Life Lessons in the 8 Bit

My nine year old son has gotten into something rather surprising — 8 bit games for Nintendo and Sega. You know, the old stuff I used to play on the Nintendo Entertainment System or the Sega Master System. As I type this, he’s in the office, playing Contra on a NES emulator for the Mac.

He’s also doing the best he can not to swear and curse whenever he dies. In some ways, it’s funny while it’s also heartening to watch him not give up, but rather grit his teeth and wade back into the fray, spread gun blazing away at gun turrets. As I watch him, and listen to him, I’ve also schooled him. He was having issues with one level, getting frustrated, and really working himself up into a good state of pissed-off. I told him to calm down, grabbed the controller out of his hand, and did a speed run through the level, killing almost everything that moved.

Thing is, I didn’t kill everything. Oh no.

That’s what I’ve been teaching him, that even video games can be a life lesson. Today’s games are very different from the ones I played growing up. You see the latest game in the Legend of Zelda series? Holy crap it’s pretty. Link, the main character, looks like a elven warrior. He’s got his sword and shield at the ready. He’s dynamic, ready for battle, and capable of bringing down the forces of Ganon yet again. He’s got great moves that execute fluidly with a push of a button or a wave of the Wii-mote.

That’s cool. The Link I grew up with looked like this:


You can kind of see that he’s an elf. That ear does look sorta pointy in the way that a square can look pointy. His nose? Yes, it’s touching his shield and look at the size of it! (His nose, not his shield.) His foot barely extends from his leg and he’s bereft of kneecaps. Now, does he have green eyes and huge brown eyelashes or does he have brown eyes with huge green eyebrows? Who knows? And who cares? This little green dude and I took down Ganon together.

It’s not just the graphics though, is it? Games today barely even come with a manual and you know why? Because you’re led through the game by the hand, pulled along by dialogue and invisible rails. Hell, I can name several games where one of the characters literally has the word “FOLLOW” over his head in big letters so you know to follow that bastard. Don’t go off and do your own thing. Don’t explore too far, because you need to follow that fool otherwise the game won’t go anywhere. Almost any game you buy and play today will spend the first 15 minutes to an hour doing little more than teaching you how to play the game. Meanwhile, back in Zelda, here’s the first screen:

Zelda-NESWhere do you go? What do you do? Left? Right? Up? Is that a cave? Should you go in it? Where are you? You need to answer these questions yourself. In the original Zelda, there are dungeons, and it’s best to explore them in a certain order as higher level dungeons require more life energy and better weapons. Trying to enter the level five dungeon right away after starting the game is suicide. Ah, but there’s a snag:

Where in the hell is the level one dungeon, let alone level five? Where are any of the dungeons, and when you come to one, how do you know which level it is?

Short answer: You don’t. Longer answer: You seriously need a map. Longest answer: You need a map, some intel on the land of Hyrule, and unless you have the little manual that came with the game, you don’t get it. You. Are. On. Your. Own.

I love the game Batman: Arkham City. Flying around a big cityscape as the Dark Knight Detective? Solving crimes and kicking ass? Beating the shit out of Penguin and flirting with Catwoman? Hell yes, that’s fun! Funny thing though. When you finally suit up as Batman, you get the following items:

  • A map
  • A wide selection of gadgets
  • A wealth of abilities to kick ass
  • Ranged weapons
  • Smoke bombs
  • Grappling hook
  • Support from Alfred and Oracle

Meanwhile back in 8 bit land, here’s Batman:


You don’t get shit, Jack. You can beat up bad guys, you’ll eventually get some Batarangs and gadgets, but when you start out you are naked in a Batsuit. Help isn’t coming. No one will talk you through the level. You need to do this yourself.

Sage advice from a more civilized age.
Sage advice from a more civilized age.

So, going back to him playing Contra, what did he learn in a few minutes with a Nintendo game and his old man?

  1. Sometimes, you are on your own. You make the decisions and you call the shots. Backup isn’t coming.
  2. Because of that, you are liberated to do what you need to do.
  3. I took the controller from him and did a speed run through that level. From that he learned that with experience and practice, you can do awesome and interesting things.
  4. He also learned that you don’t have to kill everything that moves. In real life, this equates to dealing with distraction. NES games were all about distraction. Don’t let distractions keep you from accomplishing your goals.
  5. Speaking of distractions, that guy down there? He can’t shoot you from here. You need to go down there to shoot him, and when you go down there, you’ll get shot. So if he can’t bother you, why bother him? In the words of Bad Street Brawler, another old-school video game “Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you.” He’s just another distraction. Move on.
  6. That turret that juts out of the rock? It can only shoot in 8 directions. If you’re standing in a place that isn’t one of those directions, then it can’t hurt you. That weird gun that just appears out of the ground and fires off a burst of three rounds? You can lie down right in front of it and pump lead into it and it has no defense mechanism for that. The end boss of level one? Stand back with the spreader and fire away. It can’t reach you on the far side of the screen and you can just poke away until you win. The lesson? Every problem you have to deal with has an optimal way of dealing with it. Find that optimal way and use it to your advantage.
  7. The bridge that explodes out from under you? You’ll land in the water below it and you’re actually out of reach of many of the enemies that were pursuing you on the bridge. Sometimes the things that look like problems are just opportunities.
  8. Throughout most of Contra, and many other games on the NES, there is no good reason to stop moving. Keep moving forward, and never take your finger off the trigger. While that might not be a perfect analogy for life, an easy metaphor is to keep moving forward and try to prepare for the things in your way.

For now, it’s getting late. So the thing that he’ll learn here in a few minutes is that the video game will be there tomorrow, and he can always conquer it then with a clearer head, made possible by a good night’s sleep.

Have a good evening and, always remember, if in doubt. UP UP DOWN DOWN LEFT RIGHT LEFT RIGHT B A START.

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