When I was 13, I broke up with my first girlfriend to play Xbox. This particularly embarrassing admission accurately underlines the oxymoronic mindset of the Nintendo generation: that romance is not the primary goal of our endocrine-driven existence. And in my defense, it happened to be the launch day of Xbox Live, the first online console experience. To me, this was monumental—finally, I could put my shamefully excessive amount of gaming hours to use by destroying a couple of Swedish 12-year-olds in a Halo deathmatch.
But what I learned that day—the day that I first took on the world—is that I am nothing. That out there live the type of gaming savants who make it clear that my hours spent fondling controllers could have actually gotten me to second base.
But it’s not just the far stretches of the Internet where these mythical creatures are born.
The dude that ranked ninth in this year’s Nintendo World Championship just so happens to live off the same street that I grew up on here in Columbus—practically my next door neighbor. His name is Chris Bidwell, and to me, he is representative of all the Internet bullies who have spanked me silly in all of my favorite games ever since I was a little kid. Because of this, I knew in my heart that I had to challenge him offline, in the flesh, and beat him once and for all.
Bidwell opens the door to his home with sort of an awkward smile. As you can imagine, he was a bit surprised to find a random Facebook message earlier that week from a complete stranger challenging him to a video game showdown. He looks like what would be expected of a gaming virtuoso—thick, black glasses, slightly hunched over, with a soft, kind voice and a blonde unkempt mop.
It is 8:30 p.m. and he just put his daughter to bed. I step inside his modest ranch house and can’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed. I am not sure what I was expecting, but when I notice the tenderly decorated family house, with polka-dotted doilies and Fischer Price kitchenware messily strewn about the family room, I feel as though my presence on this man’s life may be a tad bit of an imposition. But then he winks at me, smiles and says, “Let’s go down to the basement.”
Its really just
people pushing a bunch of buttons and watching crap on
a TV, but for the first time ever,
we control what is going on inside of the screen.
I climb down the creaky, carpeted stairs and discover what I was searching for—a gaming goldmine. Rows of stuffed bookshelves wrap around the basement walls cataloging every game imaginable in their original boxes: Sega Genesis, Nintendo 64, Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube as well as obscurities like Super Famicom, The Apple Pippin, The RCA Studio 2, and The Arcadia 2001. This dude has everything. When I ask, he says he doesn’t want to think about his collection’s worth, but if he had to throw out a number it probably would be in the six-figure range…
My hero. All hail the Nintendo champion.
The thing about Bidwell is that when he was 13 he entered the first and only Nintendo World Championship in 1990 and placed in the semifinals. Twenty-five years later, a second world championship was announced in conjunction with the 2015 Electronics Entertainment Expo, E3. The qualifying game? Ultimate NES Remix: a timed coin collection in the first and third original Mario series, and Bidwell’s specialty, a high score in Dr. Mario.
“We went and camped overnight in a tent in the parking lot of a Best Buy in Chicago not knowing how many people would show up,” he said. “Nintendo said that only 750 people could enter each qualifier.” Only 250 people showed up to Chicago, one of the eight qualifying locations, which meant that Bidwell’s parking lot adventure was in vain, but it also meant that he was afforded multiple tries to get a good score.
He ended up winning the day with just over 3 million points in Dr. Mario.
He said that he got a bit choked him up when he found out he won. I don’t blame him; after all, he was granted a second chance to make good on his childhood dream, the dream that every ’90s kid fantasized about during a boring biology lecture—to be crowned the Nintendo King.
From there, he was shipped off to L.A, along with the eight other Best Buy victors around the country and eight internet celebrities hand-picked by Nintendo, including that one dude who can beat Battletoads with one hand. Most of the celebrities were speed-runners—the wizards who are able to go though random old games and find every exploit possible in order to complete them at record speeds. Together, these 16 played in front of a live audience for their shot at the top prize: a spiffy golden Mario trophy, a signed 3DS by Nintendo creator Miyamoto, and best of all, unlimited bragging rights.
For the first stage, the 16 players were split up into four teams of four to play Splatoon, a paintball simulation for the Wii U. Bidwell’s team was crushed, so he and his three teammates entered an elimination round: a race to complete the first dungeon in the original Zelda. Bidwell stomped his completion, the only one who didn’t get crushed by a skeleton or torched by a colossal fireball, so he was permitted to enter the second round.
“Well, everyone else was looking at the giant screen in the stadium, whereas I was looking at the tiny one placed on the Wii U controller. There is way less lag, which is why I didn’t die even once,” he said.
The second stage didn’t go as well for Bidwell. The game was Blast Ball, which is a mash-up between soccer and a dystopian futuristic first-person shooter. Bidwell’s team lost three to one, which meant they had to run through the last level of Super Metroid. The final boss, Mother Brain, slurped up Bidwell in one bite.
And now, three months later, we are in his basement, mashing joysticks, laughing at the absurdities of some of his whacky ’80s gaming consoles, and reliving the day he almost had it all. Though Bidwell lost his big chance at the Nintendo big time, he will always be proud of how far he got.
Why were video games so important to you and to our generation? What is the big deal anyway? I ask hesitantly, unsure if he would be offended by the question.
“Well, I mean, we invented them, so there is that whole thing,” he said with a hint of zeal in his voice. “Unlike jazz, which is kind of in a museum nowadays, video games are still relevant; people around the world still play them. You know, I hate these high philosophical conversations about it, because it’s really just people pushing a bunch of buttons and watching crap on a TV, but for the first time ever, we control what is going on inside of the screen. Instead of being told what to interpret, or what to feel, we are actively a part of what is happening.”
Clearly, Bidwell is one of those people much better at controlling his gaming fortunes than others. Oh, the results of our little showdown? In Dr. Mario, I scored 41,029 points and he scored just over 6.2 million. But now, after sitting down, talking to, and humanizing this Nintendo legend, I think that I am okay with that.
Bidwell hosts a Columbus Retro League, which meets the first and second Saturday of every month. For more information, visit columbusretroleague.com.