I bought a Switch a few months ago for Deadly Premonition 2 - a Lite, since the primary model wasn't available. The game didn't work out, but I've been getting into the NES streaming service that comes with the platform's online package. I didn't see it before I got my Lite, but I really understand all the comments now about how the Switch is the way to play those games - having a large, crystal-clear screen in your hands, certain to deliver flawless emulation, with saving available at the touch of a button, is more quality and more convenient than PC emulation. I took the opportunity to revisit a few childhood favorites.
The childhood memory: I remember when Erica Rozzi returned my cartridge after borrowing it for the weekend and reported that she and her sister had gotten to Stage 1-3, and I was so frustrated - because for me at the time, 1-2 was as far as it went. I eventually scaled the heights of 1-3, and even went on the beat the game, but those first three stages are burned into my mind as the near the height of "NES hard" - as they have been for many gamers.
Today's experience: I blew through those first three stages like Atalanta through Filene's. (Because Filene's was famous for its wedding-gown sales, and Atalanta disdained marriage, you see.) I can still understand why they have their reputation, 'cause you're climbing up & up on jumping puzzles, with an eternal abyss below you - it's nerve-wracking to negotiate, even without the ever-present threat of instant death. You also have a very small health bar at first, which is a PROBLEM, because enemies pop up from all directions: in front of you, down from above, in homing sine waves around the screen, from the depths below, even underneath your very feet should you tarry. Though I find them a refreshing change of pace, I can see why vertically-oriented platformers didn't catch on - not only do they provide more avenues for attack, but you get a sense of vertigo while playing them.
But I had the dexterity and patience to get Pit onto those platforms this time. Be it through memory, decades of platforming experience since those grade-school attempts, or an adult's motor coordination, it all just clicked for me. Castlevanias have given me more trouble. After that, I had fun mapping my way through the rarely-seen fortress level, and I romped through the remaining stages. And then I did it again to get the best ending. I had as similar experience with Simon's Quest earlier this year, through emulation - it was such a sprawling odyssey when I was a child, and yet my memories and gaming experience allowed my to get through it painlessly in one night and just be a tourist, soaking in the visuals and music and old feelings. These old NES adventure games from my youth fit comfortably into three-hour chunks for an evening's entertainment now that I'm an adult - and I really like that.
It also has a vaporwave aesthetic in its later chapters that I'm surprised hasn't received wider attention.
The childhood memory: I actually don't have a big special memory of this. I just played it a lot and enjoyed it when I was a kid.
Today's experience: I dabbled with this on a lark, and I came away thinking that this was the first game where being a middle-aged gamer had actually interfered with my ability to play a title. I thought I didn't have the reaction time - and certainly didn't have the interest - to keep pumping the button to keep my little balloonist what I deemed sufficiently afloat, at the top of the screen. I came back to it, though, compelled to give it another chance, and I learned (relearned?) that raw altitude is not, in fact, the best strategy - you have to learn to sail with the surprisingly good physics and maneuver inside your momentum instead of constantly fighting it. Airstream doesn't want you to zoom straight up to face off against that enemy balloonist? You're better off coasting downward and trying another approach. The game demands maneuvering and...finesse that's more complex than you'd expect from the NES. Plus, those sound effects are...poppin'.
The Legend of Zelda
The childhood memory: Zelda wasn't my first video game, but it might as well have been. It was another world to explore on a cartridge, the title that made me fall in love with games. I spent time in the fields of Hyrule, roving and poking about to see what I could find, like I would spend time in my backyard. It was a continuous element of my life - a full-blown hobby, like soccer or guitar would be for other children. I remember calling up a kid out of the blue who lived in the next state for advice when I was stuck on Darknuts - not anyone I knew; the son of a friend of my mom's manager, who recalled, when the subject of me playing Zelda somehow came up, that he had beaten the game. The boy didn't question my call; he just offered advice immediately. He understood. It was Darknuts. Drastic measures were required.
I wanted to honor that experience but replaying it on my original grade-school cartridge, but the battery was dead, and my NES replacement emits a burning smell when it turns on nowadays.
Today's experience: Initially, this was a real delight. I had forgotten so much in the intervening decades, and making all those discoveries again, and then remembering that, oh, yes, this was where you got that item, or, hey, this was how you got into that dungeon, was a true joy. I blazed through Levels 1 through 8 pretty painlessly, in a single night. Then came Death Mountain and the second quest, and...well, the same elements that played in the game's favor when I had all the time in the world worked against it in my adulthood. You will find treasure if you search every nook and cranny of Zelda's game world - and in many cases, particularly in the second quest, you have to in order to progress. But when you're blazing through the other aspects of the game instead of encountering sufficient difficulty where you have to call up a stranger in Vermont, burning every tree and bombing every wall is busywork. You can waste an entire, fully-expanded bomb supply on a single screen, and the game makes replenishing your supply such a pain. (Let us not speak of burning trees before you get the Magic Candle.) There's very little insight or puzzle-solving involved, save for intuition as to which rock features or trees in certain formations are likely to hold secret caves; it mostly requires just a willingness to kill time that as an adult I found mind-numbing. I began getting outright bored.
I did, eventually, finish the second quest with minimal help. I stumbled across the way to enter Level 6 while reading other players' reactions out of boredom, but I don't think I would have found it otherwise. (In fact, I think that's why I never finished the second quest as a child, as my memories of the game drew a complete blank on anything beyond that point. It's a very me blind spot: "But you use the Whistle to find the secret entrance to Level 7 because it dries up the pond! There's no reason it would reveal anything on a barren screen!") I did find everything else on my own. The second-quest dungeons have their own busywork, though, with the endless bombing of walls (even those on the outer perimeter, as the maps lie) and pushing against walls in case you can pass through them and pushing blocks, as those that trip secret passages are no longer the obvious candidates. My thumb began actually to hurt with all the pushing I was doing. I got to the end, but I can't say it was all or even mostly fun; while getting through the first quest calls for curiosity and inventiveness, getting through the second is near-completely the corner-scouring I by that point hated.
Whereas Kid Icarus and Simon's Quest still delivered fun experiences, just in a different package, I think my latter-day experience with Zelda was one of the first in seeing the childhood magic vanish. It's a milestone for focus and complexity in the medium, I thank it for getting me into video games, and I'm glad I finally triumphed over its final challenge. But I think I'm done with it.