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Finding escape in the worlds of Nintendo

Contributed by
May 18, 2018

When my brother was a preteen, he lived like a king.

Back in the '90s, our family lived in an almost-new, cozy neighborhood. It was full of other families, both military (like us) and civilian, with kids our age. My brother, the family extrovert (we’re still not sure how that happened), made fast friends. They spent their free time roaming the neighborhood on bikes, talking to girls in parks, sneaking out onto the roof, and playing soccer long into the twilight, all almost completely unsupervised—good, clean trouble, as my brother would describe it to me years later. The kind of trouble where kids look at the world they will one day inherit and sneak a slice of it to tide themselves over until that day.

When I was his age, almost a decade later, things were different. Much different. If my brother was Green Day’s Nimrod, then I was Green Day’s American Idiot. In the interregnum, we’d moved clear across the country, from California to the Georgia suburbs, for our dad’s new and equally demanding job. My brother went to college, leaving my mother and I alone at home. And mere months after we moved into the house I would more or less grow up in, 9/11 happened.

The world had changed. It was—or, to be more accurate, felt—more dangerous.

So my mother kept me home, where I couldn’t get into any trouble, good, bad, or otherwise. I’m not saying this to make her sound bad; after all, it wasn’t as if she locked me in the basement. I was already down there all the time, per ancient nerd law.

My mother’s efforts to subtly safeguard me from the dangers of the post-9/11 world, however, backfired in a way she couldn’t have anticipated. Imagine hiding your only daughter away in a nunnery for her own safekeeping, only to discover that she’s gone full Mother Superior, ink to her knuckles and behind production on an illuminated manuscript. So what if the news was right and the world was as dangerous as it seemed? So what if my mother was right and every stranger meant me harm? Then so be it. I had another world to explore.

One that, incidentally, my big brother had taught me: the world of video games.

Finding Adventure in Hyrule

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Shigeru Miyamoto grew up in Sonebe, just outside of Kyoto, in the ’50s and ‘60s. David Sheff’s 1993 book Game Over describes the young Miyamoto’s after-school explorations into the countryside. One incident looms large in both the book and in Nintendo lore. One day, Miyamoto found himself at the lip of a cave. He wanted to explore, but it was a big cave and he was a little kid. One day, homemade lantern in hand, he managed to push past his fears and enter the cave—only to discover a second opening leading deeper into the cave. Scared but determined, he took a deep breath and found the courage to press on… and…

And he lived, obviously, and the adventure impressed upon Miyamoto a love of exploration. In Game Over, Miyamoto explains, “When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this.”

This was the feeling Miyamoto wanted to imbue The Legend of Zelda with. During development, the team that was working on The Legend of Zelda was also working on Super Mario, and Miyamoto decided that the best way to divide up their ideas was to assign the linear ones to Mario and the more open-ended ones to Zelda. This meant that Zelda players would be rewarded for exploration, such as taking the time to discover exactly which piece of wall to bomb to find a secret passageway when all the walls looked identical.

I didn’t play the original The Legend of Zelda growing up. (Later, I would suffer a curative fit and try to play every game in the franchise, which went about as well as the time I tried to read all of Mary Renault’s novels in order.) But I did play the game that perfected the feeling Miyamoto wanted players to have. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time can be described as both overpraised and overplayed, if it were possible to do too much of either of those things to one of the greatest video games of all time. Given its longevity and legacy, it can actually be easy to forget that the game had to answer a very difficult question during development: how do we even do video games, let alone a franchise iconic for its specific style of gameplay, in a three-dimensional space?

Once the technical questions were answered, though, the translation clicked—because opening up a world is basically what Miyamoto was trying to do from the beginning.

In Extra Lives, Tom Bissell describes being able to navigate London solely on the strength of having played The Getaway so much. While my internal compass of this specific build of Hyrule will never be so useful to me in my day-to-day, it is nonetheless as fleshed out and familiar as Bissell’s London. But I never beat the game. Beating the game was never my objective (and I was terrified of Ganondorf’s final form); exploring was.

It was easy for me to put myself in Link’s place—we were both quiet, left-handed, blonde weirdos—and I spent countless hours investigating every nook and cranny of the game map on foot and on horseback. I was endlessly fascinated by the different cultures and communities of Hyrule, especially the Gerudo and the Zora. I couldn’t tell you how the three main shopping centers in my hometown fit together on a map, but I could effortlessly navigate through the first three dungeons of the game in my sleep. I’d sometimes come home from school and fire up the Nintendo 64—not to save Hyrule, but to explore.

Finding Agency in Johto

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When Satoshi Tajiri was a boy, his nickname was Dr. Bug. During the '70s, Machida—the Tokyo suburb where Tajiri grew up—was still rural enough that most kids spent their free time pursuing pastoral pastimes, like bug-catching And nobody was better at it than Tajiiri. In a 1999 interview with Time, Tajiri wistfully recalls his superior bug-catching strategies and his brief desire to become an entomologist.

A chance encounter with a Space Invaders cabinet at the age of 15 changed all that, though, and he forgot about those weekends and holidays as he self-published the Game Freak magazine that would eventually lead to the creation of his own video game development company. But one day, he visited Machida and realized just how urban it had become during the economic boom of the '80s. Tajiri’s old bug-hunting grounds had been paved over. How would kids enjoy pursuits like bug-catching, he wondered, if they were playing indoors?

His answer? Pokémon.

Pokémon, in the early aughts, was less of a game to us kids than a participatory sport. Everybody played it, everybody loved it, and everybody had a specific style. Some people were devoted to the trading card game, some people casually traded Pokémon at recess, and a friend of mine carefully and lovingly transferred her original Bulbasaur from generation to generation until she ran out of back compatibility. My style was a wholehearted devotion to Pokémon Crystal—not only because it let you play as a girl, but also because the cartridge was sparkly.

There’s no comedic meat left on the bone of “lol if you think about it Pokémon’s just about 12-year-olds roaming the country unsupervised to participate in legalized animal fights” because a) it's overdone and b) it completely misses the point. Children view children even only slightly older than themselves as aspirational figures. There was something both familiar and freeing about playing a character still young enough to have a room at their mother’s house (just like us!) but old enough to freely explore the world and spend astonishing amounts of time—the second generation of Pokémon games introduced the day and night cycle—away from home. And once you beat the Johto region portion of the game, you unlocked the entirety of Kanto, the setting of the first generation of games, which gave you almost an entire second game to play within the game. The result was an entire universe, populated not with scary strangers, but with other trainers and with Pokémon you raised, trained, and loved.

And, almost most importantly, that universe was right there in our pockets. My teal GameBoy Color was my constant companion, the childhood version of my contemporary social media spirals. It became my lifeline in situations where I had no control over where I was going and why. My mother might not let me out of her sight (often for good reason), but I was able to blink out at a moment’s notice into a world where I could exist on my own terms, motivated only by my own desires (for more Dark-type Pokémon).

Growing up Nintendo

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I started thinking about these formative experiences recently while going on a deep dive into Doshin the Giant. I’ve developed a taste for obscure retro games as of late, and little comes more obscure than the 10-game library of the Nintendo 64DD. The Nintendo 64DD—DD stands for Disk Drive—was an add-on to the console that allowed it to read and write disks. Unfortunately, the Disk Drive did not do very well and stayed in Japan, which meant that its titles—including the original Animal Crossing—did too.

Doshin the Giant was one of those games that never made it out of Japan. In the game, the player controls the eponymous friendly yellow giant, who is the god of Barudo Island. The objective is to gently manage the islanders, answering prayers, and developing villages so that they can build monuments in your honor. Doshin can, at will, transform into the evil red giant Jashin, but it’s hard to make progress as Jashin. You beat the game once you collect all 16 types of monuments, but, like most god-simulator games, winning seems hardly the point. Watching the handfuls of Let’s Plays featuring the giant is a bit like watching an aquarium; several players remark on how soothing it is to be able to care for the villagers in such a peaceful, natural setting.

Doshin the Giant was eventually released in Europe for the GameCube, but never made its way to North America. I’d never heard of it before until I stumbled across it on a YouTube binge. But watching gameplay footage felt so familiar and soothing it was almost disorienting, like how listening to Marconi Union’s “Weightless” is supposed to make you feel. It felt like coming back to an old stomping ground.

Which, in a sense, I was. Barudo Island isn’t that far a cry from Hyrule and Johto; it shares a sense of nature that is uniquely Nintendo’s.

Many a game world—Dark Souls is the utmost extreme—embraces a world full of strife and struggle, where everything is out to get you. As I grew up and tried my hand at more “adult” games, I often found them stressful. Despite the utter joy I found in character creation, actually playing World of Warcraft was too much for my delicate nerves. (And I had to find character motivation for my character while trying to figure that out in my own life? God, it’s been years and that still makes me tired.) The Nintendo games of my youth had provided interesting, challenging gameplay as well as a safe, exploratory space. They functioned as a kind of padded room for you to explore without running the risk of hurting yourself in such a way that you could not recover. Yes, Hyrule could be dangerous, but the game taught you how to take on those challenges gradually, until you could save the world. Yes, Johto and Kanto were big and vast, but you had a support network you could rely on while you explored. Seeing that opportunities for educational exploration—or good, clean trouble, as my brother put it—were shrinking, Miyamoto and Tajiri decided it was important to incorporate those elements into the games they were making. And in doing so, created stories and games that have endured the test of time.

For kids who couldn’t get that kind of experience elsewhere for whatever reason, these games were invaluable. As much as I grew up in the suburbs of Georgia, I also grew up in these worlds—and I’m grateful for the opportunities that the nature of Nintendo gave me.