Grimdark ’90s Neon-Green Teen

I was watching a video essay recently on the complex gender & queer history of Nintendo, and it got me thinking – I was a teenager in the ’90s, yet I not only never really played much Nintendo… I also pretty actively disliked it. I was Too Cool for it.

I had often attributed that to being a Sega Kid. (The Sega marketing of the early to mid ’90s was aimed at kids of my age, and was based on showing Nintendo as childish and uncool.) I never got into really anything Nintendo – not even Pokemon, despite being envious of kid with Gameboys and being pretty close to the right age to be its target demographic.

But the more I think about it, I was primed to dislike Nintendo right from the outset, and even much of the gaming Sega offered. The reason? I think it has to do with a one-two-three punch of a Tim Burton I hadn’t seen, a yellow-hued monochrome off-brand IBM XT clone… and a tiny second-hand book shop in the middle of the city.

Gotham City, Batman (1989)

I was 7 when Tim Burton’s gothic grim-dark take on Batman released. As part of the truly enormous marketing campaign, an actual filming Batmobile was flown around the world, spending a week or so cordoned off in shopping centres. I went up to my local mall numerous times during that week, just staring at the thing’s sleek lines and wishing I could go for a drive in it.

The thing is, I wouldn’t watch Batman itself until I was quite a bit older. Kids at my school were obsessed with it, but my parents wouldn’t let us see something so ‘dark’, with my siblings being even younger again. But the aesthetics of it – the gothic style, the art deco, the shadows – spoke to me even without knowing much about the film itself.

Somehow, despite not having seen it and never having been particularly interested in comics or superheroes, Batman manage to affect my imagination. I read books and imagined their settings looking like this version of Gotham City, even if it was wholly inappropriate to do so. Fantasy novels I read became re-set in dark, rain-drenched cities full of graffiti and crime.

But the books I read were actually often more fitting of that kind of bleakness than you’d expect despite still being single-digits old – because I wasn’t reading kids books.

Because, well, while my parents were careful not to let my siblings or I see violent or dark media (if it was rated PG, we weren’t allowed to see it most of the time)… my dad owned a book store, and he did no vetting as to just what I was reading.

Martin Place, 1988

It was a small second-hand book store nestled in the underground shopping mall at Martin Place (an above ground pedestrian mall that’d later become famous as the venue for the Woman In Red test program in 1999’s The Matrix). When I was too sick for school, but not sick enough to need to lie in bed, I’d go to work with my father, hiding in the back, sitting in the employee nook reading whatever books I wanted from the countless piles he had there.

I had learned to read young, due in no small part to my father’s job. This was in the ’80s, when booksellers would go to conventions to get wooed by publishers, convincing them to stock whatever they hoped the latest successful paperback series would be. He’d often come back from these conventions (mostly in the United States) with whatever book stock was being given away for free as exhibitors shut up shop.

There was our local library, too. It was in a very modernist post-war building, and I would spent as much time as I could hidden in the up-stairs stacks, finding books (and movie soundtracks on tape) to absorb during the next fortnight.

With (relatively) limited ability to watch movies and TV compared to most of my friends, books were my cinema. And even my TV – our local library kept a complete collection of the novelisation of the original 1960s Star Trek series by James Blish, so while I saw maybe only 2-3 full episodes of Kirk & Spock’s space adventures as a kid, I read all of them – three episodes or so to a novel. When I finally actually watched more Star Trek 1960s episodes later on in life… well, look, let me just say that my imagination created a very different world to the cardboard-budget world of the actual series.

A lot of the media I absorbed was also very much not aimed at tweens and teenagers like me. In fact, my favourite fantasy series was a trashy but enjoyable one which, years later, I realised didn’t just have lesbian subtext… but text. (I only realised this years later when my “I think the two women are into each other” memory was put to the test buying it on Kindle.)

Subtle. No wonder gender-and-sexuality-confused past-Elissa was into this series more than Lord of the Rings.

Then there came video games.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, my friends had Nintendo or Sega consoles, ageing Commodore 64s or even (if they were very lucky) Amigas. We had no such luck. Ironically, my parents refused to let us buy devices whose sole purpose was to let us play video games. (“There’s no future in playing video games” is a particular irony given 2/3rds of their kids now work as professional video game developers.)

As a result, I mostly played the odd game at friends’ places – Sonic at one friend’s, back-seat driving during adventure games on an Amiga at another, and even getting to see the latest Famicom and Super Famicom stuff with my Japanese friend whose dad brought the hardware home from his business trips back to Tokyo (more on that later – it’s important).

IBM XT 5560

But my first at-home exposure to a computer came in the very late ’80s, when my father brought home one of the famous (but still extremely out of date) IBM XTs. This certainly wasn’t a gaming machine. Its principle purpose was to let him use a digital spreadsheet, to help manage his book store.

But, sometimes, I got to play on it. Maybe an hour every week. Of course, it had no real games on it – just a collection of BASIC games which were entirely text-driven and a far cry from Sonic the Hedgehog or The Legend of Zelda.

In fact, the one I remember spending the most time on was Wildcatter, a rudimentary business sim where you ran an oil drilling company. To make it feel more realistic, I used to take the monthly reports the game generated and print them out on the old tractor-feed dot matrix printers. I would file these away, doing a few turns a day, pretending I was running the business like my father. (Talk about a very ’80s Reaganesque indoctrination into capitalism.)

Imagine this, but in green-only single colour. That I found this exciting when I was about 9 or 10 says a lot.

So when other kids were playing extremely fancy 16-bit games, I was pretending to be an oil tycoon or reading lesbian fantasy novels. That would all change soon enough… but not quite in the way past-me would have wanted.

When I did get to play Sega or Nintendo, being at friend’s places… time was limited. You can’t really get into a single-player RPG when you’ve got maybe 15 minutes pass-the-controller with school friends, meaning the only consoles I ever liked back then were Sega – the ones with the fastest, the fanciest, and the simplest games.

I was given, a little later, a hand-me-down computer – a Commodore knock-off of the IBM XT I had first used, without a hard drive but with an orange-hued display instead of a green one. Really, this shouldn’t have changed much. It was functionally the same out-of-date computer I’d been using for years.

The Commodore PC-5, extremely similar to the one I had. Not only was the green hued screen now orange – it was clearer, too!

What was different with this computer? Well, nothing. It had similar specs (actually, worse as it had no 20mb hard drive to install things on)… but it was in my room.

This meant I could play games without parental supervision. Getting blank 5.25″ disk packets, I would convince friends to copy me whatever games they had that would run on such an old computer. Which, in practice, meant two things – texture adventures, and early Sierra games that still ran on monochrome displays. I couldn’t find many of the latter, either. Early on, I think I had Space Quest 1 & 2, Leisure Suit Larry, and a copy of Police Quest with a bad sector on the second disk, meaning I could play perhaps only the first third of the game (the patron car section).

Imagine an entire graphical game in glowing orange. My childhood gaming was pretty wild.

This fed into my sense of being too cool for the games my friends were playing. While they were bouncing Italian plumbers atop of cutesy turtles, I was pretending to be a police officer or an oil tycoon or playing bleak sci-fi Infocom text adventures.

Over the years, I would eventually drop out of high school, get a job, and buy my own computer hardware. Soon my room was full of PCs – at one point I had three in my room, just for me – and could even afford to buy my own quite-graphical PC games, including one of the first ones I ever purchased with my own money.

Even when I did get graphical PC games, I tended to gravitate towards the long, self-serious role-playing adventures that still impact my taste in games today – the day I got a machine fast enough to run Ultima VII in my room led to many late nights fighting the evil can’t-believe-it’s-not-Scientology cult in Ultima VII (the greatest RPG ever made).

But my sense of being an adult, not a child, persisted. I balked at Mario or Zelda, despite being quietly envious of my friends who grew up playing them.

An open-world in 1992. A murder mystery – and you could play as a woman. What’s not to love?

The irony, of course, is that what I most wanted wanted was complex games – systemically and narratively, to match the adult, grim-dark media I’d been consuming in text form almost since I was old enough to do so.

If I’d actually gotten a Nintendo, I’d probably have loved them. Maybe not Pokemon so much, but I am quite sure that had past-me gotten past the chip-on-the-shoulder and envy… they’d have become as die-hard a Zelda or Final Fantasy fan as anyone else.

However, when your only exposure to Nintendo is in pockets of time at friend’s places – I don’t think it’s really ever possible to love the most complex games on the platforms.

As such, all I saw with Nintendo… was twee plumbers and other things teen-me rolled their eyes at.

So while I sometimes imagine what-if scenarios about my past, the thing I most think of as I now begin my slow collecting of retro gaming hardware… is what if I’d been a Nintendo Girl?