Retrogamer: Boogeyman

On Halloween, I drank too much. I didn’t vomit or drive drunk or anything like that, but I most certainly embarrassed myself. The details aren’t important—no one was mad and friends of friends thought I was hilarious—but the next morning, I was scared at the loss of control. I greyed out enough to make my memories unreliable. What is a person without consciousness?

Not much of a person at all.

It reminded me of an incident ten years ago, when my good friend showed up on my doorstep, incoherently drunk and insensible. I didn’t get angry at his pop-in and I didn’t get angry when he broke my futon and vomited down the hallway and on the bathroom walls. When he spent the next day camped in my living room, eating my food and chain-smoking cigarettes, I was still only irritated. After all, who hasn’t been there?

No, it was afterhe saved over my 99 percent completed file of Knights of the Old Republic: The Sith Lords that I lost my temper, threw a shoe and said, “Get your shit and get out, Crawford.”

Last year, at a sushi bar in Ocean City, Maryland, I reminded him of this story. Crawford blushed and, after apologizing, asked, “But why did you lose your temper then?”

“Because after spending 60 hours on the damned game and not finishing, I wasn’t going to go back and do it. I just know myself. And now I’ll have never finished it and there’s this closure that I’ll never get.”

We went outside and smoked cigarettes in the sushi bar’s parking lot. “Well, can’t you go back and finish it?”

It was a hot day in August and I brushed sweat from my forehead. “There’s a lot of games I never finished. I can’t imagine going back and finishing any of them at this point.”

He shrugged. “Seems like a waste of time if you don’t.” He paused and crushed his cigarette. “Besides, it was out of your control.”

I had no answer, because he was put a name to the feeling I didn’t know I was feeling.

When I got my Wii, I discovered that it could download old Nintendo games. It was a bright, shining moment. I immediately downloaded a handful of classics; some I had always intended to play (Metroid) and others I wanted to play again (The Legend of Zelda, Punch-Out!!). There were more games on the list, but I’m not crazy. I don’t need all of the games.

On a warm spring day designed for running, mowing, playing soccer or kickball, lunching at the park, whatever, I pulled down the blinds and fired upThe Legend of Zelda. It had been decades since I’d played and I expected it to challenge and entertain me for at least a few days.

One of those was correct. I was certainly entertained.

While it had indeed been twenty years since the last time I’d played the classic 8-bit adventure game starring everyone’s favorite green-clad elf, I had evidently played it plenty when I was younger. Zelda starts on a blank screen with a cave that beckons. Into the cave is a field of black and crude borders that resemble rock walls. A robed man with a beard offers a sword. When Link, the hero, takes it, he holds it aloft. It’s a magical moment, despite the rudimentary graphics. Somehow, the representations of fire, of boulders and bushes, are enough, and a world is built through simplistic pixels.

After the sword, I left the cave, I looked at the three options: I could go west, north or east. I went north, of course, and then west, and west again, then north and then made a series of turns until I found myself at the doors to Level One, across a bridge. Everythinghad come back to me without conscious thought. At every screen, I knew which bush to burn, which rock to bomb, which turn in the Lost Forest to take to get to the graveyard (in order to get that Magic Sword before tackling Level 5, obviously). I remembered all the secret coin-deposits and which order to grab them for that all-important Blue Ring; I remembered to buy an extra meat early on for the insatiable Moblin in level 7; I even remembered the order to play the gambling game for max returns.

All told, it took me the better part of an afternoon to beat The Legend of Zelda. And it was fun, but not what I wanted. But I wasn’t yet sure what that was.

In 2002, I broke up with my girlfriend. When our attempt at friendship inevitably failed, she cut off all contact because it was too painful for her once I started dating again.

“But it’s different. We’re friends.” I did not get a response.

In the weeks that followed, I sent email after email into the void, trying to convince Mary Beth that we could remain friends. After all, we’d known each other for six years. We were part of each other’s lives, weren’t we? She had to stay friends with me.

My attempts at contact dwindled but didn’t disappear right away. Instead of weekly, I emailed monthly, then yearly. Toward the end of it, it wasn’t about re-establishing friendship. It was just about getting a response, full stop. It was about closing the loop on my end, about regaining that little bit of power I’d lost when she broke off contact.

Isn’t that all closure really is? Saying goodbye on my/your/our own terms? When a door is slammed in our face, we want to open it. But when you slam it shut, the control is yours. You can bolt the door shut, blow it off its hinges, bury it under metaphorical rock.

Somewhere in the mid-aughts, I gave up trying to reestablish any contact, exhausted from trying and getting nothing back. I don’t remember the date because giving up is the least memorable activity imaginable. No one wants to remember failure clearly. If they do, they’re a kind of masochist I don’t want to know.

I understood that trying to get closure was not a good thing, healthy, nor even necessary. My ex made her feelings clear: I can’t be friends with you. Don’t try to get in contact because I don’t want to be in contact.

Really, that’s about as closed as a relationship can get.Even though I stopped trying to get in contact, the desire to end things on my terms never went away. It was just sublimated by everything else. Jobs, friends, travel, other girlfriends, hobbies. Life.

As anyone who’s ever played The Legend of Zelda knows, after the Triforce is re-formed, Ganon is defeated and the princess saved, the game starts over. This is not uncommon in older games: simply raising the difficulty was the norm. So, Link losing all of his powerups and items and starting exactly where he began, in an empty screen with a cave and three exits, was not unusual. Except this time, the world itself changed. Dungeons popped up in mostly different places, secrets found new homes, and enemies were tougher. Even the little snakes from the early levels threw daggers. Daggers.

To beat the first quest took an inordinate amount of time. It’s easy to forget that given the decades, but games back in the ’80s and ’90s were hard. Hyrule, where the action takes place, is a small world by today’s standards, but players lacked clues of where to proceed. The game was really about exploration and experimentation. Bombing weird rocks, pushing random walls, burning everything.

It probably took hundreds of hours the first time through. As an adult, when the game restarted and Link held a white sword on the start screen I felt defeated. To hell with doing all of that exhaustive ground-breaking over again.

When I was nineteen, I worked at a summer camp. There was a sports counselor and an arts counselor, an education counselor and a trail counselor. There were others, their roles unremembered (though I’m certain they were defined). I was the “extra” counselor and it was my responsibility to come up with lesson plans that met the gap.

I didn’t know how to do this, and so I didn’t. For two weeks, I did nothinguntil my bosses caught on. They gave me a warning that went unheeded. A week later, I quit before I could get fired. It was sad and I felt a failure, but that’s not the point of the story.

What I did have at the camp was a good friend, Zach. He and I liked the same games, the same women, the same drinks, laughed at the same jokes. On the day I quit, he gave me his number and told me to call him, that we’d have to stay in touch. Of course, I never called him. I was depressed and ashamed of how badly I’d done at an easy job. The last thing I wanted was reminders.

But I didn’t lose his number. After enough time had passed to take out the sting, I called him. He didn’t answer and I left a message. A few months later, I called again. The number had been disconnected. I shrugged and figured I’d run into him again eventually. I didn’t need closure because, hey, what was there to close? We were friends and when we saw each other again, we’d be friends again. No stress, no need to close nothing.

Four years later, I bummed a smoke from a random dude sitting outside, minding his own business. “Mike?” he asked. It was another camp counselor we’d worked with.

I immediately said, “How’s Zach? That motherfucker never called me back.”

I’ll never forget the dude’s face when he answered. First his eyes widened, then they shut, then his mouth worked but nothing came out, so he pressed his lips together and put his hand to his forehead. Then he sighed, metmy eyes. Here’s this random guy who barely knows me. And he has to say, “I can’t believe I’m the one to tell you this. Zach isn’t alive anymore. He died five years ago.”

I did the math; he’d died somewhere around the time I called him and left him a message. Maybe he heard it, maybe he didn’t. But regardless, now I had a need for closure.

I made my excuses, found a quiet place and cried for a solid ten minutes. That isn’t closure either.

There aren’t too many games that I was simply unable to beat. I didn’t have the reflexes to finish Ninja Gaiden or Punch Out!! and I was never quite good enough at first person shooters to successfully master Goldeneye 007 at the hardest level. That’s about the list.

I wondered, after so long, maybe it was time to close some doors.

I loaded up Ninja Gaiden on my emulator soon after finishing Zelda. Gaidenis a platform game in the purest sense. The titular ninja is Ryu Hayabusa, and he spends the game hacking and slashing hordes of enemies, jumping off ledges and using ninja powers like fireballs, mystic shields and shurikens (because those are magic) on a quest to avenge his father, retrieve a demon statue and save the world.

As with Zelda, everything came back. The jumps, the timing, the wall-crawling. I flew through the first five levels on the first set of lives. Enter the sixth … and I remembered the true nature of this game: brutal and unforgiving. Ninja Gaiden was and is a game that requires split-second timing and memorization. In the middle of chasms, eagles will send Ryu plummeting to death; after defeating an enemy, they will respawn if Ryu is knocked backwards, pinballing him between foes. Everything kills, much like Australia.

After cursing for hours, I made it to the final boss, one I’d never made it to as a child (there are three consecutive bosses to end the game—I’d never made it past the second). And since I was emulating, I saved the game and entered into hours of brutal beat down. Even abusing save states, I couldn’t do more than bloody his lip.

I threw the controller across the room. To hell with it. Besides, does winning by cheating mean anything, anyway?

Punch Out!! was next. Despite being full of frustration, I loaded up Little Mac and his horde of racist opponents to play.

My first thought was: this is so much easier than I remember. Until I got through all the sub-bosses and came face to face with Iron Mike himself. I’d forgotten that for the first minute and a half, he sends Little Mac to the canvas with a single punch. I’d never gotten good enough to avoid being knocked the fuck out when I was a kid. Now I would do it.

Wrong. I lost within that first minute and a half. I tried again. Done in 30 seconds. Again. Almost a minute. Again. Again. Again.

I gave up after the tenth or fifteenth try. I’d gotten to the second round once. I’d knocked him down once. It was time to admit failure.

This summer was full of bad news, much of it cancer-related (none of it me). Under the sadness, what I felt the most was this great well of helplessness. There was literally nothing I could do other than spend time with those about to leave.And after I determined to do just that, I found myself booting up my Wii and clicking on The Legend of Zelda and the icon of Link with a sword.

I might have no control over dying loved ones and no way to make them better, but goddamnit, I was going to beat a video game that had taunted me since childhood.

I don’t really know how long I played. I was on auto-pilot for most of it. I checked all the normal spots, and then went into an exhaustive search, screen to screen, burning every out-of-place bush and bombing walls until they revealed their secrets. They occurred, one by one. And I progressed quickly. Many games aren’t terribly hard when you know the rules and aren’t concerned with small failures and small deaths.

We might be powerless, but we can assert control over something. When I finally beat the Second Quest a couple days later (the whistle, an item with limited utility in the first quest, is utterly essential in the Second), I was able to check an item off of my list that had been there for twenty-five years.

It wasn’t closure, but it was something.

Closure’s like the boogeyman or the friend zone: it doesn’t exist. It’s about asserting control over a situation where we have no power. My cat, Saucepan, died this past month. I was with her when she died and the days leading up to it. While I was devastated, it felt like a chapter ending instead of an ellipsis.

We pretend we have control. I think it’s why people get so unreasonably angry at the weather, at brutal heat and unforgiving cold, at rain and snow. Because it’s the ultimate uncontrollable.An umbrella or a sweater only does so much. And if we can’t control something, we rage.

I didn’t need closure with Ninja Gaiden. It was better than I was and had defeated me. Mike Tyson will always make me his bitch and even mentioning the Control Room of Goldeneye 007 causes my eye to twitch. And I have only myself to blame for not calling Zach or for letting Mary Beth’s decision to end contact upset me as much as it did. There was nothing ambiguous about Mary Beth’s decision. She closed a door. And Zach’s death is as closed as it gets.

Beating the Second Quest of The Legend of Zelda isn’t going to bring anyone back or repair friendships or accomplish anything. But it reminds me that we have some power and that when we spend time, we can bend the world to our will. And that’s great, but there’s also a whole lot of life that’s utterly outside of our control, like a tidal wave bearing down on our small, oceanfront town.

And the best we can do is ride it.