I’ve been thinking about how nerd/geek culture has went a lot more mainstream these days. And unlike those that exclusionists that think newcomers are diluting their existence, I personally think that this is really great for my generation (and for everyone). I want to live in a world where I’m not looked at as a weirdo for making a Star Wars reference or for saying “Well.. exCUSE me, Princess” (OK that one is never going to not be awkward I guess).
The fact is that kids today have access to all the knowledge they could ever want (a living, growing encyclopedia accessible from their smartphone or tablet). They can watch a ton of old-school cartoons, see a huge selection of anime, and play thousands of amazing games. They have easy access to nearly every fantasy book ever written.
I thought I’d write a little about what it was like being a nerd that was born in 1980 in a small mountain town (and to a budget-minded family) to showcase what an amazing time we live in now and maybe mention some things that people my age would find nostalgic or interesting.
TV Shows / Toys
When I was a kid, we only had two TV channels (ABC/CBS) – and only CBS came in at my house, ABC (and a scratchy UHF) up the road at my grandmothers – and there was no local comic store (the nearest was a mall that was 50 miles away).
Outside of reading, you got your intake of nerdly goodness on Saturday mornings. I remember that I used to wake my dad up on Saturday morning at 6am (as an insomniac, he had probably just fallen asleep on the couch) to be ready for the broadcast of TMNT and the other early shows. There I’d be, sitting there in a huge pile of LEGOs, trying to ignore Branded (or whatever that crap western was) while waiting for the toon block to start at 6 or 7 am.
(I’m pretty sure my dad was wide awake after he howled in pain, stepping on one of the legos I left in the carpet in front of the couch he slept on. He’s come wake me up to tell me about it too.)
I had a few He-Man and Thundercats toys (mostly He-Man, but with a random Thundertank and Tigra throw in with them for good measure) from birthdays and my friends had GI Joe toys – despite us never having watched the shows when at the time we had the toys. When we’d play together, we’d pretend that He-Man characters were giants attacking the Joes.
At first we had no idea about the backstory of these toys (our parents just randomly bought them for us at birthdays). I was able to later catch some He-Man and later Duck Tales at my other grandmother’s house 25 miles away when I stayed there in the summer. She had much better TV programming and would actually make VHS tapes of cartoons and Charlie Brown/Garfield specials to send to me.
This was, of course, after we owned a VHS tape player (which we originally rented from the video rental place in a huge suitcase). I remember the first time we rented a VHS machine and watched The Dark Crystal on it.
My grandmother (the one that recorded stuff) sent me a tape with the Hobbit and the Last Unicorn on it that I literally wore out from watching it so many times (and this was a pretty cool bonding experience with my mom since we could watch these together – which was rare, given our difference in tastes). Another few shows my mom and I really liked together were Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles, and X-Men (though this was later in the 90s).
And my grandmother had made copies of pretty much all the 80s Disney toons/movies on VHS (complete with commercials). It’s also interesting that my mom had bought me the Disney animated movies on audio tape years before I saw them on a TV (think of hearing the Jungle Book years before you saw the movie). I learned early on that the imagination is far better sometimes than having everything drawn out for you. This was especially true of the Black Cauldron.
Oddly enough Mom wasn’t a big fan of fantasy, He-Man, or really anything supernatural and I was basically forbidden to watch the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon show (despite it actually being pretty tame). I think she realized that I really liked the genre though and she actually started to like the Hobbit (it was kind of our get-together thing when I was a kid). My grandmother – the one that taped shows – passed away at the end of the 80’s but I still had her tapes for years and years – many of which got played all the way through the 90’s.
My parents separated temporarily while I was in middle school (which I’ll mention here and there in this article). When my parents finally got back together, my dad installed a satellite dish in the backyard. I believe the box had been hacked to pick up / descramble channels we didn’t exactly pay for (or maybe this was normal with the cable feeds back then.. I honestly don’t know).
Regardless, in the early 90s I was able to catch Star Trek: TNG from a Canadian satellite and even catch some Sailor Moon (my first anime) and Thundercats on an early Cartoon Network (or maybe the Sci-Fi channel.. not sure). I also remember taping the anime marathons they played on a Saturday on the Sci-Fi channel and then playing that tape over and over to watch Vampire Hunter D.
This was basically the only way we could watch anime back then (none of my friends really had any official VHS tapes because there was really no place to buy them – it was all mail order back then).
So I have a lot of nostalgia for movies because I remember where I went to see them and the circumstances of what happened around that time. I already mentioned that The Dark Crystal was the first VHS tape I ever saw and how my Dad had rented the VHS player in a huge black suitcase from the movie rental place. We just had a normal-sized TV in my parent’s bedroom to watch this on – a Zenith I believe. There was another TV in the living room that was sort of mixed with furniture.
(Member sitting around this thing, playing Super Mario? Member Magnum PI?.. Member the A-Team?)
When I was around 8, I caught a viewing of Lost Boys, Young Guns, and The Exorcist over at my aunt’s trailer (it was before she and her husband bought a house).
She mentioned that I couldn’t tell my parents that she was letting me watch these movies. I thought she was the coolest aunt ever for letting me watch this stuff. I always thought Lost Boys was pretty kid-friendly (it had the Monster Squad B-story), but the Exorcist not so much. I’ve loved vampire movies ever sense – especially with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which I’ll get to in a second).
When my dad and mom were courting again (to get back together after being separated), I got to watch Predator II over at his place (I was around 11 or 12). This was before I had seen Predator so it was sort of a strange way to be exposed to the franchise.
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves came out in ‘91 and I remember seeing that in the theater as well. The thing I remember most about it is the write-up in Nintendo Power about the NES game – which I’ve really never played (though now I want to again). This movie was everywhere.. I think I even remember hearing the Bryan Adams “Everything I Do” theme song on the radio while were driving over to the theater.
And the theater we attended was about 20 miles away. It was a quaint theater out beside a Pizza Hut, but they always had 5 or so arcade games / pinball games out in the lobby. I think that’s when I really started to love pinball and arcade games.
At the same theater, Bram Stoker’s Dracula came out in ‘92. I remember seeing that with my aunt and her (then) boyfriend. I never had the displeasure of playing the associated video games, but I do distinctly remember the Pinball game that went along with it. It was later there in the theater and it was awesome. It’s not my favorite table, but it definitely hits the nostalgia spots with the movie quotes.
Besides the theater, another of my fondest memories is going to the local movie rental store with my mom on $1 rental Tuesdays. We rented and watched a ton of movies together (since you got to keep them for several days).
She was most excited to get movie versions of books she had read to me or to her students – like Black Beauty. I was pretty happy to get to finally see Star Trek TV episodes on tape (this was before we had anything but CBS on TV – which wasn’t showing them at the time).
The rental store was also how I first encountered the Star Wars movies since my parents weren’t really into them and I didn’t get to see them as a kid. Also, I think the reason I was 11 or older before I got to see Star Wars was that my friend and I were misbehaving one time when she rented it and she refused to let us rent it as punishment.
Even though my mom didn’t like fantasy movies, she knew I did. So I got exposed to all the classic movies from the 80’s and 90’s – like Excalibur, Dragonheart, Willow, Dragonslayer, etc.
And Dad loved all the sci-fi action movies like Robocop, Predator, Terminator, etc – so I got to see those too. We were actually pretty well-versed on classic Sci-Fi fantasy in my household.
As an 80s kid in my region, you only found out about video games by renting them from the local video rental place (which didn’t have a big selection and was always a generation behind) or from watching commercials on Saturday morning (and my parents usually bought me the last generation gaming consoles anyways due to budget anyways). So it was well-past 1985 when I owned a NES (it was the set with the Power Pad and Zapper).
Previously I had barely played the 2600 (Donkey Kong) and the NES (Zelda) at a cousin’s house about 20 miles away. I had another cousin that lived up on a hill over there with totally different NES games – like SMB2 and Kid Icarus.
So, early on (around 1985), this was my complete exposure to video games – to play them maybe once a year at a family get together with my cousins.
After we got the NES (I’m thinking 1988 or so), my parents’ friends and my aunt/uncle came over and actually played some of the games (like Tetris and Mario).
I have fond memories of my aunt (who was kind of like a sister to me since we’re only 10 years apart) trying to beat Mario 1 in my little bedroom back then. My dad really liked Tetris, but didn’t think we was very good at it (and I was too much of a snot-nosed little kid to say otherwise.. sorry dad). A few times, when we’d go visit other friends, we’d take the system/cartridge with us and use it as a party-game.
Par for the course with fantasy-themes, my mom didn’t really like Legend of Zelda and kept having me turn down the little TV in my bedroom because she was worried that the repetitive music was going to turn me into a psycho-killer or something.
I also remember having went to bed and waking up later to secretly play RC Pro-AM until one of my parents caught me and told me to turn it off. I did this a lot with Super Street Fighter II: The New Warriors when I finally got a SNES.
As you may have guessed, I’m an only child – though we had other kids in my household during the early years. I grew up with another boy my age (sort of like a brother and we’re 13 days apart) and early on we’d either be at my house or at his (our moms took off time from work to raise us while our dads were out on the road). He later moved 25 miles away because of his parents’ work but we’d still spend summers together.
A lot of games (as you may notice) remind me of the household I played them at. In his case, I played Ghost n’ Goblins, Black Box Golf, and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out over at his place in the summer. I remember his mom would stay up really late and try and beat SMB3 and Sonic games – so that’s a cool memory too.
I also remember the first time I got to play Sega Genesis (Sonic Spinball actually) over there (he was the only one I knew that owned one).
When I was in middle school, I had two friends (brothers) on the other side of town (about 10 miles away) that had a SNES well before I had it and we rented Contra 3 and played it over there.
The robotic skeleton coming through the wall was shocking to us as I recall.. The brothers also got the N64 the first Christmas it came out (of course) and I’d sit over there and watch them play Super Mario 64 on it (and it was a long time before they’d let me play). Also, while over at their house – hanging out while our parents played card games – I was exposed to Conan movies and professional wrestling.
That’s what a lot of kids did back in those days: go visit someone that had the latest technology (or just other interests you knew nothing about) and hope that you actually got a turn at experiencing it.
Later, in high school – when I had other friends that had the N64 – we’d go rent whatever new game came out for it and just take turns all night until we beat it. I think Zelda 64 lasted about 24 hours (keeping in mind we had no guides or anything). We did the same thing with games like Silent Hill on PlayStation.