“You’re holding it wrong, Dad! Here’s how it’s supposed to be. Like this!”
I grasped the NES controller firmly in the air in front of me, mashing my thumbs up and down on the buttons in a vigorous demonstration of what I—and what I imagine most kids at the time—deemed the “proper” way of playing Nintendo. On the screen, a tiny pixilated plumber bounced up and down in response, doing a funky little dance before head-butting a brick block into smithereens.
“Let me be. This is the way I hold it,” he said, playfully shooing me away. Dad was lying on his back, resting the controller flat on his formidable belly and using his pointer fingers to tap the buttons. When it was his turn, the plumber stumbled along, got stuck on a big green pipe, and then fell right down a pit to his doom.
I gawked at him like he had sprouted four fire-breathing heads. Six-year-old me just couldn’t cope.
“Daaaaad! You’re going to use up all your lives before you even beat the first level,” I teased, exasperated. He just chuckled at me in response.
Dad’s awkward NES controller technique was a frequent source of debate on most occasions we had to sit down and play together, which was thankfully often back then. That didn’t stop us from having a good time, of course, despite my occasional protests that his odd way of handling the grey rectangular controller put him at a severe disadvantage.
Super Mario Bros. wasn’t his cup of tea, sure, but he was a good sport about it. We found lots of other games to enjoy together, even if I was more enthusiastic about the process of blowing into cartridges and entering the Konami code than he was.
It took many years for me to realize that my dad was every bit the gamer I ever was. The twitchy blips of Atari and Nintendo provided short bursts of fun, but games of the mind were the common ground where Dad and I really engaged and challenged one another. He taught me chess at an early age, which gave me a strong grasp of strategy and planning. It’s something that’s served me well throughout my life, both in my gaming and professional pursuits, but it also spurred us to clock a lot of quality time together.
We’d often break out the chess board, set up on our kitchen table, and spend hours playing game after game. Dad was far more competent at chess than at Nintendo, though before long I was able to hold my own on the square battlefield. He taught me many sneaky moves and tried-and-true tactics. I took great delight in using them against him, naturally, and while he won many of the games, there were plenty of matches that ended in a stalemate or an outright victory on my part. I was sure to gloat every chance I could, though I got the most satisfaction from making him proud.
Every so often, I’d lure dad back into the virtual world for a few matches on my own turf. Battle Chess was one of the few NES games we could sit down and play for an extended time. Because we both loved swords and sorcery, seeing the fantasy-themed chess pieces come to life and do battle in goofy ways made the traditional brain game doubly amusing. I rolled with laughter every time the rook transformed into a hulking beast and gobbled up the queen in one big gulp. That was my favorite move, mainly because it meant I was gaining a major advantage. The silly sound effects certainly helped too.
Our gaming sessions fizzled in my angsty teen years, sadly, though I recall coming home from college on numerous occasions to find my dad sitting in front of his computer conducting large armies in games like Age of Empires and Sid Meier’s Gettysburg. Dad had turned into quite the PC gamer right under my nose. Every so often we’d trade computer discs and have serious chats about the coolest features in our favorite new games, which, in hindsight, seems like a pretty cool thing to be able to do with your dad, regardless of your age.
It feels strange to consider that I’m well older than my dad was when we first started playing video games together so many years ago. I’ve got a few of my own gray hairs now. While it’s been a long, long time since we last sat down to play, controllers in hand, I’ll always look back on those days fondly.