It’s Monday and time for Ask Kotaku, the weekly feature in which Kotaku-ites deliberate on a single burning question. Then, we ask your take.
This week we Ask Kotaku: What’s the best (or worst) gaming gift you’ve ever received?
This one’s easy. For years my family has been conditioned to the fact that if I want a video game, I buy a video game. If I want hardware, I’ll find a way to afford hardware. I’ve been blessed with the means to get the things I wanted, but there was one piece of hardware that always eluded me: the translucent pink Japanese Hello Kitty Dreamcast.
It’s not that the special-edition console, which came packaged with a pink VMU, keyboard, and a Hello Kitty typing game, was particularly expensive. You can find them on eBay for a couple hundred bucks loose. It’s that as much as I desired the pretty pink thing, I couldn’t justify the purchase. I have several Dreamcasts. I didn’t need another one, no matter how gorgeous it is.
Enter my parents. In 2018, with nothing practical on my Christmas wish list, I suggested they look on eBay for my pink plastic prize. Heavily aided by my spouse (my parents are in their 70s and 80s), they managed to come through, even if they had to do it in two transactions because they got their eBay auctions mixed up.
For my birthday in 2014, a bunch of my friends pooled together some money and gave it to me to build a gaming PC. Prior to that I’d been playing stuff on a gaming laptop that burned itself out really fast, and I replaced it with a machine I could work on but not play games with. It was a really sweet gift—I totally cried—and they even helped me pick out parts and build the whole thing. Having a gaming PC was great for my then-freelance career, because I could play games I couldn’t before, and that definitely helped me land this job, so it’s really been the gift that keeps on giving.
My family was friends with two other families we knew through my father’s job. The dad of one family—everyone was hetero!—was always buying the newest tech gear, including video games, and at some point started to gift my fam his hand-me-downs when the latest and greatest sapped his interest in the old and known. His first donation to our clan was an Atari 800 computer, the first game-playing machine I had access to at home. I adored it.
It came with 15 or 20 cartridges, mostly games (one was the programming language BASIC). I quickly grew attached to the weird Atari 8-bit versions of Donkey Kong, Robotron 2084, Centipede, Missile Command, Star Raiders (I recall achieving the end-game rating “space janitor”), and the ultimate secret gem, River Rescue. I even played a lot of Ms. Pac-Man, a game I don’t care for today, because I was utterly fascinated by anything and everything that excited the beautifully glowing phosphors of a TV screen.
That was it: I was officially a video game kid. Around 15 years later, this kind man’s final tech gift—this time to me directly—would be his old Neo Geo AES console, which reeked of cigarettes. It was a rad surprise but the smell was so unbearable I traded it away for a copy of, weirdly, PC Engine Tatsujin. (Which, even more weirdly, seems to be worth more than an AES now.)
My other best gaming gift must be the NES. Despite my Atari love affair I was slow to cotton on to there being other, newer video game systems. In the summer of 1987 or 1988 I stayed with some cousins and they had a NES along with a dozen of the common early games: Kung-Fu, Super Mario Bros., Double Dribble, Ice Hockey, etc. It was the closest thing I’ve experienced to love at first sight. (I remember not liking Punch-Out!! at first, though.) Upon returning home I’m sure I was insufferable, all “Friendship ended with ATARI, now NINTENDO is my best friend.” My beleaguered parents soon relented and another Nintendo zombie was born.
As for worst gaming gift, one time I asked my grandmother for NES Friday the 13th, one of the more famously bad games for the system, after I had already rented it once. Kids are inexplicable sometimes.
What kid wants snow boots for a birthday present? It’s a gift rooted in practicality, without an ounce of fun. Maine (that’s where I grew up) is known for its seriously punishing winters. A walk to the school bus in the middle of December could easily give a kid frostbite, especially if that kid is a petulant child who prefers paper-thin Vans slip-ons over more seasonable footwear.
So, yeah, for my something-th birthday (nice try; telling you the exact number will instantly carbon-date me), my mother bought me snow boots. Boots. For a something-th grader. A practical gift, sure, but not exactly a cool one.
Turns out, my mother tucked a copy each of the two new Pokémon versions, Gold and Silver, into each boot. Now that was cool. Less cool was the condition that, once I chose one, I’d have to commit and play it all the way through to the Elite Four before starting the other. In other words—and this is only dawning on me now as a result of hindsight’s dual-edged power—my mother apparently harbored dormant dreams of being a Pokémon professor. This ruled, obviously, as I was eventually able to put together a roster with both Lugia and Ho-Oh on it, which I summarily used to crush every Pokémon-playing kid in school. And I didn’t get frostbite walking there, either.
It’s easy: The best gaming gift I ever got was a Sega Genesis. I remember at the time thinking this was the best, most amazing console ever. I didn’t have gaming magazines or YouTube to tell me otherwise. This Sega Genesis console in my home was amazing and I could play a Power Rangers game on it. (That was also the first game I ever beat, by the way.)
However, what I didn’t know was that my parents were being very smart and frugal. Gaming back in the mid-’90s, like today, was very expensive. So my folks would buy my brother and I older consoles and games. We didn’t care. They were new to us. And it saved my parents a lot of money, which was good because we often didn’t have a lot to spare. It also means I grew up playing stuff on the Atari 2600 and NES, even though I was born years after those consoles were relevant or new.
As I grew up this strategy would eventually become unsustainable, as I started learning more about the hobby and asking for newer consoles and games. But for various reasons, I never got another Christmas-gift console after that Genesis. So it holds a special place in my heart and is easily my best gaming gift ever.
There are so many it’s hard to pick. In 1998 I got a magenta Game Boy Color and Pokémon Yellow. I was ecstatic. Finally my own handheld to sit and play games alone in whatever little corner of the world I wanted. The following year my family bought a Nintendo 64 and I got The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. A couple years after that, in a feat of pure magic, my brothers and I somehow got both a PS2 and a GameCube in the same year. One Christmas, two systems. Last year my brother bought me Kartia for the PS1, complete with the jewel case and booklet. I hadn’t played it in decades. It was a delight just to hold it.
But my favorite gaming gift of all came back in 1995. I think it was the year we got a Super Nintendo. My parents handed me a big package, too big to be a video game. It looked like it might be clothes. I half-heartedly tore the wrapping paper to reveal a black box with a big yellow starfish on it. “EarthBound.” Earth-what? I had no idea what it was. My parents picked it up on clearance from the nearby BEST department store that had gone out of business. The sticker said $19.99.
Eventually I thumbed through the giant guidebook it came with. I started playing later that day. I scratched and sniffed the scratch ‘n’ sniff cards that came in the package. A monkey chewing bubble gum smelled sweet; a dog on fire smelled like thrown-up chili. Over the days and weeks ahead I slowly came to know what EarthBound really was, and it’s been with me ever since...the cartridge at least. The box and everything else that came with it was lost long ago. At one point I cut everything up to make collages to hang on my wall. I lost those too. Maybe one day they’ll make their way back to me.
Kotaku’s weighed in, but what’s your take? Looking back, what was the best games-related gift you’ve ever received? Or, if you want to dish, the worst? Have your say! We’ll be back
next Monday in two weeks to deliberate and debate on another nerdy issue. See you in the comments!