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July 14, 2015 | The Crew
[Ready Player One has been reviewed here before, but I thought I’d give it another look since Ernest Cline’s new book, Armada, comes out today. I’ll be reviewing it within the week, but until then swing by Church Street and pick up a copy of either (or both!) of Ernest Cline’s love stories to nerd culture.]
I recently spoke with a guy who sells vintage Nintendos, Segas, comics, and sci-fi toys, many of them from the 1980s. “Now’s the time,” he said. “Antiques run in 20- to 30-year cycles. Once kids grow up, get careers and some expendable income, they want to buy back all the stuff that made them happy.” Shortly thereafter I walked away with copies of Double Dragon II and Marble Madness for the Nintendo, which I’ve played long, furiously, and unsuccessfully. I’m not immune to this crap.
Oh, that I could play Rygar and eat Totino’s pizzas until I was struck blind and my heart exploded.
That’s what Ready Player One is: Ernest Cline’s antique store tour through the eighties, where all of us who grew up alongside videogames can flit about the stuff of our youth. What’s particular to our generation is that we’re the first for whom interactive televised electronic entertainment was a mainstay, meaning our parents couldn’t share it with us. And barring some unforeseeable retro-vogue of 8-bit technology, the 1980s is not an epoch that we’ll be able to share with our children, either. My parents listened to Led Zeppelin, but my kids probably won’t play Dig Dug. That’s part of the appeal of Ready Player One—that little alcove of history is wholly ours.
Ready Player One is not a great book. It’s quite obviously struck a nerve with folks my age, though I don’t suspect its success will outlast our forties. Ernest Cline—for whom I have a great deal of respect on account of his wholehearted willingness to own his nerdiness—has taken advantage of his readers. He knows we’re struggling with adulthood, grappling with the same misgivings and longings that all ageing adults of developed nations struggle with: nostalgia.
Things were better when we were playing Rygar and eating Totino’s pizzas until we were nearly struck blind and until our hearts nearly exploded. Science, however, tells us otherwise, though we’ll regale our indifferent children with stories about the Good Old Days even though graduation rates are higher, crime rates are down, communication has improved exponentially, great leaps have been made in civil rights, etc.
But Ernest Cline knows that we will throw twenty-some-odd years of medical, legislative, and social progress out the window just as soon as we see the words Betamax and Bon Jovi and Contra and Rush on the page, regardless of objective quality and artistic merit. “Oh, I remember,” we say wistfully. Because our lives were simple then, when we were teens or pre-teens, without bills or notes or deductibles. And if Ernest Cline can make you say, “Oh, I remember,” wistfully, then he’s got you.
This book has been out for four years now, so I’ll spare the reader a synopsis run-down. In fact, I’ll spare the reader another review. Instead, I’ll ramble through my early years of gaming and nerddom, because the really charming thing about this book is what it reminded me of—little moments from my young life in which I felt scared, brave, angry, proud, and connected to something larger than myself.
1) The Hobby Center
A few blocks from my childhood home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, stood the Hobby Center. It’s still there, and as far as I know it’s completely unchanged. I must have been five or so, and I got it in my head that I wanted a model rocket—a whim my dad was happy to indulge. I remember walking in and seeing the motes of dust floating in the bars of sunlight peeping between the comic book posters taped to the front window. It was a dark place, nothing but endless rows of bins crammed with comics and shelves stacked with model cars and the loose gadgetry of piddlers, wires and nodes and boxes of model Corvettes. It was completely silent, and it must have been ten minutes before a guy asked what we wanted from behind his cluttered desk. For all I knew, it was just me and dad in there, poking around, picking things up, putting them down, saying “Hm” when we didn’t know what something was. I’d been in junk shops before—my mom is an avid junker—but it was the first time I’d been somewhere all the junk was new. The Hobby Center did not nor has it ever had the appearance of a place that wanted customers. The sign is yellowed, there are about three 60 watt bulbs lighting the whole place, the clerks don’t seem to want to sell anything. It was weird and secret and oddly special. We bought a rocket, put it together, flew it gloriously. I went back years later to buy comic books with my hay-hauling money, and everything was exactly the same. Probably still is.
Trae was ten years older than me. Ben five. They were my cousins and I did everything I could to emulate them. I even went so far as to insist that everybody call me “Ben” for a couple weeks, which my mom still describes as “weird.” Not because that’s strange in itself—little kids do all sorts of weird things—but because I was so convincing at it. Trae was a little more out of touch because he was older, though no less cool. I followed Ben around doggedly and pretended to be him; I watched Trae from a distance, intimidated but intrigued. I must have been three or four because Rygar was released in 1986, and Trae and Ben spent Christmas at our house, during which time Trae locked himself in the guest room with his Nintendo, Rygar, and a 13-inch black-and-white TV. As I remember it, we slipped food under the door. Two days later he emerged. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair was matted and jutting out at odd angles, and his fingers were curling in on themselves like talons. “I beat it,” he said.
3) Animal Ninja Game Until I Cried
I’ve never been one to throw fits. But there was a game featuring two ninjas, red and blue, who would pick up medallions and transform into fierce creatures: hawk with lazers shooting from its mouth, scorpion with projectile stinger, cheetah with limited fast-running abilities, etc. I don’t remember the name of the game, and I’ve tried for at least a decade to find it out, to no avail. What I do remember is standing on a chair in the living room, in tears, screaming at the television. I also remember my dad taking the controller from my hands, pressing the power button with his giant thumb, and having a very calm and sincere conversation with his six-year-old about patience.
4) The Japanese Edition of Baby Mario that Didn’t Work
My best friend Anthony Floyd called to tell me that the video store had two copies of a Japanese game featuring a baby version of Mario. I’ve done some Googling, and the only thing I can turn up is Baby Boomer, which was not the game I’m talking about. Regardless, I insisted that my parents take me to the video store, and there it was. It was an odd game. It didn’t look like the typical NES cartridge, though it fit into the NES console. There were Japanese letters across the front, no pictures, and a purple ribbon coming out of the top. It was weird. When I hit the power button a blue screen appeared. I pulled the cartridge out, blew on it, reinserted it, and it still didn’t work. Despite hours of trying every trick known to every child of the ‘80s to get an NES cartridge to work, it didn’t work. It didn’t work for Anthony Floyd, either. We returned the game later. I still don’t know what that thing was, but if I were of a more philosophical sort I would say it made me aware of mystery, of ineptitude, of futility, and of strange, foreign cultures that creep into and upset the familiar.
Like I said, Ready Player One is not a great book. It’s a good, fun book, certainly, but its charm will wane as our generation wanes. But for now, for the fleeting parcel of time we’ve got on this planet during which we will deny that any era could be better than the ‘80s, it has a great power in conjuring up that wonderfully odd youth that can belong to no one but us.