CHAPTER 7: THE 16-BIT ERA

As someone whose first console was an NES and didn’t have a PC at home until 1996, the concept of upgrading to a better, newer console was something that didn’t really cross my mind. But, suddenly I started seeing commercials on television for something called a Genesis – doing what Nintendon’t – and pieces in magazines about something called a “Super Nintendo.” You thought Super Mario Bros. 3 was good, check out Super Mario Bros. 4! Mario has a cape now!

The Super Nintendo, Nintendo’s second and arguably most popular console, was something that I didn’t know I needed in my life until the well of new NES games started to dry up at all the rental stores that I frequented. Magazines would continue to have articles about new NES games, like a fifth chapter in the Mega Man series that didn’t show up where I lived, but our local stores no longer had any interest in carrying games like that. If it didn’t have the Super Nintendo logo on the cover, it no longer mattered.

At the very least stores like Weeks were offering trial rentals for those who weren’t fortunate enough to be able to dive into this next-generation of gaming. A friend of mine who lived up the street had parents who would let him rent out a Super Nintendo on a pretty regular basis. I was lucky enough that whenever they secured one, I was but a phone call and a short walk away. There were many sleepovers to be had where we would pass the control around, playing what was now called Super Mario World, or co-operative games like Konami’s The Legend of the Mystical Ninja and Data East’s Joe and Mac. I would excitedly run home from this friend’s house, reporting to my brother what I had experienced, like the title screen of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past where a sword falls from the top of the screen into the center of the fabled Triforce as a triumphant score plays in the background.

People complain now that Christmas starts to early when they walk into places like Costco and see aisles dedicated to ornaments, or grocery stores that begin to stock eggnog before Halloween is over. This isn’t some new type of phenomena to me, as for the longest time, Christmas started in September. That’s when the Holiday catalogs would start arriving in the mail. Massive tomes from Sears and Consumers Distributors, a now defunct catalog ordering business whose retail store presence merely existed for you to hand cards to a store employee for them to go fetch something in the back for you. Hours of my life would be spent looking through these books, simply admiring the pictures of all the toys I wanted, plus the Super Nintendo and its games I never thought about asking for. Not even Santa could grant all wishes.

A generation will never know the joy of getting the Sears Wishbook in the mail.

It was Christmas 1992 when the Farrell’s entered into the 16-bit generation. I know this because 1992 was the year that Batman Returns arrived in theaters and my list to Santa that year consisted of the Batmissile Batmobile and Wayne Manor, complete with collapsible skylight, Batcave with quick change station and the Penguin’s arctic hideout. Once I was done tearing through all my gifts, I was handed a new box, something labeled “To: Blair Fr: Santa.” Shredding through the paper revealed something I secretly longed for but wouldn’t dare put on my Christmas list: a brand new Super Nintendo Entertainment System, or SNES for short. Leading up to December 25th that year, my older brother was trying to convince me that Santa wasn’t real. What I held that day was evidence to the contrary; Santa was real, and he had read my very thoughts.

We were fortunate that our Super Nintendo came with a game, Super Mario World, a timeless piece of software that is easily one of the best game ever designed and among my favorite in the entire Mario franchise. Back then though, it was just another Mario game and something I already had played. I wanted to catch up on all the games I had missed out on over the past year or so since the SNES arrived in North America. There was a problem though: I wasn’t the only one who got a SNES that year.

Every gas station, convenience and video store that we knew of in both Harbour Grace and Carbonear brought nothing but disappointment and despair as we would arrive to empty shelves where the SNES games lived, which only meant I wasn’t the only one to get a surprise from the jolly man in red that year. One time at Short Stop my heart erupted with joy when I saw a copy of Chuck Rock, a platformer starring a caveman who attacked enemies with his gut, was on the shelves, only to bring it to the counter and be told it was put back on the shelf in error.

Our new tactic then was to start hitting up stores at 6PM, the time when all rentals were expected to be brought back. I would enter stores, primed and ready to pounce on something, anything that was brought back. This strategy worked, but my desperation led to me getting games I perhaps should’ve left on the shelf in favor of playing more Super Mario World. Games like The Rocketeer, a game based on the Disney film about a guy who stumbles into possessing an experimental jetpack. Sounds like great material for a game, except the first level of the SNES game opens with a biplane race I couldn’t finish.

Eventually though our luck got better as we started to secure games like Capcom’s Street Fighter II, a franchise that I dearly love but not exactly from my first experience with it. I understood that the game was great, but I didn’t have the dexterity to pull off the special moves, the exception being of course the stronger woman in the world, Chun-Li, who kicks rapidly if you just hit a button fast enough. That tactic only gets you so far though, so I didn’t get as much value out of this flagship fighting game as I hoped.

The SNES has one of the best libraries of any video game console, and there’s countless YouTube videos counting down the best the system has to offer. Classics like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy III, and most every game that starts off with the title “Super.” Like it was with the NES, my purchasing and renting habits tended to skew towards things outside of video games I was interested in. I wanted a Super Nintendo to play James Bond Jr. of all things, a game based on a cartoon series that I never saw yet had many of its action figures in my toy box. I wrote an entry in my school journal about a time I wanted to rent out the console because Weeks got James Bond Jr. in but my mom said now. She was not very pleased when she found out that I wrote that.

In the mid ‘90’-s I became obsessed with wrestling so instead of trying new games, I would just keep renting out WWF Royal Rumble over and over, if for nothing else than just to leave on to hear the digitized recreations of the wrestler’s theme song. Around this time Weeks was running a promotion where if you bought gas there, you got a Nevada pull tab ticket. I can’t remember the exact combination, but getting three of one item meant you got a free rental. This was a no lose situation for my parents as I got to occupy my time safely recreating my wrestling fantasies and they didn’t have to shell out extra money.

That’s not to say that I was completely without taste. One time I was off school for a week with a really bad cold, and to make me feel better, my mom rented me out Mega Man X, a reboot of sorts of the series I loved playing on my NES that I’ve probably spent hundreds of hours playing and have bought multiple times in compilations and rereleases. I probably didn’t need the full five days to recuperate, but don’t think I didn’t enjoy a full five days of nothing but Mega Man without any school work getting in the way.

One day when taking a routine trip to Woolco, we stopped by the electronics department and they were demoing a game unlike any I had seen before. It was Nintendo’s Star Fox, a game that used an advanced chip to push rudimentary 3-D visuals and gameplay on the SNES. You play as Fox McCloud, a leader of a squadron of anthropomorphic animals flying in spaceships, or rather shapes blended together to resemble a spaceship. It’s primitive now, but it captured my imagination and made me a life long fan of the series because of how unbelievable it looked. I had played my fair share of Super Nintendo games, but none of them looked or sounded like this one did.

The cart they were using at Woolco is the extremely rare competition cart that reset after a few minutes of playtime. It was brought to various stores to build hype for the game, and if you played well enough, you could compete with other kids to win prizes like t-shirts. We didn’t win anything, I’m pretty sure we spent too much time adjusting to a game where you did more than moved left and right, but I was happy enough to play any video game, let alone one this advanced looking.

It was in the 16-bit generation that my rental stomping grounds would grow that much bigger. I would make friends with kids from towns somewhat close to where I lived, by car anyway, who would regale me tales of places like Marie’s Video, a store in the town of Spaniards Bay that not only housed the missing NES games I wanted to play, but also new SNES games that weren’t showing up locally. This wasn’t at all a practical place in which to rent from as it was essentially a half an hours car ride just to get to the store, not to mention a long distance phone call if I wanted to call ahead in advance to see if they had something, but my parents would indulge my begging on very rare occasions. I’m glad that they did, as Marie’s allowed me to play the second chapter of the Mega Man X saga, Mega Man X2, that for some reason our stores didn’t get. A neighbouring town to Spaniards Bay, Bay Roberts, was home to Allan’s Video which also held another Mega Man game, Mega Man 7, that I had only saw in ads in magazines.

On Fridays during the winter months, our school would let out early on Friday afternoon so everyone could go skating at the local arena. This was an activity I enjoyed for many years, but as I grew, my skates started to not fit so well and instead of replacing them, I used this as an opportunity to simply leave school early and get a jump start on renting while everyone else was busy. One of my parents would pick me up from school after lunch with our next destination being a place like Short Stop. It was a stark contrast to my early years with the SNES during this time as I had an overwhelmingly amount of games in which to pick from. We would eventually start to pick up two at a time, as who can decide on just one game when faced with choices like Earthworm Jim, The Adventures of Batman and Robin and Spider-Man/Venom: Maximum Carnage?

Of course it’s impossible to not talk about the 16-bit era, one of the best for video games, without talking about Nintendo’s distinguished competition, Sega, the company that so nearly pulled me away from the brand that got me into video games in the first place. All it took was a few commercials and a fast, blue hedgehog with attitude to spare.

One thought on “CHAPTER 7: THE 16-BIT ERA

  1. Pingback: SMALL TOWN VIDEO GAME STORIES: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION | Comic Gamers Assemble

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