Quest Items: On Cartridge Games

In our new monthly column, “Quest Items,” Marcos Gonsalez explores the materiality of video games. Whether it be the experience of button mashing or blowing into cartridge games, using strategy guides and the literary qualities of game manuals, he examines the importance of materiality for how we think about politics, culture, and video games.

Piragüeros selling their shaved ice, older women with their custom-designed hats, the pastelito sellers giving us all that deep-fried deliciousness. These are the typical wares sold on the streets of Washington Heights, this neighborhood I call home. Unlike the rest, one Puerto Rican elder sells cartridge games on the sidewalk. A mass of cartridge games are lined up in rows on a table facing the traffic. On fair-weather days, they are open, unprotected. On days with contrary weather, they are sheathed in clear plastic, the titles still visible. NES, Sega, N64, you name the system and he has it. His shop is located across the street from my apartment, next to my local grocery store, so I pass by him frequently. I watch, and cringe, as the new arrivals to the neighborhood, a neighborhood coined “The New Williamsburg,” ask questions about the games in English as the man fumbles to answer them. Most of the time I stop, look for a minute, then resume purchasing my groceries. One day, out of curiosity, out of a will to just be neighborly, I ask him how he collected this many games. They were my sons’, he replies, and they grew up, grew out of them.

As much as I would like to, I don’t probe any further into this man’s life, into the history of how he amassed his collection. I settle for the smile he gives after he answers. A broad smile, a tooth or two golden capped, a depth and energy in the topmost reaches. He gives one of those smiles we give when there is more to a story, when there is a story, a story not meant for a stranger. I see his boys in the texture of his smile. Boys too macho, too grown to play video games anymore. Boys who to become men decided they no longer did such childish things. Boys who left their cartridge game collection in the apartment of their father, their father who left an island to make it in America, an America where he must sell cartridge games on the sidewalk to make ends meet because the rent spikes keep happening, the price of groceries keeps increasing, the cost of surviving keeps going up and up.

My assessment is unfair. I, too, grew up and left most of my games in my parents’ house. But I want those games, and someday when I have a big enough space will reclaim them. Tucked away in my childhood closet is one box holding a bunch of Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis games. These games, like the Puerto Rican viejo’s games, were not originally mine. They belonged to my brother. Like the Puerto Rican viejo who inherited his cartridge games from his children who no longer wanted them, I inherited mine from a brother who passed away at the age of twenty-one. They became mine when I was twelve because they had nowhere else to go. No one wanted them, much like the games of the Puerto Rican viejo’s children, and no one cared to have them. Relics of a dead and gone age.

Don’t blow that hard into it you knucklehead, my brother would say, snatching the cartridge from my hands. He would blow into it softly, hands gripping the other end gently, telling me like this, like this. So unlike him, all this softness, this boy that is a wrestler-wannabe, this boy built like a linebacker, this boy who acts first and thinks later. He’s everything to me, this boy. This boy who instills in me the love of gaming, the joy the pleasure the thrill of a controller in your hands. He is invulnerable, so I want to believe, like those many boss fights I cannot get past as a child, unbeatable, so I tell myself. I blow into the cartridges, as he would, plugging them into the console with care, as he would do, watching the screen in hopes it will light up, pixelated and alive, ready to be played. An extra life awarded.

For me, this box containing all these cartridge games is priceless. It is my brother. It is him beating me up in WWF: Wrestlemania The Arcade Game, or him guiding me through a Sonic game, or our coordinated combos taking down enemies in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. If he were still here, he would still be playing video games. His career as a gamer would not have ended with cartridge games, as those of the Puerto Rican viejo’s children did. He could still be a man, be an adult, and play.

The box full of cartridge games is more than nostalgia: it’s living memories.

Maybe that’s what those cartridge games are to the Puerto Rican viejo across the street from me. Something more than plastic, something more than just a video game. A trip downtown to the electronics store with his boys in a graffitied subway cart. The sound of an apartment full of life. The controller in his hand on occasion playing with his kids, schooling them and getting schooled by them. Memories in the microchips, dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled in the plastic.

Maybe he wants to sell them because these memories, these material objects tucked away in a closet, are too hard to keep around, too much to bear.

Maybe he doesn’t want to be outside there on the sidewalk selling them. Maybe he has no other choice.

Or maybe the story is as simple as him wanting more room in his apartment. More space for him to be with himself, a space he can call his own.