December 25th, 1990– which was 25 years ago this past Christmas Day– was a pretty special day in my life.
At the time, I had just finished my first semester of college after graduating from high school back in June of that year. I had moved in with my paternal grandmother to commute to school, rather than rent an apartment. As an 18 year-old vocal performance major, and my first college experience was… not so great. I had a difficult time building rapport with the professors in the music department at the school, so every day of class was an uphill battle. I was also pretty much a nerdy loner; I didn’t really know anyone on campus and rarely got along with people my age. I mean… just look at me 25 years ago:
Video games, as they had been for most of my life, continued to be my refuge from life’s challenges and frustrations. My video game time was split between local mall arcades and my aging Commodore 64 computer. Arcade time was great, but limited due to lack of money. As for the Commodore 64, it was now four years old and had begun to feel a bit stale. The keyboard was missing a space bar (because of an unfortunate Indoor Sports accident), and I had spent hours and hours with the games that I’d had.
My two best friends back in high school each had Nintendo Entertainment Systems, but I had left them both behind when I began college… so the only NES time I would get was via a PlayChoice-10 machine in the arcade. I had grown fond of the NES over the last couple of years and I wanted my own console, but I was 100% focused on school and part of the deal in living with my grandmother was that any job worked would have to be during the summer. This meant that there was no way I could afford it.
In late November of 1990, the JCPenney Wish Book arrived at the house. My grandmother showed it to me when I got home from class in the afternoon. Making a Christmas list was a yearly tradition between my grandmother and I, and even as a young adult, I was as excited as I was as a child for this tradition. Of course… I had kind of outgrown a lot of the toys in the book, but there was one item that I saw on page 451 that made my eyes light up:
Yup. A Nintendo Action Set. As I looked closely at the page, my grandmother took notice right away.
“What is that? A video machine?”
Over the next 30 minutes, my grandmother and I talked about the NES. I explained to her what it was and showed some of the games that it played. I mentioned how I had been spending money and time at the arcade playing NES games via the PlayChoice-10, and how neat it would be to have an NES at home instead of going to arcades or to friends’ houses to play. I pointed out that there were home versions of the game shows that we used to watch at night, in Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!.
Afterwards, my grandmother didn’t seem too sure.
“Well… go ahead and put it on your wish list, Peter John. Be sure to pick out some other things, too. I’m not too sure about a video machine.”
I took the catalog upstairs to my bedroom and set to making my list, and it was tougher than it had ever been. I kept flipping back to pages 451, 452, and 453 while trying to pick out clothes or trying to figure out whether I could legitimately ask for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures. A few circles here, a few words and page numbers there, and I left my completed wish list on the kitchen table before turning in for the night.
The next three weeks didn’t allow me much time to think about the wish list. My first end-of-semester experience was rough, with lots of homework along with preparations for my final exams– including practicing for a three-selection performance for my voice professor that would determine my grade. Aside from the occasional trip to the arcade on a weekend, video gaming in general took a back seat to my studies. I worked hard and, despite the challenges of the semester, managed to get grades high enough for a spot on the Dean’s List.
With classes finally done, the last few days before Christmas went by slowly. I was excited for the big day to arrive. I would be seeing my immediate family, I would be having an awesome meal, and– I hate to admit this– I was eager to see if my wishes would be granted this year. My grandmother had not given any indication or hint about what items on the list made the cut, which was unusual for her. In fact, there were no gifts in sight until I came downstairs to go to Midnight Mass. I saw them… but forced myself to not pay too much attention.
At last, after a fitful sleep, the morning of December 25th, 1990 had arrived. As I made my way downstairs, my grandmother made the same proclamation that she’d made every year since I could remember: “It looks like Santa thought that you were good this year. I put in a good word for you.” Sure, I was 18 years old… but hearing that made me feel like I was a kid again. I quickly downed a bowl a Fruity Pebbles and made my way into the living room.
“Here. Open this one.”
The tag read FROM SANTA on it. I didn’t even pay attention to the size, as I was still half-asleep. I fumbled with the wrapping for a bit, then accelerated as my eyes saw what was underneath. A flood of emotions washed over me as I gazed upon my very own Nintendo Action Set, and tears welled up in my eyes. After years of wanting one and after so many challenges with moving away from home and with college over the past few months… my wish had been granted. I hugged my grandmother and she hugged me back.
“Santa knew that this is what you wanted. I told you that you were good.”
Super Mario Bros. 3, Super C, and Jeopardy! 25th Anniversary Edition were the additional gifts under the tree. My grandmother was convinced that I could use the Jeopardy! game for practice to be on television some day; in fact, she believed this until her dying day six years later. Jeopardy! was also the first game that I played on my new console, and I still think of her when I play the game today.
It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been 25 years. My life has certainly changed a lot since then, but my love of the Nintendo Entertainment System has always remained. The first video game reviews that I ever wrote online (back in 1999) covered NES games. After selling off my NES for a launch-day Dreamcast, I got another for my 40th birthday back in 2012. That coincided with finding some retrogaming site called Retroware TV to check out NES-related videos from Pat The NES Punk… and, well, it’s been history since then.
I will always be grateful, even posthumously, for my grandmother (and Santa Claus) coming through and making my wish come true on that Christmas morning. I love her and miss her every day, but memories like this one keep her close to my heart and keep me looking forward to Christmas with the same excitement every year as I watch my nieces and nephews create their own memories. I will also always be grateful to the team here at Retroware— John D., Lance, Jay, Mike, Jeremy, and all of the video and written content creators– for making this site what it is and for giving me the chance to share my walks down memory lane with all of you.
EDIT: I shot a special video for my YouTube channel on Christmas Eve that recounted the story and shared a few additional thoughts. It’s embedded below, if you’d like to check it out: