An Exclusively Games Holiday Special: The Joy Of Games As Gifts
The holiday season is truly a special time of year, isn’t it?
The vibrant lights, the food, so many different cultures taking time to honor long-running traditions by having their families come together at a time of year that seems simultaneously pure and chaotic. For my family in particular, we celebrate Christmas, a holiday with different meanings for different people, or even shared meanings. It’s spawned a countless amount of films, stories, music, and most importantly, memories.
Today, I want to speak on a few of the memories that the holiday has brought me as a gamer, and whether you observe the holiday or not, I want you to think about special moments in your own life where gaming has planted a firm-footed memory in the hopes that you will share them with us. Let us all come together for the holidays, our own “Gamer Gifts Day” so to speak.
I suppose the best place to start would be the beginning.
It was 1994, Christmas Eve. With my birthday falling on Christmas Day it had become a family tradition to celebrate Christmas the night before, and my birthday the next day, to keep the events separate. My brothers and sister were watching Home Alone with my parents, while I kept running to the window to look for Santa. I didn’t see the big man in red, but what I did see was the ragged old truck driven by my grandfather pull into the driveway. I ran outside in my footed pajamas to greet them, and as my grandfather was carrying in gifts I noticed a box in his arms that was different from the others.
Wrapped in bright silver wrapping paper, it was larger than the others. My grandmother hoisting me up in her arms saw how excited I was, “Yes, that one is for you. It’s for Christmas and your birthday.” I remember those words clearly because as a kid, your first reaction in that scenario is to think, “Aww, only one gift?”, but those feelings were quickly set aside as we all went inside and were effectively distracted by the movie. Christmas dinner came and went, I still kept looking outside for Santa, and eventually came the time for everyone to open gifts; I was told Santa wouldn’t arrive until after I went to sleep anyway.
My sister got more clothes than anyone could ever reasonably wear, but being a teenage girl, she was ecstatic. I know I would’ve been frustrated to only get clothes. My brothers both got several model kits, and if I remember correctly, my grandfather gave my oldest brother a pocket knife. Then came my turn to open my gifts, I received everything a kid that young could want. Toys, board games, one of those starter ant-farm sets, but the silver box was saved for last. When that finally came I tore into it, and what it contained would basically seal the deal one what has become my passion today.
A Nintendo Entertainment System, bundled with a combo cartridge of Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt, two controllers, and a Zapper Light Gun. I had no idea what I was looking at, I hadn’t had any exposure to videogames up until that point. I was excited because I could tell it was something worth getting excited about with how my brother’s reacted, but I wouldn’t know the true scope of anything until my dad had set it up. As the adults settled in with cups of coffee, my siblings crowded around me as I booted up the game for the first time. I wasn’t very good at Super Mario Bros. right away, but with their help I quickly got the hang of it. I wouldn’t come to learn until many years later that my grandparents had bought it primarily out of concern for my safety in the area we lived at the time, later still I wouldn’t realize just how slim of a chance it must’ve been to find an unopened NES Action Set bundle in 1994, considering it was a line that came out in the late 80s. It was my first step into the world of video games, and a night that I can still remember so vividly, even though much of my childhood runs together in my thoughts these days.
Fast forward to the Christmas of ‘96. Two years had gone by and I was chest-deep into video games. I could conquer every NES game we owned, except for the original Contra (I hadn’t yet learned the awesomeness of the Konami Code). I was to a point where I couldn’t count how many times my oldest brother and I had finished off The Legend of Zelda, and I had played Duck Hunt so much that the Zapper Light Gun had finally given up the ghost only a few months before. I had been a bit under the weather the night before, so I fell asleep early. When I woke up the next morning, still rubbing my eyes, I walked out to the living room. In addition to the gifts the night before, a new package had appeared sitting under the tree.
What is it about presents that makes kids scream at the top of their lungs? Though I lived it, I’ve never been able to explain it. The overwhelming joy of just seeing something there was enough to have me running down the hallway to wake up mom and dad. In my mind Santa had been there, he brought more gifts. I sprinted back out to the living room, nearly tripping over the family dog before sliding across the hard floor and right for that package. What was it this time? It was a Nintendo 64 with Super Mario 64. Do you remember the viral video of the children opening a Nintendo 64? From what I can remember my freakout of excitement was pretty similar to this.
By now I knew how to hook up the console myself, and as my parents got breakfast ready I moved to the living room television to get everything set up. I remember booting it up for the first time, seeing Mario in 3D pop up on screen in his cheerful manner not unlike the cartoons of the day.
To see an iconic character go from a few small sprites on a screen to what was, at the time, something blurring the lines between animation and realism was astounding. That’s something you’ll only hear from someone who can clearly remember the jump in graphics like that for the first time, I wasn’t eased into it through PC gaming and I didn’t experience the PlayStation until closer to the end of 1998. Diving into the game, I was met with something different. A Super Mario game with a plot? Sure it was mostly the same as the older games in that regard, just a with a bit more context, but it was a time where even platformers were starting to test waters on narrative design. Each and every level had self-contained characters, background “plots” that served as segues towards a series of different fetch-goals to acquire as many stars as possible. That first day for me centered heavily around the first level of Super Mario 64 Bomb-omb Battlefield.
The catchy music, the vibrant colors, the surprise that Mario starts off at a normal size and now has a health system, they were all big changes to adjust to. But perhaps the biggest change was squaring off against a boss in a 3D arena now. Fighting Big Bomb-omb (Also known as King Bomb-omb) for the first time was intense. The goal is to get in behind him and toss him around the arena, but unlike his smaller bomb-omb brethren, rather than chasing you and exploding Big Bomb-omb was ready to throw you around as well.
It may not be moments exactly like this, but through the years I know most of us have been fortunate enough to make these fond memories with our families. Some of us are getting up in years enough that we’re now trying to pass those memories onto younger generations. I have no children of my own, but I do have nieces and nephews, and let me tell you the look on their faces when I gave them gifts.
In 2017 when the Nintendo Switch came out, after I picked one up for myself and enjoyed it I thought it would make a great gift for them. But as my family will tell you, I have a sense of humor. Looking to my empty Nintendo Switch box, I had an idea; a fake out. I wrapped two gifts, the real Nintendo Switch, and a Nintendo “Switch”. In the empty box I placed an old light switch with a note from “Santa’s Helper” taking playful jabs at their teenage attitudes.
They took it in stride and had their laughs, which made the real thing that came shortly afterwards that much more special for them. When they unwrapped another Nintendo Switch, they were entirely certain I was trolling them again. So when they reluctantly opened up the box and saw the real thing, seeing the happiness on their faces was amazing. Do you know how hard it is to get teenagers to smile? You have to catch them off guard, and what better way than giving them something they can’t help but smile about. That’s what memories are made of.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this stroll down memory lane. This deep dive into my very own versions of A Christmas Story, with less leg lamps and bb guns has been as much fun to reminisce about as it has been to write about.
I do apologize for a lack of photos, we have plenty of old home videos somewhere around here but the process of finding them, ripping them from VHS to DVD, and then editing them would be a very time consuming one. But who knows, if you enjoyed this maybe you’ll get a look at it next year. In the meantime, we at Exclusively Games want to know the best memories our readers have related to videogames around the holidays. Drop your best stories down below, pour yourself up some hot chocolate or eggnog, and engage with each other.
From me to you, I wish you a Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and of course a bountiful “Gamer Gifts Day.”