While I have infinite memories about growing up with Nintendo handhelds, I don’t have that many video game memories that involve its iconic Game and Watch series of products. Probably somewhat due to my age, I really missed the Game and Watch boat that most faithful Nintendo fans latch onto as their first real memory of their love affair with the house that Mario built. Of course Nintendo’s insistence on pushing their legacy onto Game Boy owners throughout the early nineties meant that these ‘classic’ games – from Mario’s Cement Factory to Cement Factory – weren’t entirely foreign. But as for owning them, despite considering myself a bit of a connoseuir of video games of the portable persuasion, I’ve never really felt the need to track the original physical clamshells down, probably knowing that in all likelihood they’d sit on a shelf gathering dust. And that’s if they’re lucky, the more likely scenario is that they’d sit in a box somewhere, sight unseen. They are a part of videogame history that i’m happy to know and acknowledge, but don’t care so much if I never set hands on one again.
But I absolutely respect the Game and Watch line of products. The closest I came to owning one was a Legend of Zelda GameWatch, which to mind is the only watch that does more than tell the time that I need. In the late 80’s and early 90’s the thought that any version of the games I was playing on my Game Boy – however compromised – could fit on anything the size of a watch was a fascinating prospect. While we’re spoilt for what we can play on seemingly any device these days, novelty was a major driving force for video game hype in the 80’s and 90’s, and portable handheld games were a huge part of this.
Despite my relative lack of ‘in situ’ Game & Watch experience, I have an unmatched fondness for Greenhouse, one of the early G&Ws released in the early 1980’s. But this appreciation isn’t really founded in an appreciation for the game itself, but rather the role it played in my life at a point in my childhood. Nostalgia is a funny thing that i’ve written on before, but for me fond gaming memories aren’t necessary rational recollections of the tangible act of playing a game, but rather very vivid conduits for remembering times, people and places. Greenhouse is no different in this respect, but rather than transporting me back to a time as a child where video games helped me through a long stint in hospital.
When I was six years old I had a severe eye injury that put me in hospital for what seemed like a lifetime. As a child spending time in hospital is hard at the best of times. Being away from family, from the familiar surroundings of your bedroom filled to the brim with toys and books, and perhaps worse still the uncertainty and inherently scary surroundings that a ward brings with it. For me that isolation and terror was exacerbated by the fact I had to lay in a dark room for days on end with only very limited time allowed in the playroom, which as a six year old is perhaps the hardest thing in the world to do. So for days I laid there, with my favourite toy dog for company, and my loving parents sleeping on what I can only imagine were tremendously uncomfortable foldout beds most nights. I can remember being scared, I can remember crying uncontrollably, and I vividly remember my desperate parents trying to console me in any way they possibly could. I wasn’t terminally ill, and while I was extremely lucky to retain the sight in my eye, there were other children I met in my time there that were far less fortunate. But the irrational mind of a six year old isn’t one easily consoled.
But between the fear that darkness brought and the resultant sore eyes in the morning, for that brief period I could spend in the playroom, there was Greenhouse. A battered and old piece of technology that had probably been held in the hands of hundreds upon hundreds of children in the decade preceding was a shining beacon of happiness that sat unassumingly amongst Lego blocks and toy cars. Every day I would rush to the playroom to pick up that simple game, and my smile would grow wider with every bug exterminated and every plant saved. For 30 minutes a day that simple game made me forget that I was in hospital as I strived to beat my previous day’s high-score. Greenhouse may have been simple, and ancient even by the late 80’s, but to me it was a window to another world that I would look forward to peering through for that brief period every day. For that stay in hospital, it wasn’t just a game to me, it was a companion that helped me restore some sense of normality and routine to what was otherwise an incredibly scary childhood experience.
For years after Greenhouse remained a distant yet very memory in my video game history. More recently I have played Greenhouse, in the form of the Club Nintendo Game & Watch Collection, and while the game gave me those unmatched warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia and familiarity, I didn’t feel the need to spend a lot of time with it – and in some ways this is how I feel about a large majority of games I enjoyed in the past. But as a transporter to another time and place, Greenhouse is a reminder to me for how video games can act as a crutch and as escapism at our low points – but perhaps even more importantly – how important normality and high spirits are to the healing process. So thank you Nintendo, for helping me through my time in hospital – I’m sure there are kids all around the world that have similar stories to share.