I was reminiscing with a friend the other day about our earliest video game experiences. Some of the games I thought about then hadn’t been in my mind for years. Maybe the first video games I remember are SNES titles: Disney games like Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story, and The Lion King; Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park 2; and Super Mario All-Stars plus Super Mario World. The Mario games are still delightful to play, of course; they’re iconic. The other games…are licensed titles for big franchises. They don’t all hold up as well. Perhaps it may surprise you if you haven’t played it, but I’d say The Lion King was the best of that bunch. It was a frustrating game, a side-scroller requiring repetitious attempts to master platforming movements with a sometimes less-than-precise control scheme, but the graphics were gorgeous for the time. I never got very far as a kid, but it was always a treat to play through the “Can’t Wait to be King” sequence, leaping across the backs of vividly colored animals (an example of someone’s play through that level can be found here).
The most vivid early gaming memory I have involves Donkey Kong Country. Rare would become a favorite developer of mine in the soon-to-follow N64 era. Donkey Kong Country was the first Rare game I encountered, and I loved it. The graphics are still gorgeous, with incredibly vibrant backgrounds and colorfully menacing enemies. The platforming was often challenging, but (except, perhaps, for mine cart levels) it always felt fair–you just had to learn how best to approach any given situation. And the setting was delightfully absurd in the way of the best Nintendo traditions, giving a whole new character and wacky world to a former Mario villain (not to mention a great collection of associates, like Cranky Kong or Diddy, and a ridiculous archenemy in King K. Rool).
The thing is, Donkey Kong Country was decidedly not my game. The Internet tells me that DKC was originally released in 1994. Depending on when, exactly, in 1994 it was, I would have been five or six years old. My parents’ divorce couldn’t have been that long before. My sister and I lived with our mother in Florida, but we were being introduced to the eventually familiar pattern of summers and Christmas holidays in Indiana with my father. My father, a doctor, always had a smorgasbord of toys and games and activities for us when we visited. Hence the collection of SNES games. But my father was also something of a gamer at the time–I don’t think he’d ever call it that, but he’ll admit to having experimented with video games for a while, and I remember what must have been Sega CD discs for Dune and at least one flight sim, games I never was allowed to play. Donkey Kong Country was decidedly my dad’s game.
He and my stepmother (who wasn’t my stepmother yet, if I have the timeline right) had been working through Donkey Kong Country for a while. If memory serves correctly, they were perhaps a level away from the final boss. That’s a feat that, I must admit, I’ve never achieved in the years since. My sister and I were allowed to play in a separate file, though.
We were kids. My sister is a year and a half younger than me, and I was probably six years old in the incident that follows. We were not good at this game, and we did not get very far at all. But even the first levels were so fun and beautiful to look at, and it was a game that supported two players playing at once, so it was something we could play together.
It is also true that my sister and I have always been competitive at best, if not outright belligerent towards each other. So one day, after agreeing to play Donkey Kong Country, we almost immediately got into an argument over which of us should be player one, and who should get to pick the game file. Maybe there was more to it, but that level of stupid, nearly incomprehensible, argument sounds about right.
DKC was not child-proof. Given that the game could be expected to be played by kids, it could almost be seen as a critical flaw that both players could control menu options at any time. And that, when two players are both smashing opposite directions and opposing buttons as fast as possible on the controllers, it is easy to cycle not just through game files but to the Erase Game option.
These possibilities became reality. And in our momentary hatred, we somehow spun through the options and–in a flash of rapid button presses–deleted my dad’s save file.
If I had any honor or integrity, I would have gone to my father to apologize. To explain that my sister and I had a foolish argument, and that we had let our tempers get the better of us, and we had deleted the save file.
But I was five.
My memory fails me on the exact details, but I must have rushed to my dad to tell him all about how my sister and I were in an argument, and she started hitting buttons when she wasn’t supposed to, and she alone deleted the save file.
My sister was blamed for the whole incident. And my dad never played Donkey Kong Country again.
It’s become a minor piece of family lore. A few years back, I finally came clean and owned up to my share of the responsibility for the deleted file. To my father, this was an old incident. But to my sister, it was a little bit of vindication–even as I began to recite the actual story, she already knew exactly what incident I was speaking of.
And that’s my first vivid video game memory. Somehow, I’ve kept playing video games ever since.