When I Was Your Age: Jonathon Dornbush

For most of us, we can look back at one video game that we played when we were younger that sparked our love of gaming. One world, one hero, or one adventure that made us lifelong players. They’re the games that blew our young minds and they are the games that will stick with us forever. These are those stories.

Many of us can look back over the years and remember the first games that made us fall in love with gaming at a young age, and we can point to specific moments or circumstances that made those games so meaningful to us. Perhaps it was a friend sleeping over at your house and the two of you staying up all night playing Final Fantasy VI, or going to a birthday party and everyone gathering around the television to play Jaws on the NES. The time and the place that you experienced those games can leave as much of a lasting impression as the games themselves. For some people though, it’s not so much about the when and the where that you played those games, but who you played them with.

For Jonathon Dornbush it was a trio of classic NES games that created memories that he holds dear so many years later, and a big part of what makes them so special to him was getting to experience them with his mother.

It was a combination of Tetris, Super Mario Bros. 3, and The Legend of Zelda, all on the original NES. I was luckily born into a family that loved gaming, and it was my mom’s NES that served as my first introduction to the world of gaming, along with the handful of games she had collected for it. It’s one of the few remnants of my gaming childhood that I still have today (though I’m sadly missing the Zapper controller I used to love holding too close to the TV as a child while playing Duck Hunt). We eventually purchased other consoles, the next being a Nintendo 64 and PlayStation, but it was really that trio of games, and the NES I grew up on, that not only solidified a lifelong love of gaming, but made it something that felt naturally a part of who I was and how I learned to enjoy games with other people.

Video games can often times be a hobby that kids are discouraged from pursuing by their parents, usually being told that they should be spending their time on more enriching activities like sports, reading, or learning an instrument. Most of us have probably been told at one point or another by somebody that playing too many video games will rot our brains. And while it’s of course important to have a balanced and wide range of interests, the good that can come from playing video games is often overlooked, like the lasting bonds that can be created by playing together. Perhaps that negative way of thinking about games has become less common as those who grew up in the early days of gaming are now becoming parents themselves, but it was definitely less common in the 80’s and 90’s to find parents who encouraged their child’s love of gaming.

And in the case of Jonathon and his mom, it wasn’t just a matter of having a parent who tolerated or even encouraged his passion for games, but rather it was a love that was being passed down from parent to child. His mother had a love of gaming herself that went back many years, to even before Jonathon was born.

I was told the story of how, while my mom waited to have me in the hospital, my dad bought her a Game Boy and a copy of Tetris, and ever since the family has joked that I was born with a game controller in hand.

All of these games, and my entire gameplay experience at the time, is tied up in memories of playing with my mom. She taught me how to play from a young age, and I always saw the console and its games as hers before later consoles ever felt like mine. And that’s all to say it felt like having a friend at home, showing me the ropes of how to play before I ever even picked up a controller. And even when I did, I’m pretty sure she employed the trick of handing me an unplugged controller when I was too young to make me think I was beating those Super Mario Bros. levels.

But almost every aspect of why I love those games comes from the appreciation and dedication my mom showed them. I’d often find her up late going for one more run of Tetris. We’d trade off playing SMB 3 levels, one of us Mario and the other Luigi, as I desperately hoped to collect more coins and lose less lives than her. (And I’d never have known about the trick of hiding behind pieces of the level or how to get warp whistles without her.) And I’d often let her try to beat Zelda dungeons before I ever took them on, learning from her fighting strategies before I hopped in and found myself failing repeatedly, and often. But she was always there to help me, picking back up the controller if I felt too defeated, and helping me learn how to improve slowly but surely.

And if he was going to be introduced as a young child to gaming, Jonathon couldn’t have been any luckier than to be growing up during the NES era. This was truly the golden age of gaming, with Nintendo’s debut console defying the video game crash of the early 80’s (which many had thought signaled the death of the hobby) and reaching an audience never before imagined. By 1990 nearly one third of the homes in the U.S. had a Nintendo Entertainment System in their living room, and the success catapulted the once relatively unknown playing card company into a worldwide brand which would become synonymous with gaming for decades. For many years, when people spoke about gaming, they used “video games” and “Nintendo” interchangeably.

The NES was also where some of the most iconic gaming series of all time debuted. Many of the characters and games that people still enjoy today first appeared on the NES over three decades ago. The list of classics is nearly endless, with games like Metroid, Castlevania, Duck Hunt, Contra, Final Fantasy, and Mega Man becoming household names. But for Jonathon and his Mom it all came down to Mario, Link, and those classic Tetris blocks. Those three games have each cemented themselves in history as some of the greatest games their genres have ever seen.

“For Tetris, it was a perfection of its simplicity, and the replayability that simple idea offered. Tetris is a game I still play to this day in whatever form I can find (Tetris DS being a previous staple for me and Tetris Effect serving as my latest fix), and its seemingly endless replayability was something that captivated me then and still does now. Plenty of bells and whistles have been added to Tetris games over the years, but even at its purest, simplest form on that NES cartridge (and its Game Boy equivalent), Tetris is still one of the best puzzle games, and I’d argue quite simply games, ever made.

The Legend of Zelda instilled in me a love for exploration that has followed through to my incessant need to check every square inch of a game for secrets to this day. The freedom and surprise of what you could discover while playing the original Zelda was so impressive for the time and such a clear blueprint on which so much of gaming has been iterating since.

And Super Mario Bros. 3 defined a love of precision platforming and captivating, weird world design. SMB3 could be tough, especially as a kid, but it felt incredible to best its challenges, all while exploring its beautiful landscapes, giant lands, and airships. The joy of it, for me, was often found in the timing – gliding through levels by jumping, shooting off fireballs, and Tanooki-flying at just the right moments, and chaining all those actions together, was a thrilling challenge as a kid. Nailing a level and getting that flow right felt like few other things I played at the time.”

That love and appreciation for the art of video games that his mother instilled in him at a young age inspired Jonathon to pursue a career in the games industry. After brief stints at Polygon and Entertainment Weekly, he joined IGN in 2016 where he now works as their Senior News Editor as well as the Host and Producer of their popular show Podcast Beyond! where he and the rest of the IGN team bring you the latest news and happenings around the PlayStation brand.

To this day he still draws inspiration from those games and revisits them whenever possible. Their timeless design remaining as relevant today as a member of the gaming press for one of the biggest entertainment websites in the world as it did so many years ago, sitting on the living room floor with his mom as she showed him how to perfectly time a jump between airships or where to find all of the little secrets hidden within Hyrule.

“I’ve certainly revisited all three in the years since. Tetris is obviously something, as I mentioned, I still play regularly, just in whatever newest form has grabbed my attention. As stressful as Tetris can be at higher speeds, playing it is always something that calms and relaxes me, so it’s a game that’s frequently in my rotation.

I haven’t gone back to Super Mario Bros. 3 and the original TLoZ in some years, but I’d always dip into them on re-releases via Nintendo’s eShop. It’s impossible to capture the original feel of surprise and delight those games offered as a kid, but revisiting them always brings with them a flood of memories of that time in my life. And, more importantly, because those franchises endure, I get to make new memories with new iterations of them. Newer Super Mario Bros. games, especially as they emphasized co-op, have become staples of groups of friends or of co-op experiences I currently share with my girlfriend. The Legend of Zelda is a series I, ashamedly, dip in and out of, but have adored whenever I do devote my time to entries (Wind Waker remains one of my favorite games). And, like I said, Tetris is just the best. It’s hard not to feel joy whenever I play.

I think all three games really solidified so much of what I enjoy about gaming, not just in the act of playing but in discussing and sharing them. On a purely mechanical side, they cemented a love of platformers, puzzle, and adventure games that stays with me to this day. And they’ve given me an appreciation for how simplicity of design compared to, say, some of the more complicated modern games, can still create some of the most engaging gameplay experiences I’ve ever had. They’re high watermarks that I continue to look back on, and gain new appreciation for as I play new games in their franchises or that have obviously taken inspiration from them.

Video games can be many things to many people. They can be a window to worlds we’ve never imagined before, they can be a way to test one’s skill and resolve, and they can be ways to connect us to one another. Whether we’re playing with a friend hundreds of miles away or with a loved one on the couch next to us, games bring people together and can create lasting memories that we’ll cherish forever. Jonathon’s mother passed away when he was 16 years old, and those moments that the two of them shared passing the controller back and forth not only helped him to discover his love of gaming and set him down a path to a career in the industry, but they are memories of love and joy that he will be able to look back on for years to come.

“Because of the way I played them, alongside my mom as a guide and cooperative player, I’ve always believed in the social power of games. They’re something to be shared, whether it’s actively playing a game with someone or relating the experiences of playing something with others. They’re such a singular medium because of that interactivity, and to be able to find the various ways to share and relate that to others has made gaming so foundational to my life, my friendships, and my work. Playing a game and talking about it, and, in my line of work, being fortunate enough to talk to those who make them and learn about the incredible work that goes into them, gives incredible depth of meaning to the time I spend with a controller in hand. And it’s all because as soon as I could, my mom let me grab one of those rectangular NES controllers and accidentally lose too many lives in Mario. But those early experiences taught me I could learn to get better at them, and that grew into learning about the people I played games with, how games are made, and the incredible stories of those who make them.

You can find all of Jonathon’s work including episodes of Podcast Beyond! by visiting IGN.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @jmdornbush.

Screenshots courtesy of Moby Games

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