cute little pet dinosaur. Even still, when Bonk receives a kiss from her, he loses it. He literally blows his top, erupting into the air, his head splitting apart like a volcano.
That New Year’s Eve, I remember counting down on my back porch with no one but my dog, Bear. I was an only child whose parents preferred to turn in early. I lit a sparkler and waved it around as Bear jumped and swerved along with it. He barked happily. “Happy New Year, Bear!” I said.
I understood Bonk’s plight. I acted out my own fantasies in other Turbo Grafx 16 games: I saved the girl from the evil henchman in Vigilante. I played the part of the cool guy in J.J. and Jeff. As Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, I imagined that I might be able to transform into something unstoppable, something strong, and most importantly, something that couldn’t be hurt.
To me, the Turbo Grafx 16 was less about escaping from my troubles as it was wallowing in and working through them. There was a marked difference in tone when I played Turbo Grafx 16 games with friends as opposed to Mario, Duck Hunt, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The stakes seems higher somehow, or the game seemed more grounded and essential. I took offense when my friends didn’t invest themselves, as if they thought my life was merely a game too.
That system and those games taught me to feel loneliness, to crave courage, to long to be liked – and to dwell on these things not just while I watched TV or movies, but while playing.
Later on I got a Sega Genesis, a way of acting out, really, of rebelling, being too cool for my friends who were Super Nintendo devotees. This felt edgier, like I was onto something the mainstream didn’t get. Of course, I was in good company with the Genesis, and I missed out on very little as a result of choosing the system. It was one of two good choices, a far cry from the technological island that was the Turbo Grafx 16.
In the 16-bit era’s waning days, Sega offered up the 32X, a misguided attempt to usurp the 32-bit audience before the transition. It was a giant piece of hardware that attached clumsily to the existing Sega Genesis and created the most awkward, uncomfortable contraption anyone had seen since Atari 2600’s wood-paneled monstrosity. I remember placing it into my Genesis for the first time and thinking that I would never remove it. This is what my Genesis was meant to be: bulky, gawky, excessive. It was the underwhelming, the underserved, the underdog.
There was a little-known Sonic the Hedgehog game released for the 32X called “Knuckles Chaotix,” a game that made the counterintuitive choice to tie two characters together with a kind of bungee cord. This cord was meant to be used to propel one another, but often ended up dragging players back and slowing them down. Playing as two players bonded together, I indulged myself in their camaraderie.
I would turn off all of the lights and play the 32X version of Doom, wandering dark hallways in search of monsters that would force me to confront the worst. I considered the possibility of being lost forever, alone in space, surrounded by no one but unfamiliar monsters. I imagined a life where violence was the only way out. I cringed when I turned every corner.
I played Cosmic Carnage, a game where a bunch of space prisoners escape from prison only to find themselves trapped on a freighter, floating in space. So they fight. It’s a fighting game set in space, a slightly menacing game to internalize as a kid, despite its cartoonish stylings, but I internalized everything. As fighters would step away from one another, rather than restricting the play space and keeping the fighters within reach of one another, the screen expands. They grow farther and farther apart only to have to come closer eventually in order to destroy one another. There were several special moves that involves squeezing the life out of opponents. What looked like hugs were actually death holds. The screen zooms in all the way to display the sprites in all their excessive glory, flaws and all.
There are things that are forgotten, ignored, misunderstood and underestimated. Their existence may be deemed a failure, but they are given the rare opportunity for accomplishing a unique kind of intimacy with their users. They’re like my dog, Bear. They’re the needy ones, the ones that will give you their loyalty if you offer them a modicum of yours. They’ll offer you conversation and consolation when you most need it. And in return, we embrace them, until we’ve squeezed out of them their very last breath.
About the Author:
Richard Clark is the managing editor of Gamechurch, the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and a regular columnist at Unwinnable.
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