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May 23, 2012

Sonic the Hedgehog: Forever Tails

I missed out on the NES generation of gaming.  If you asked me about World 4-2 of Super Mario Bros. or the sixth dungeon in The Legend of Zelda, I’d probably just stare blankly at you for a little while before letting fly an enlightened “…Guh?”  The NES was just barely before my time, I think -- and that was a problem only exaggerated one Christmas morning.

I woke up to have a huge box waiting for me under a tree sitting at the bottom of the staircase.  And after faffing about for a bit, rocking to and fro in the fetal position with a Joker-sized grin on my face while I waited for my parents to wake up and we could do that whole “celebrate Christmas as a family” business, I tore off the wrapping like a wolverine.  And what should I find but a Sega Genesis, bundled with a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog 2

It’s likely that I played a few other games before then in arcades or at a friend’s house or through some half-assed educational software called Socrates that I used maybe once before being unable to hook it up to the TV again.  In spite of that, I would gladly point to that moment as the first time I owned a home console.  At first, I didn't know what to make of it; the Genesis seemed like some sort of ancient artifact, throbbing with power but alien to my preschool sensibilities.  But it only took a few minutes of seeing it in action that I realized the awesome potential that had been unleashed.  Music that I’d never heard before!  Worlds that I’d never seen before!   Speed that I’d never felt before!  Sonic the Hedgehog 2 hardly seemed possible, and doubtless it would have been that way even if I was a grown man at the time.

Except there was one caveat.  The Genesis bundle came with the system, the game, all the requisite wires (that my dad hooked up, of course), and one controller.  Fine in itself -- but the problem was that the game was for two players.  And one of those players was -- player one, by default -- was my older brother.  The one who’d specifically asked for the Genesis.

In other words, it was weeks before my dad even had the thought of his sons playing at the same time.  And so for weeks, I had to sit there and watch while my brother sped through as many levels as he could, regularly coming to a halt on Mystic Cave Zone.  I had to sit there and watch, tantalized -- taunted -- by the twin-tailed fox that hovered behind that blue-haired hedgehog.  I knew I’d get my chance.  I knew I’d be able to run, fancy and free, alongside my brother.  I just had to bide my time.

I suppose it was thanks to my mom that we finally got another controller.  She probably noticed that it was always my brother playing, while I had to sit and wait (and it probably helped that I’d cried a bit, too).  The sudden realization that, yes, TWO WHOLE PEOPLE could play a console at once came as a revelation -- and a mistake that had to be remedied immediately.  So she talked to my dad, and one fateful day after work, he brought home a small box…one with a new controller.  A controller with an additional three buttons, no less, and perfect for my baby-sized hands.

So naturally, my brother (like the jackass he was) took the new pad as his own, and had me use the old clunker.  But that was just a trifle.  I had a pad now, and I had a connection to the game.  And looking back, I remember just how much of an experience it was, limited as it might have been.  I was forced to follow at my brother’s pace -- unless I wanted to get left behind or warped back to his location -- but other than that I could do as I pleased.  And it went further than that.  Unlike Sonic, Tails was effectively immortal.  I knew no fear, leaping into acid pits in Chemical Plant Zone.  When the lava in Hill Top Zone started to rise, I treaded as coolly as I would through the local park.  I wasn’t bound by such simple limitations as “rings”; I could rush in and bop Badniks and Robotnik alike without impunity.  And the joy of mashing the B button to rev up a Spin Dash is among one of my most cherished experiences.

I had watched, and I had waited.  And my patience had been rewarded.  Tails had given me a chance to become something more than I’d ever thought possible: a player of games, and a bopper of robots.  That freedom and opportunity was the start of something great -- a truth proven when Sonic 3 rolled around.  Tails went from a useful ally to an indispensible tool (and weapon); he could swim and fly under his own power, and could even cart Sonic through the air as needed, or out of waters that threatened to drown him.  As Tails, I wasn’t just a kid wearing Velcro-strapped shoes; I was an adventurer.  An explorer.  A warrior.  Excitement and glory awaited me every time the Genesis powered up.  And that same excitement stays with me to this day.

There was a certain incident when I was in high school.  In my P.E. class, there was a guy who -- deciding that he needed to hoof it to half court -- tucked his body into a run that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Sonic Adventure.  Needless to say, people started calling him Sonic…and eventually, they started calling me Tails.  Why, I can’t imagine.  Maybe they were in awe of my jumping ability.  Maybe it was because “Sonic” and I happened to be in the same Algebra II class.  Maybe I’d stuck my ass into the air one too many times.  But whatever the case, I didn’t have any objections.  Being a second player -- one who observes, appreciates, and acts as needed -- was a badge of honor to me.  Ignoring the obvious subtext of “brash older brother leading the way and childish younger brother helping every step of the way,” I felt as if I had a connection to Tails.  A bond, a realization of sorts, born through 2D adventures.  So even if I couldn’t make a jump shot to save my life, I could still say that I’d run through my fair share of loops.

I hope that I’m a gamer until the day I die.  But even if I’m not, that’s all right.  At the very least, I had some swell beginnings.    

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