On my seventh birthday, my grandmother gave me a Nintendo entertainment system. I quickly fell in love. The first game I played was super mario bros. The game was filled with secrets. If you jumped in the right spot, you might find a hidden mushroom. If you hit a certain brick, a bean stalk will grow and lead you to the sky. If you slide down the right tube, you could be transported to a hidden underground world.
Exploration was born from the cartridge, going beyond other parts of my childhood. At the cafeteria lunch table, my friends and I traded secrets of hidden warp zones and extra lives. We’ve spent hours drawing new levels that we’d love to see in the game and even sent some to Nintendo Power magazine, hoping they would pass them on to game designers. Games have inspired us. Each cartridge was a magical portal to another universe.
My parents separated when I was young. My father remarried and suddenly I had two half-brothers. I loved having brothers, especially since we’ve combined all of our Nintendo games into one big collection. As our collection grew, so did the graphics of the games. The 8-bit Nintendo led to the 16-bit Super Nintendo which led to the Nintendo 64. The graphics paralleled our own growth. Finally, we plugged in three old televisions in a row so that we could play several games at the same time. We couldn’t have enough.
And then something else started to happen. We started to play music together – to record songs on a 4 track in the basement. We started making movies with the family camcorder usually reserved for vacations and vacations. Video games were still around, but now they rivaled music and movies for our spare time. The games were also changing. New systems came out and the bit number was not even discussed anymore. Was it 128 bit? 256 bits? What is the next multiple bit? Did it still matter?
The new games with their realistic graphics didn’t turn me on like the old games. It was around the time I left home for college. I was studying cinema and I didn’t play video games like I used to. When I did, I was usually playing on older consoles, Nintendo, or Super Nintendo. Something about the new games left less to my imagination.
I found greater rewards in the friendships I developed in film school and in the momentum I gained creating art with these new collaborators. For many years, my relationship with video games was to get together for a wild weekend once a year and play a Nintendo tournament with my brothers and friends. We played games like Super Bomberman 2, Mario kart 64, street fighter 2, NBA Jam, and Tetris / Dr. Mario. We made a trophy with an old Nintendo and Super Mario Bros. cartridge and the winner was immortalized by engraving his name on it.
If you were raised in the 90s, or even later, you might have a similar relationship with video games. You can find nostalgia in the old games of your youth, as some people find nostalgia in the smell of a grandparent’s sweater. It’s a powerful feeling. I think as I approach my forties, addressing this nostalgia has benefited me in a number of ways.
At the start of the pandemic, faced with being stuck at home for months, my girlfriend and I bought a Nintendo Switch. There was nothing in the real world that we could safely explore, so we stepped back into the virtual world. And so I found myself playing video games – even new games! There was a new Mario and Zelda games. They each paid homage to their 8-bit ancestors and rekindled a passion for exploration and discovery.
My brain was lighting up like it hadn’t been in ages. Mario’s new adventures weren’t just nostalgic, they were fascinating and beautiful. ConnectThe story of wasn’t just an adventure, there was a fully realized character that I connected with. These video games carried emotional appeal similar to top albums, movies, and TV shows.
Since 2018, I have been making an 8-bit animated web series called Tux and Fanny. I compiled the first 79 episodes into a feature film. Towards the start of containment, I started making new episodes to compile into a second movie. One particular episode, “Bovine Benefit,” sounded like a video game and my brother Sam left this comment:
I could clearly see the connection between my animations and classic 8-bit point-and-click games, like The King’s Quest and Manic mansion, which we used to go through when we were young. Suddenly, the lines blurred, the genres mixed and my imagination was on fire. Tux and Fanny could exist in the same universe as Mario and Link.
I realized that this desire to make games was there ever since I was drawing Mario’s levels and sending them to Nintendo Power. Now, thanks to the Internet, I could do something about this desire. I found myself posting a tweet about wanting to make a Tux and Fanny video game. Indie game developer Gabriel Koenig, of Ghost Time Games, responded. We had met briefly five years earlier in Vancouver when I was a touring musician. Gabriel and I set up a Zoom, chatted and chatted about our mutual love for the video games we played as kids. We started making the game that day.
I didn’t really have a clue what the game would be like. I just wanted it to be fun to play, like the games I grew up playing, and that it would be a prequel to the game. Tux and Fanny movie. Gabriel and I exchanged files for 16 months. Him in Vancouver, me in Baltimore. I would write my ideas down in a document and send the artwork, then he would put it all together with the same unknown mysticism that shaped the heroes of my youth. He sent me demos to test every week. I couldn’t believe I had found an outlet to channel all of my childhood game ideas into something you could actually play. It was really a similar collaboration to that of my band mates and co-directors. I would come to him with strange requests and he would figure out how to implement them. Like when I asked him, “Can we put the entirety of Moby dick on their in-game shelf? He returned a day later with Moby dick in the game.
Making this game allowed me to play in a giant sandbox with everything I love. Music, movies, poetry, nature, art, friendship, humor – all swimming together in a colorful 8-bit world. I hope if people play this game it transports them to another place and time, but I also hope it inspires them, in the same way that those early games inspired me. I wonder what the seven year old would think if I told him that he would someday create a video game that would be playable on a Nintendo console. I think he’d probably just smile and then go back to play Super Mario Bros., running to find this beautiful mystery that lay just beyond the edge of the screen.