MetalFRO's Blog

Posted on Feb 7th 2021 at 08:00:00 AM by (MetalFRO)
Posted under Nostalgia, Video games, memories, family

In December 1982, over the holiday break, from my 1st year in school, most of us on my dad's side of the family gathered at the home of my grandparents, to celebrate Christmas. Like any year, it was a time filled with candy, kids playing in the living room, while the adults sat around the dining room table, regaling stories new and old, and of course, Christmas presents. And like every Christmas, though grandpa and grandma didn't have much money, their gifts were thoughtful, and their house full of love. Those times were always magical. Little did I know the magic I was to discover during this particular holiday gathering.

My uncle David, who lived in the neighboring state of Wyoming, had brought his daughter with him, as he always did. But he also brought something I had never seen before, and hadn't even heard of. It was a wondrous electronic device, with black plastic, fake wood grain, and little metal levers and switches on it. It plugged into the TV, and much like a VCR, made images on the screen for us to see. Unlike a VCR, however, these images weren't just the kind you watch. No, this technological marvel made images you could move around, and control. This was the Atari 2600.

Little did I know the rabbit hole this quaint little tank combat simulator would send me down.

As a na´ve little 5-year old, I wasn't aware of Atari, or their wildly popular VCS. Video games were barely something I knew of at that point, mostly because I hadn't played any. All I was aware of was the occasional arcade cabinet I might see at the store. But I wasn't really tall enough to play any of the games. Not that my parents would have given me a quarter to do so, anyway. So when Uncle David brought his Atari console to the family Christmas that year, seeing it hooked up to the TV, and being able to play games was revelatory.

The family gathered around, and watched as the kids, and a couple of the adults, poured over Combat, PAC-MAN (yes, the much maligned 2600 port), and Air Sea Battle. We spent a good bit of time on the pack-in game, getting a lot of mileage out of the tank battles, and even trying some of the other modes, to vary it up a bit. We had a lot of fun with Air Sea Battle as well, with its impressive colored sky gradient effect, and the ability to maneuver the fixed cannons to take out sky targets. I don't even remember playing the submarine parts, though I'm sure we explored them, as well.

Does it play like the arcade game? No. But to a 5-year old with no prior experience, it's amazing.

And then there was PAC-MAN. I was probably familiar with the character in name, and had potentially seen the arcade cabinet once or twice, but honestly, I don't remember back that far. What I do remember is playing the Atari version, and having a lot of fun with it. It's not a great conversion of the original, but as a stand-alone product, for someone who didn't know any better, it was quite the experience. Hearing the sound of PAC-MAN eating the "wafers" as he moved through the maze, the odd sound effect when he was touched by a ghost, and the way the ghosts changed colors suddenly, when you got the power pellet, was all very new and exciting. And when my uncle showed me that you could eat the ghosts, after picking up the power pellet, my first exposure to "power up" mechanics in games was cemented in my mind. It was a big deal, particularly at that age, to discover such a thing.

Years later, though my uncle had moved on from gaming, as my cousin moved on from Atari to boys and fashion, I continued to cultivate an interest in it. The family computer served as a good place to continue to play games, as did the next door neighbor's Atari 2600, and eventually, his NES. But I wanted my own game system. I wanted to show my parents that I was responsible enough to own one. So I wrote my uncle a letter, asking him if I could borrow his Atari, assuming he still had it, and that I could borrow or rent games from a couple local families. He granted me my wish in the summer of 1987. For a few short months, I had that Atari in my house, hooked up to the family TV, to play a few hours a week, at my mom's discretion. It wasn't quite as magical as it had been before, due to my experience with many Atari games next door, and the aging joysticks my uncle sent, that had seen better days, and were kind of stiff. But it was still a chance to engage in the hobby.

I distinctly remember sitting in front of the family TV, grunting and groaning at the joysticks my uncle had sent along, trying to play Baseball and not having much luck with fielding.

Sadly, I had to send the Atari back to my uncle all too soon. And while it would be a couple years before the Game Boy would come out, and I'd get my chance at my own gaming platform again, I still had fun playing Atari games next door, along with NES games there, and at other friend's houses. The love of gaming had developed quite a bit in the ensuing years, and I'm sure my uncle saw me at a family Christmas or two, later on, with my Game Boy. We never really talked about video games after that. After all, he was an adult, with adult responsibilities, and I was busy with the business of being a kid. But I always appreciated that he introduced me to gaming.

Fast forward to last year. Uncle David was in a care center, in decline, with dementia. When my dad went to take care of things at his old apartment, he found that letter I had written to my uncle, all those years ago. I was surprised he still had it, but it was something he must have enjoyed receiving, so he held onto it. I'm now in possession of that letter, once again. It's a bit surreal, reading the words you wrote more than 30 years ago, when you had nearly forgotten you wrote them. Sadly, Uncle David is no longer with us. He passed on in early January. His memory lives on with those of us in the family, and I'm thankful for his role in introducing me to my oldest hobby. Though I will miss him, those memories remain, and I will continue to treasure them. Love you, Uncle David.

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Not going to lie, this story touched me. I wasn't allowed to own a video game system until I was right years old, because my parents were from a generation and lifestyle that saw no value in mainstream entertainment. We didn't even have a cable TV subscription my entire childhood (I was born in the mid-90's, so this was weirder then than in most pretty much any other era), and instead we had a house with thousands of books we were expected to read, which while enlightening would have made for a much more dull childhood. Even when I did finally get my first game system, I was only allowed to play it for 20 minutes per day. My parents weren't crazy, but come from a long line of people who worked in research or academia, and believed life should center around education. I wish I had had an uncle that could have given me that kind of experience, but nevertheless, it is touching to see it described here. I think every generation has this kind of disconnect with changes in entertainment. David Lean, director of classic films like Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge Over the River Kwai was not allowed to see films in the cinema as a child in the 1920's and 30's. Eventually though, it becomes normalized and no one thinks of it. And I guess that is what is the most magical part of childhood, that each one of these everyday occurrences like your uncle from out of town showing you what would have been really new technology, could change your life forever after. I suppose that's why we all collect games, and some wealthy Baby Boomers collect Rolex models worn by famous actors in films from their childhood or original vinyl releases that came out in their youth. We all try to capture that magic of those minor life-altering moments. Cheers, this was a great read.
Very sorry for your loss of your Uncle. It's tough to lose those positive people in your life that do a lot of shaping of who you are.  So many great memories of these people, that are helpful reminders that how we interact with a younger generation matters.  Thank you for sharing.
That's a wonderful, if bittersweet, story. I'm sorry your uncle is no longer with you, but that's really sweet that he saved your letter, and that you have it now. Reminds me of how my dad told me once that when he took me to an arcade when I was barely 6  or 7 years old, he had no idea how it would go on to influence and shape my life. Thank you for sharing; I really enjoyed reading this Smiley
Thanks, everyone, for the condolences, and kind words. I felt like this story ended up being a bit more about me than my uncle, but it really was about how he was the catalyst for a life-long love of video games. I'm glad you all found it touching, and I'm happy I can share it with you, since it's an important part of my life.

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