I’ll never forget Christmas 1993. All our presents had been opened and while it was a solid year for gifts, it wasn’t more memorable than any other Christmas morning… yet. In true A Christmas Story fashion, my parents “spotted” something behind the couch. They pulled out a large box wrapped in red paper. I didn’t have to open it to know what it was: the Super Nintendo I had been begging for the entire year. I ripped the paper off and gazed upon my new SNES in all its packed-in-Super-Mario-World glory. I had played NES games at friends’ and relatives’ houses to that point, but my home gaming was limited to Avoid the Noid or Wheel of Fortune on the family computer. This not only gave me some much-needed entertainment, but it changed the course of my life. I dove headfirst into the world of gaming and never looked back.
In 2015, I wrote about how gaming has shaped my life over the years. A major part of that was how it allowed me to bond with my father. He traveled on a near-weekly basis for work, so while my weekday evenings were often for homework, the moment he walked in the door on Thursday or Friday night, I couldn’t wait to hand him the second controller.
Endlessly exploring ghost houses to find every last secret became a pasttime
After we beat Super Mario World – I still remember leaving the SNES on the “The End” screen for two days because of how proud I was of our accomplishment – we moved on to Super Mario Kart. Though there was no in-game option to race as a team, we always worked together to land both of us on the podium – usually with him running support and taking out any threats to me; he was better at games than I was, so he was usually the one carrying me through the difficult challenges. In that piece I mentioned earlier, I talked about how, 25 years later, I still laugh about when he woke me up in the middle of a school night to tell me he beat Rainbow Road on 150cc.
While we tried a ton of other games thanks to the several rental shops around my house and obsessed over the flyswatter game in Mario Paint, nothing captivated us quite like Donkey Kong Country, another Christmas present from my parents. We played ad nauseam; we yelled in victory after completing the first minecart level, then went on to find every secret and take down each boss. It quickly became our Saturday-morning tradition for the next several months. However, once the SNES phased out, something happened: We stopped playing together.
He tried later systems like Nintendo 64, but he never latched onto them like he did with SNES
When I ask him today why we stopped, he usually points to the Nintendo 64’s more complicated controller and the fact that I no longer needed help to get past the hard parts. In reality, it could have been any number of things, ranging from me gaming more with my friends to him working longer hours. We played a little Mario Kart 64 together since that was familiar to him, but it seemed as though his gaming days were behind him.
I continued devoting more time to gaming as the console generations passed. However, outside of arcade and retro games, things never clicked with him like they used to. I’d often get nostalgic about those times we’d play together, even breaking out Mario Kart or spending a few hours playing old arcade games like Berzerk while I was home from college, but it was clear he wasn’t getting back into it. That changed when he learned about virtual reality.
When my dad called me to ask which VR system he should get, I considered multiple factors including price of entry, developer support, and how complicated the setups are. For me, the answer for which headset my parents should get was clear: PlayStation VR. Not only was Sony putting support behind PSVR, but a PS4 is significantly cheaper and less complex than a desktop PC – my parents are notorious for inadvertently destroying computers in record time. PlayStation VR seemed like the option that would have me running tech support the least.
My parents bought a PS4 for VR games like Job Simulator, but it didn’t take them long to venture toward other experiences
I helped them with game recommendations as much as I could, but I largely let them choose the games they wanted. They settled on games like Until Dawn: Rush of Blood and Job Simulator, which quickly became a favorite. They enjoyed VR, but soon that wasn’t enough. They began exploring more traditional experiences.
One day, I received a text from my dad talking about how he’s loving Uncharted 4, which came bundled with the PS4 they bought, but he’s struggling with some of the mechanics. I gave him some tips and let him enjoy how far gaming has come in the decades since he last played. Even though he told me he was only replaying the opening hours of the game over and over, I was thrilled he was trying out core games and saw it as an opening for other experiences.
I decided that, just as my parents often used Christmas to get me into gaming, I could do the same. Not only did I bring my SNES Classic home to relive our favorite games together, but I also gave my dad a copy of Overwatch in 2017. Something you must understand about my dad is that anytime I gave him a DVD or CD growing up, I’d find it, still shrink-wrapped, years later. I knew this was a huge risk, but much to my surprise, a week later, he texted me about his experience playing.
When my parents picked up a PS4, I saw it as an opportunity to introduce him to unforgettable modern gaming experiences
Unfortunately, his early play time wasn’t great. He told me that he couldn’t figure out the controls and that he didn’t know where to go. He was playing as “a guy with claws” (Winston) and he’d be with the team, then someone would come along and push him off a cliff. After that, he wouldn’t be able to find the team anymore and he’d get kicked for inactivity. He seemed ready to give up, but I wasn’t ready to give up on him.
I provided some guidance, suggesting he start with Soldier: 76 or Reaper, and told him about practice mode, but things really seemed to improve once I fired up my PS4 and joined him. Though we were states apart (he’s in Maryland, I’m in Minnesota), we could play together, just like we did when I was young. This time, the roles were reversed; I was the more skilled player trying to help him understand the basics of a game.
While he hasn’t yet graduated from playing against A.I. bots, he’s much more competent than he was when we first started. He now understands the different abilities of those two beginner characters, and has become pretty good with using their ultimates. The biggest struggle for him, someone who never played on a dual-stick controller, is moving and shooting at the same time, but he’s getting there. He also doesn’t do well with how much is happening on the screen at any given time; Overwatch is a fast-paced game for someone whose point of reference is Donkey Kong Country.
It’s only fitting that my dad gravitated toward Soldier: 76
Explaining lootboxes to him – something we’re all too familiar with as daily gamers, but a foreign concept to many of those outside of the dedicated gaming community – was an interesting experience. He didn’t grasp the notion until I likened them to packs of trading cards. He had a few free ones from playing during the winter event, and got a chuckle out of equipping Soldier: 76’s “Merry Christmas” voice line in March.
My parents have continued expanding their tastes beyond Overwatch and VR, as games like Overcooked and the Jackbox Party Packs have become go-to favorites when friends and family visit. I also continued my tradition of giving my dad gaming-related gifts for Christmas. I thought a lot about what game would be best for him, particularly with how many amazing games came out in 2018.
While he independently expressed interest in Red Dead Redemption II after seeing an ad on TV, I settled on God of War. Not only is it one of my favorite games over the last few years, but it has an easy mode that lets you experience the incredible story centered on a father-son relationship. He started playing it, but hasn’t gotten very far. God of War can be a challenging experience, but it’s one I sincerely hope he sees through.
Without that time playing SNES with my dad, I doubt I’d be into gaming as much as I have been my entire life. Some of my fondest memories growing up centered on playing video games with him, and while it will never be the same as it was back then, each time we play or even talk about video games together, it gives me a hint of that magic. I hope that, just as he did when I was a kid, I can continue giving him awesome new gaming experiences to enjoy for years to come.