It was the summer of 1987.
My aunt had fallen in love with an American chap and moved to the States to marry him and live there. And so, my family – including a 4-year-old me – flew out from Scotland to Parma, Ohio to visit them during the summer. That was when I saw it. The grey box that was about to shape my entire life.
Being four years of age, I don’t really remember a lot about that trip. I remember the shop across the road had a giant inflatable snowman on the roof. I remember seeing a McDonalds TV advert with Ronald McDonald lying on a moon. I remember my aunt teaching me to eat soup from the edge of the bowl because it was less hot. And I remember the Nintendo Entertainment System.
When I first saw Super Mario Bros., my tiny brain exploded. Not literally, of course; that would’ve been hard to recover from. But I’d never seen anything like it in my 50-odd months on the planet, and I was smitten from that very first second. The rest of the trip is a blur, but I’m reliably informed that I played a lot more Mario than was probably healthy for a young child.
When we got back home to Scotland, Mario was all I could think about. My parents still have a few children’s books from when I was a kid, its sentences covered in pen lines. I used to pretend my pen was Mario and the words were platforms. Tall letters like ‘t’, ‘h’ and ‘l’ were obstacles to jump over, hanging ones like ‘j’ and ‘g’ were pipes that let the pen drop down and travel underneath the words. The NES didn’t exist in the UK yet, so this was the best I had.
As luck would have it, Mattel released the console in Britain later that year, and so on Christmas Day 1987, I got my very own Nintendo Entertainment System, with Super Mario Bros and Mach Rider. Little did I know that 31 years later I would be writing about that very moment on a Nintendo website. I mean, I literally had no idea, because websites weren’t even a thing yet.
Christmas has always been synonymous with video games for me, as I’m sure was the case with many of you. Christmas 1989 was Super Mario Bros. 2, for example. 1991 was my Mega Drive with Sonic The Hedgehog. 1993 was Super Mario All-Stars. 1997 was GoldenEye, while 1998 was Ocarina Of Time. Every single time, the excitement that came with opening that ‘big’ present was unlike anything else.
These days, publishers and gamers alike are increasingly keen to make sure the latest games are bought on day one. Sometimes you’re even able to download games in advance, so you can pump them into your eyes the very moment the clock’s second hand passes midnight. If you don’t get it at launch, you can hop on YouTube or Twitch and watch someone else playing it. But back then you had to wait until Christmas, and patience was a virtue: nothing beat that feeling of unwrapping that game you’d been waiting weeks, even months for, followed by that final little period of impatience as you realised you had to do the rest of the Christmas routine before you finally got to play it.
Had my parents not given me that NES for Christmas, I may have eventually forgotten about Mario and moved on with my life. I might have ended up being a teacher, which my mum thought I might have ended up doing. I might have become a footballer, because I was (and still am) a big Celtic supporter. Given the small town I lived in near Glasgow, I may very well have turned to petty crime. Instead, when I unwrapped that parcel and saw that Super Mario Bros. box, with a pixelated Mario staring back at me – well, staring off to the side a bit – the butterfly effect kicked in and my destiny whirred around to face a new direction. Now, bear with me here, I’m about to go off on a bit of a self-serving tangent, but there’s a point to it.
That NES started a passion for video games that remains strong more than three decades later. That NES nurtured my love of reading, as my dad constantly bought me all the games magazines of the time – Mean Machines, CVG, Nintendo Magazine System, Total! and the rest – and I devoured them all from cover to cover. That NES made me want to write for video games magazines one day, and encouraged me to work hard in school and do well at English to try and make it happen.
That NES led me to university, where I got my honours degree in Journalism. It was four years of learning how to write for newspapers, even though deep down I knew I was never interested in that. While everyone else there wanted to write for The Guardian, I was thinking GamesMaster. And finally, in 2006, that NES made me decide to leave all my friends and family behind in Scotland and move to London, so I could start my career as a Staff Writer at the Official Nintendo Magazine: the role I’d spent my entire life preparing for.
In London, I met my future wife, we fell in love and we got married. My aunt came over from America for the wedding and gave me the ultimate wedding gift: her NES, the one that started me on this path in the first place. As my career progressed I became the Games Editor at ONM, Online Editor at Nintendo Gamer then Games Editor at CVG. I was then made redundant (blame Future Publishing, not me), we moved back to Scotland and I started my own site, Tired Old Hack. I started doing freelance work, writing for the likes of Official Xbox Magazine, Official PlayStation Magazine, GamesTM, Retro Gamer and, yes, GamesMaster.
I’ve now got my first book – the enormous 180,000-word NES Encyclopedia – coming out in March, and my wife and I have a gorgeous six-month-old daughter we’re about to spend our first Christmas with. Literally, none of this would have happened if, on Christmas Day 1987, I’d opened that box and there was a pair of football boots in it instead. All over the world, children will be getting their first video game systems this Christmas; many of these will be Switches (presumably with Pokémon: Let’s Go!). Maybe in 30 years’ time, those kids will be writing about how this Christmas shaped their lives, too.
On a personal note: this year, as you’ve hopefully noticed, I’ve started writing stuff for Nintendo Life. Let’s be blunt: when I was at ONM and Nintendo Gamer, it goes without saying that Nintendo Life was a rival (I’m sure the editorial staff here would say the same thing). But life’s too short for all that fussing and feuding, and I’ve been made to feel hugely welcome by Damien and the rest of the team here. You can expect to see plenty more of me around here next year, mostly in terms of reviews. I look forward to you all telling me I’m a fanboy when I score games highly, and saying I didn’t “get it” and the game was probably too hard for me when I score them low. Although some of you know me from my ONM days, many of you don’t, and I look forward to getting to know as many of you as possible over the coming months (usually by arguing with you in the comments under my reviews).
However you plan to celebrate this holiday season, from my own family to you lot – my new Nintendo Life family – I hope you have a fantastic one filled with love, warmth and plenty of gaming. As for me, I’m going to be enjoying Christmas at home with my wife, my gorgeous daughter and her new best friend. Nintendo has shaped my entire life to this point: here’s hoping it fills hers with happiness too.