Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Game Saved: The Handheld War

This is Game Saved. I’m Daniel Ness.

For Christmas my nephew was given a DSi in 3D.

That’s what he calls his 3DS. A friend of his sister’s--Bella, the kind of bossy older girl feared and worshipped in equal measure--had a DSi that she guarded with her life. Whenever she felt magnanimous she let them play with it, and so they both wanted DSis for Christmas, DSis above all else.

“Don’t you want a 3DS?” I said. I explained to them what it was. “It’s like, the new DSi, better than a DSi, better games, better graphics, and--” I played my trump card “it’s in 3. D.”

My niece looked mortified. “No,” she said. “I want a DSi. Only a DSi. Like Bella’s.”

“But why?”

“Because if I have a DSi that’s better than Bella’s, she’ll take it away and won’t let me play on it.”

My nephew is a video game freak. He gets through games faster than we can buy them, largely because he doesn’t understand the concept of saving, and plays through the first levels over and over until he’s bored, starting a fresh game every time. He wants to take his DSi in 3D with him to school.

We tell him he’ll lose it.

“I won’t,” he says.

“Older boys will take it from you. Bigger boys.”

“I’ll beat them up.” He’s six, and short. He goes to ‘kicknastics’ classes where he’s earned a white belt, the belt you get for showing up.

He doesn’t understand that his DSi in 3D is a status symbol. He doesn’t understand there are kids, teenagers and grown-ups who’re all too willing to push a little boy into the mud to steal his pride and joy. He doesn’t understand what separates a DSi from a DSi in 3D, he doesn’t understand what makes them different. He doesn’t know because he wasn’t there when the sides were drawn up, when the opposing forces squared off, when bigger, older boys circled the battlefield like vultures and the Handheld War began in earnest.

But I was.

Paul Winter was our first recruit. My best friend, his parents were on the cusp of going through a messy divorce. Desperate to win his love his dad bought him a plaything so unimaginably grandiose, when he brought it into school, as if wired together, our jaws fell as one.

An Atari Lynx. A full-colour 8-bit handheld back in the days when bits meant everything . . . and didn’t it look at least 16-bit, maybe even 32? It was massive, the size of a tug boat, big enough to fit an entire family aboard, sturdy enough to pull the Titanic. To a class more used to monochrome Game & Watches he might as well have brought an arcade cabinet to school. Crowds gathered, so dense not a photon of daylight could penetrate the huddle. It was just as well, then, that the Lynx had a backlit screen. Paul could play California Games in a power outage. He could play Slime World under the covers, after dark. So what if the graphics were oddly interlaced, with as much of the screen devoted to blank black columns as to the games themselves--he could play Pac-Land on the toilet, even in an eclipse!

The war had begun, and the vultures circled nearer.

Game Boys entered the field, wowing us, every one. They weren’t in colour--they were probably only 4-bit--but who cared about that when you could play Super Mario wherever you went? Kids brought in link-up cables, staged multiplayer tournaments in the lunch hour. Tetris. Super RC Pro Am. The tinkling chime of the start-up screen could often be heard during class, and you’d hope, pray, the teacher didn’t hear it as well and thunder to the back of the room to claim the Game Boy as his own.

More exotic handhelds appeared: the Turbo Express, looking like a walkie talkie, genuine 16-bit graphics processing, imported from overseas. Rare and precious, Lee Clark brought one in and the whole year forgot Lynxes and Legends of Zelda to crowd around and watch. He sat on the stage during a drama class when the teacher failed to appear and we gawped; he was only playing Bonk’s Adventure but he might as well have been delivering the Sermon on the Mount.

Then it was my turn to be called up for action. Having no console of my own but buying copious issues of Mean Machines I was a SEGA kid; of course, I came to own a Game Gear. Sonic, Wonderboy, Shinobi, Fantasy Zone--the full roster of SEGA greats, now mobile, taken with me wherever I went.

“Don’t take it to school,” my parents warned, but how could I not? I had to show this thing off, this badge of honour, this medal on my breast. I had no knives, no paintball guns, no cool older brothers, no WWF wrestling figures. I was nobody; this was my chance to be someone, owning a status symbol everyone in class craved.

So I disobeyed and took it in, and crowds oohed, aahed and gathered, and when Mr. Butcher caught me showing it off in CDT he didn’t confiscate it but asked me to demonstrate this futuristic technology that let me play Columns on the go. “Don’t let me see you taking that out again,” he said, but in a good natured way. He understood what it meant to a kid to show off his status symbols. After all, CDT stood for Craft, Design and Technology.

My school’s biggest fundraiser was the 24-Hour Sponsored Event. A single day and night where kids were sponsored to dress as they wanted and do as they liked. For some, this meant showing up to school in football gear to play sport while kids not participating studied end of term maths. But they’d always tire of tennis and rugby, and end up joining the rest of us in the bowels of the school basement where our war was fought with gusto.

Every computer, every console, every game, hooked up to the school’s electricity, syphoning voltage and current, the music room lit like a Christmas tree, sounding like an amusement arcade. For twenty-four hours we punched, jumped and shot our way through myriad stages, single player, multiplayer, playing in shifts, bleary-eyed, determined to last through to the wee small hours. While those in school uniform slept in their beds and kids who weren’t hardy enough crashed on their desks, we soldiered into the night, playing video games.

John Secker brought in his Spectrum. The games took eight minutes to load, but it was okay, we had time, and we played Underwurlde while the cockerel crowed, unaware we were still awake.

I brought in my Game Gear. Most of the time it stayed hidden in my school bag. I didn’t really want to take it out; I knew the dangers that could befall it, the vultures croaking nearby. Most of the time we were too engrossed in Megadrive or Master System games, or watching Paul Winter playing the Super NES his father had left in his stead--a poor swap for his dad, but an excellent way to play Street Fighter 2.

Some Game Boys circulated, played by kids waiting turns on Tazmania and Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles. The school’s dim bulbs were hardly the best light source for the Game Boy’s blurry screens, but with Tetris and Mario Land to tide us over, we muddled by.

And nothing bad happened, no crooks, no thieves befell them, so I figured, what’s the harm? At three in the morning I took out the Game Gear, let someone have a burn. No harm. No foul. I wandered off to play something else.

Twenty minutes later the kid comes up to me. “Where’s my Game Gear?” I ask.

“Somebody took it.”

He wasn’t upset. As far as he was concerned the only thing that had happened was his game of Sonic 2 had come to an early close. But me?

It felt like my stomach had fallen through the floor, and that the floor was the highest floor of the tallest towerblock, and that instead of basements below there was only a pit that ran to the centre of the Earth. There, the Devil waited, mocking me in my parents’ voices: Don’t take it into school.

And I’d disobeyed and now I was paying the price. I could have grabbed the kid who’d so carelessly lost my pride and joy and shaken him until his eyes sank into his skull and his teeth rained to the ground like diamonds at a robbery. I wanted to pick him up and throw him down, and then raze the school to its foundations. Burning this haystack was the only way I could find the needle buried within. My justice would be swift and searing. My vengeance would blaze.

And then I was only a kid again, scared he might never find his favourite toy.

I looked from room to room, in the classes where bigger, older, smellier kids slept and watched smut on portable TVs, and played with flick-knives, and talked about loose girls, barely noticing a scrote like me passing through. I ventured onto the haunted upper floors where, my school being old, and having once been a hospital, innumerable souls had passed away. There were no children and no handheld games consoles. Instead they harboured instead shadows, bats and spectres. I looked outside, across rugby pitches which had once been creeks, under a sky where the sun dared not tread, starless and moonless, cloud-covered, unforgiving. I looked everywhere in my panic, in the off-limits office block, near the cottages with gardens that backed onto school property.

What about my property? I wondered.

But the Game Gear was nowhere to be seen.

I sloped back to the music room, disconsolate, exhausted, giving up hope of ever seeing it again.

And then, a sound: the crystal chime of a hedgehog grabbing a ring.

My console!

I located it at the centre of a committee of vultures, held between them as if they were pecking at its innards. I’d like to say the boys were bigger than I was, or at least older, but while we were more or less the same age the three of them were shorter than me by far.

But they were mean, cruel and twisted by years of people making fun of how small they were. They came from the bad part of town, where no amount of renovations and renaming ceremonies made the roads any safer to tread. They lived on streets we hurried through in the car, doors locked, lest they were opened and we were flung to the gutter.

All of this passed through my head when I saw them playing on my Game Gear.

One of them--the smallest, angriest, hardest--looks up from his game, glaring: a poison dwarf sucking nature’s bitterest seed.

“Wot?” he says.

And in this war, defeat’s claws chill on my back, I decide to fight.

I step forward--stride, really, with a swagger I don’t feel, with a confidence false--and take it right from his hands. “This,” I say in a voice like God’s, “this is mine.” I could have been talking about the tree of knowledge; instead it’s the games console I’m taking--no, winning back.

And the kid--the rough kid, the kid my parents always warned me about--and his cronies are gob-smacked. They don’t say a word as I leave. They don’t move a muscle. They don’t follow or shout--they don’t even drop their hands, but sit as if still holding the Game Gear, now invisible.

My heart hammers and my legs feel weak, but my fingers hold tight to my medal, my toy. I place it back in the school bag and zip it up tight, and don’t let it out of my sight until dawn has come and gone. And when I get home, school over for the summer, I sleep until teatime, bag under the bed below. The war rages on but this battle, I know, is won.

I want to tell this all to my nephew, who insists his toys will be safe. “I just want to show my friends,” he says, unaware he’s skipping through a minefield that might detonate with one false step. He’s too young. He doesn’t understand.

But I do, all too well.

And though I’m older, and the rough kids are far away, there are other vultures circling, hungering for his status symbol: a DSi in 3D.

The battle might be over but the war rages on.

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