Quaint tech toys in days of olde

October 20, 2005|By SAM SESSA | SAM SESSA,SUN REPORTER

Two red buttons. One black plus sign with arrows on it (technically called a D-pad). Select, Start. Trying to count the hours spent on an original Nintendo Entertainment System can make a gamer's thumbs ache. That gray box with a flip-up lid and clunky video cartridges ate up huge chunks of some people's childhood. If you're between the ages of 20 and 40, you probably owned one or knew someone who did.

This fall, the NES turned 20. The more it ages, the more gamers play it - even though newer consoles offer more options and detail.

"There is a huge fan base out there who loves these older games, just because they're fun to play," said Beth Llewelyn, a Nintendo spokeswoman. "It's almost like graphics doesn't mean anything - they're just fun to play."

At heart, gamers relish the NES' simplicity and play it to reconnect with a part of their past.

Curtis Asbury received his first NES soon after it came out in the mid-'80s, he said. Though he was only 4 or 5, he remembers plopping down in front of the tube and pushing "start."

"I had an uncle who had all the games," said Asbury, a 22-year-old medical student who lives in the city. "He would bring them when he came by, so we used to love when he came over."

As a child, Asbury said his favorite game was Super Mario Bros 3, partly because of all the cheat codes and partly because he saw the movie The Wizard.

In it, a boy runs away from home to play in a Super Mario Bros 3 video game tournament - possibly the best case of product placement ever, Asbury said.

"I remember everybody that watched the [movie] went and bought the game, just because of that," Asbury said.

Asbury said he still plays his NES once or twice a week as a diversion from studying. Duck Hunt is the current game of choice, though he said he goes through phases.

Right now, the thought of mindlessly pointing a plastic gun at a TV screen and nailing digital ducks is a great break from memorizing medical terms, he said. He doesn't have to spend hours figuring out which of the four buttons and two joysticks on a new console does what.

"It's a bigger learning curve with those other games," Asbury said. "With the original [NES], you just pick it up and play - even if you've never played the game before."

For that reason, a lot of people have shied away from newer consoles, Llewelyn said.

"A lot of folks have turned away from gaming, or they haven't even decided to pick it up, because it's just a little bit intimidating," she said. "They're going, `Oh my gosh, look at all those buttons. We'll never get into it.'"

Since most stores don't sell the original NES, former gamers looking to get back to their roots buy them online at sites such as eBay. Others download programs called emulators that allow them to play NES, Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo games on their computers.

Twenty years later, it's hard to imagine most retailers believed there was no market for the original NES. In 1983, home computers and low-quality video-game systems saturated the market, and a number of video gaming companies went out of business.

Super Mario Bros. rejuvenated the ailing industry.

"It just was a very different gaming experience, and that just obviously captured the hearts and minds of gamers all over the U.S. and all over the world," Llewelyn said.

Now, cradling an original Nintendo controller with both hands brings on a wave of nostalgia that starts in the thumbs and triggers a flood of childhood or teenage memories.

It ends only when you set the controller back down and realize that an hour, maybe an afternoon, has slipped by in what felt like 10 minutes.

Though your hands are a little sweaty and notched from the controller's corners (Ergonomics? What?), you can't help but smile and remember when things were a bit simpler.

sam.sessa@baltsun.com

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