The Atari 2600 Donkey Kong game was a juggernaut back at Christmas of 1982 … and on into 1983. And it was that “on into” that led to problems for me.
That Christmas (1982), I had somehow convinced my parents that it was time to take the Atari plunge, and a shiny new 2600 showed up under our tree.
Santa shoots … he scores!
And let me tell you, I was so excited I wasn’t sure my Garanimals were going to survive dry and unscathed.
Once I regained my faculties, though, I settled in for some serious game play … there was Combat, of course, which came with the unit.
There was Asteroids, which quickly turned into one of my favorites.
There was Haunted House, which actually scared the bejesus out of me — it was creepy as hell, and Mom had always told me our house was haunted.
And then there was the granddaddy of them all, the Big Kahuna … Pac-Man.
I had played Pac-Man a few times in the arcade and sucked at it, but I still couldn’t wait to have it at home for my very own. It was the bomb, after all.
After a brief moment of disappointment at how DOS-y the whole thing seemed, I fell in love with all those games, and especially Pac-Man. By the time I went back to school after Christmas break, my thumb muscles were the size of chicken breasts thanks to all the joystick action.
End of the Innocence
I was bursting to regale my friends with stories of Atari conquests, but before I could even open my mouth, tales of a “new” blockbuster game flooded my ears and threatened to drown me on the spot.
See, a few of my buddies had snagged Donkey Kong that Christmas — for Atari, for IntelliVision, for ColecoVision.
By that time, Donkey Kong was already one of the most popular arcade video games ever and was making Nintendo a major player in the gaming world.
As with Pac-Man, I had played Donkey Kong a few times in an arcade (likely during a school trip to ShowBiz Pizza), but, honestly? It didn’t do much for me.
Still, these guys at school were convinced it was the greatest thing since the Sit ‘n Spin, so I had something new to gripe about when I got home. Or … at least something new to whine about.
My parents already knew the drill by that time — since my birthday is in February, I was always filling out my want list with the stuff other kids raved about from Christmas that hadn’t made it into my own stocking in December.
So my mom took it in stride when I came home that first night and told her I had to — had to — have Donkey Kong for my Atari.
I said this even as I was taking her to task at Combat (at least that’s how I remember it — she may have a different recollection of our match-ups).
“Well, your birthday is coming up,” she said. Or something to that effect. Her tone was also laced with “don’t mention this to your Dad because he’s still smarting from how much the Atari and these cartridges cost.”
But it was good enough for me — I had unofficially officially asked for Donkey Kong for my birthday, and Mom had acknowledged my plea.
It was as good as done. All I had to do at that point was wait.
Wait for It …
And so I did, but I’d dig it in every once in awhile, just in case.
Dad would be playing Pac-Man with me, and I’d say something like, “Billy told me that Donkey Kong has 47 levels, and …”
And a few puffs of steam would stream out of Dad’s ears, that’s what.
Or I’d regale Mom with tales of Mario and Pauline and Donkey Kong — all the “Donkey Kong” characters, and how (I thought) they all fit together.
“Maybe for your birthday,” she’d say.
But after a few weeks, I noticed her voice was less cheery, less hopeful when she said it.
Part of it was that I was beating her over the head with it every day.
Part of it was undoubtedly that Dad was sick of my harping, and was letting Mom know about it.
Part of it was the specter of typical adult worries seeping into all her interactions.
But there was more … more that I wouldn’t realize until the big day.
That — the big day — would be my birthday, in case you were wondering.
We all gathered round as I blew out my candles and started working through the packages stacked up around the confection.
There was a shirt or two. A card. Maybe a Star Wars action figure.
But there was also a familiar rectangular package that I saved for last. I knew what it was, and I savored the anticipation.
Finally, with all the baubles dispatched, I reached for that package I knew had an Atari cartridge inside … and I was fairly drooling as I peeled back the wrapping, let me tell you what!
Until, that is, I finished tearing back the wrapping and found … Sky Diver.
“There’s a story behind that,” Mom started, and she looked upset. Nervous.
Dad exhaled, exasperated with the disappointment on my face.
“Nobody in town has Donkey Kong, so I ordered it in early January,” Mom said. “It was supposed to be here by now, but …”
“It’s OK,” I said. It wasn’t, though, and I was pouting. Brat.
“But it should be here soon, and I thought we could go out and buy another game for today, to make up for it.”
Dad growled, but didn’t say anything.
“Well, I guess we could,” I said as I pushed Sky Diver to the side.
And so we did.
The options in our little town were limited to an off-brand department store, a Radio Shack, and a couple of drug stores that for some reason had decent electronics departments.
At one of those drug stores, I found a game called “Atlantis” that I’d never heard of, but that that looked pretty cool. It also cost $35, a king’s ransom in those days.
Especially for a one-income family that pulled that one income from the back-breaking manual labor of my father.
But the brat had been wronged on his birthday, so Mom made an appeasement — Atlantis.
That evening, I was camped on the floor banging away at Atlantis when Dad walked by.
“Happy birthday, Boy,” he said. He was cheery and seemed to have gotten past my sullenness. “Did you have a good day?”
I had had a good day, but Donkey Kong was still chirping in the back of my brain.
“Yeah, I guess,” I said, dejected eyes finding the carpet.
Dad pursed his lips and nodded. “But it would have been better with Donkey Kong, right?”
The words hit me hard.
He was disappointed in me because I was disappointed with the herculean efforts he and Mom went through to give me a wonderful birthday in spite of whatever silly obstacles there may have been.
I tried to perk up, to fix the damage. “No, it was great!” I exclaimed.
It was too late, though.
“Maybe next year will be better,” Dad said. Then he disappeared into the bathroom to scrape the day’s toil and grime from his body.
I felt smaller than I ever had, and I realized — maybe for the first time — what day-to-day sacrifice in the name of family really looked like.
And what a brat I could be.
Eventually, Donkey Kong showed up — maybe a couple weeks after my birthday.
I played it, and it was alright.
He was awesome, and the whole Atari 2600 Donkey Kong dust-up only served to reinforce that point.
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