Design by Leah Hoogterp

As a kid, gaming wasn’t always a big part of my childhood. Other than the LeapPad I got in first grade, video games weren’t really allowed in my house. That all changed when my uncle gifted me his Nintendo DS and a Ziploc bag filled with games like “New Super Mario Bros.” and “Mario Kart DS.” It was an extraordinary gift — at the time, I didn’t realize how much this single system would shape me and bring me where I am today.

The DS wasn’t the only bit of gaming influence that my uncle would impart upon my childhood. He showed me Nintendo and Super Nintendo games like “Donkey Kong Country” and “Super Mario World” which have become some of my favorite games today. When he visited, he taught me to play “Super Smash Bros.” the hard way — by beating me over and over again until I was finally good enough to win. He would even regale me with his own stories of gaming when he was my age, like arguing with his dad over how to beat role-playing games (RPGs), playing Tetris against his sister (my mother) and spending hours practicing as Link in “Smash Bros.”

One of the legends that I was told was that somewhere in my grandparent’s attic, buried in a mess of Christmas decorations and stacks of old magazines, was a tub filled with my uncle’s childhood video games. My uncle was certain that he had packed his Nintendo and Super Nintendo systems away up there, along with his game collection. The problem was he didn’t remember exactly where he had put them, and they were more than likely behind a thick wall of stuff. To a kid who had recently watched the “Indiana Jones” movies, this felt like my Holy Grail.

The summer before fifth grade, I took it upon myself to search for them. It was a hot August day when my grandpa and I ventured into the attic. As we climbed the stairs, the air became heavy with humidity, making it feel as though I was entering a musty steam room. The attic was dark and cluttered, illuminated only by a window on the far side of the room. My grandpa fumbled with an extension cord and a fluorescent light came on overhead, revealing rows of Rubbermaid tubs stacked three high. 

The next few hours were spent slowly dragging out tubs one by one, popping them open for my grandpa to look at and evaluate. Some tubs came with stories, others with sighs and resolutions to “someday go through and get rid of all this junk.” My grandpa had no recollection of how things were sorted either, so it was guesswork to find my uncle’s games — if they were even there. 

Finally, I opened the lid to a tub to find a tangled mess of wires, controllers and a top-loading version of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). I took the tub home and dumped it out on our basement floor to evaluate my findings. There were a ton of games, most of which I had never heard of before, but one game instantly caught my eye: a golden cartridge for “The Legend of Zelda.” I quickly found the cables for the NES and hooked it up to the TV to see “Zelda” in all its 8-bit glory. I was greeted with the familiar theme song that has been reproduced countless times over the last 30 years and was then asked to choose a save file. There were three slots; the first was named “IAN” (my uncle), the second was “DAN” (my grandpa). The third was blank, a new game ready to be started. 

The fact that I was able to see these saves was a small miracle. “Zelda” was one of the first console games to allow people to save without the use of passwords, and it did so by using battery-powered memory storage. The problem with this is that the battery — the same type you’d use in your car key fob — will eventually die. When this death happens isn’t certain, but most places agree that it happens after around 15 years. I was playing it about 10 years past that date. 

There was something special about seeing a piece of my uncle’s childhood in front of me on the TV screen. For all the things that he had given me to influence my own childhood, I was finally getting a glimpse at his. He had played this game and almost beaten it. Now, over two decades later, it was my chance to leave my mark alongside his. I selected the third save slot and entered my name: “HUNTER.”

I never did go on to finish “Zelda” — it’s almost impossible to beat without a guide — but in my mind, that memory isn’t about the game itself. It’s about being able to hold a small part of my uncle’s childhood in my hands, to see the games that he talked so fondly about playing right in front of me. A circle of family and video games was completed, two childhoods meeting 20 years apart. 

Daily Arts Writer Hunter Bishop can be reached at hdbishop@umich.edu