The mercy of memory places me inside an electronics store at Iyana-Ipaja, Lagos, where several guys encircled me as in a ritual circumambulation. The store was dark and sweltering, but bearable because I was there to fulfill an age-old desire of owning a Game Boy Advance, a handheld console created by Nintendo in the early 2000s.
The year was 2010 and I was a young, fifteen years old kid who had been embalmed with an imbalanced mix of peer pressure and a bittersweet history with gaming. Going to the store was a necessary evil, one I had not properly thought well of.
The guys in the store took turns completing each other’s statements in interrogating me. Their collective demeanor measured up to a plot to get the deal with me over with, and I could feel the raw intimidation of their impatience. Every question asked and every answer given was delivered with menacing precision. The whole charade felt choreographed and I could tell that I was been sized up for a shakedown.
But I was still able to give away a part of myself to self-pity. For some time, I couldn’t hear anything else except that I didn’t have enough money to get what I wanted. I was shaken by the revelation of my insufficiencies, not because I was oblivious to the fact, but because I was in denial. I had painstakingly saved up for many months only to arrive without purchasing power.
I pleaded with the guys to reconsider my offer. For some reason, I could tell they wanted whatever money I had as much as I wanted whichever gaming console they could give me. We both acquiesced and met at a middle ground where nobody won or lost big.
Once the deal was done, they let me go, with a Game Boy Advance console that, through mere inspection, one could tell was fast approaching its demise. They also didn’t fail to remind me that they had only sold the console to me out of the sheer goodwill of their hearts. “Look,” one of them said, “we even added a soccer cartridge for you.” I grinned and made my way out into the fast-rising afternoon sun.
Outside the store, on the main street, was the antithesis of a recent woeful past, the inside of the store. Yet, the bright sunny afternoon did nothing to brighten my mood. It didn’t even symbolize a light at the end of a tunnel, a walkout to freedom, or the eventual triumph of light over dark. It was just as is, another day on the streets of Lagos.
The streets were filled to the brim and overflowed in some parts. I snaked through the crowds, local public vehicles (danfo), and roadside makeshift marketplaces. The kiosks that lay in wait, were detached extensions of the shops behind them that reflected an attempted organization to the whole chaos. The music that blasted from scattered speakers, accompanied by the noise from the crowds, fell like an air of permanence, as did the grimes from the bedlam that surrounded me. I held my prized novel console in place and quickly ran for the main road.
The main road, although the straight and the easy way home, was a minefield of unsolicited spies for my parents, which made me take every step cautiously. The spies were mostly neighbors or acquaintances, whose occasional intel to my parents about my whereabouts was only credible because I often disobey my parents (I had to if I wanted to have any fun, because of when, where, and how I grew up).
I never liked the spies because they ironically felt it was their duty to help other parents police their children. It was a mind-blowing dedication to a cause that I found hard to fathom how it benefitted them and theoretically concluded that they must have felt they were making the world a better place. I needed to get off the main road as fast as I could, into the back roads, where I could be undercover. A more hideous and longer route to take, yes, but it dramatically reduced the chances of a telltale that would make me forfeit my console, and possibly leave me with another physical scar.
The estates lining the back roads were the perfect place for shade and stealth. They largely contained fenced bungalows and were often quiet, except for the occasional noises from generators or barking dogs. They also had untarred roads that were dotted with slopes and potholes that made for an arduous but necessary walk. I stopped at one of the shops that protruded outward from one of the houses to get a sachet of water, took a respite, then continued the long walk back home.
After about two or three hours, I was home. I had survived the spies, I hoped. But just as I retired to have my bath and rest, I realized I didn’t test run the console at the store. What if it doesn’t work?
The first gaming console I ever played was the Brick Game with games like Tetris, Tank game (Battle City), Shooting Disappearing, and Snake. Then I had a brief stint with the Nintendo Super Famicom (short for “Family Computer”). Some years later, the SEGA Genesis 2 came knocking on my door and I played a couple of games like Contra, Super Mario, and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Life with gaming was monotonous until one day when one of my classmate’s nephews, visiting from overseas, introduced me to the original Game Boy. The nephew was fond of me, as much as I was fond of him and his handheld console. I played my fingers off and eyes out until I moved on to the Game Boy Color — it was the successor to the original Game Boy and the predecessor to the Game Boy Advance.
The Nintendo Game Cube was short-lived in my memory. I knew just one person, a neighbor of a family friend, who had the console, and he wasn’t too welcoming. I moved on to the PlayStation(s) and played games like Mortal Kombat, Hitman, Crash Bandicoot, Crash Team Racing (CTR), Pro Evolution Soccer (PES, initially Winning Eleven), God of War, and Grand Theft Auto.
I would later go on to play the original XBOX exactly once at a gaming center. And as much as Naruto was a big deal for a close friend who had the PlayStation Portable (PSP) — and later the PlayStation Vita (PSVita), I was only allowed to play a handful of times.
I had my fair share of dedication and commitment to gaming until around 2006 when I first encountered the Game Boy Advance. Every console I had played on, except for the Brick Game, was never mine. My good friend (whose nephew had introduced me to the original Game Boy), was on a roll. He now had a Game Boy Advance. Once, after school, he let me borrow his console for days. It was enlightening and satisfying. After my long years of pleading with friends to let me play, or paying at game centers to play, I had, even if it meant for a couple of days, a console that I could temporarily call mine.
Days later when I returned the gaming console, was the first time I first had a glimpse at buying and owning my own console. It was a pipe dream, yet, a concrete abstraction that sowed the first seed of desire in my soul. I imagined I would own a gaming console someday, but I didn’t know when or how. Then came the turning point.
A classmate and another friend also had a Game Boy Advance, but he was always a step ahead of everyone else. While we thought about playing, he thought about making money. He would invite us to pay to play on his console whenever there was an opening — break time or a missing period when a teacher failed to show up. It was an allure some of us couldn’t pass on, so we would often play our daily feeding allowance away, even if it meant going hungry.
Transacting to play on his console was fun that didn’t last long. After a short period of time, we discovered he had been dealing in bad faith. The rules were simple: you pay twenty Naira to play for ten minutes (typically soccer, Winning Eleven), then the match would be configured — team selection, formation, play duration — for you so as to avoid time wasting, and optimize battery usage. We all agreed to the terms and conditions. But after some time he started to edge us by configuring the time to five minutes. It was a scheme that some of us will later notice.
It was blatant but as much as I can remember, there wasn’t any form of obvious protest or reproach. If there were any, it was taken privately. And my own way of doing that was to get my own console. I sifted through the list of the consoles I had played on and made an estimate of which would be better for me to dream of and hope to have. It had to be a handheld console because that was portable and concealable by default, and it had to be something I could save up to in a reasonable time. The answer was simple and obvious, a Game Boy Advance.
I was set off on a path that would eventually become something more than I had bargained for. I went on a hiatus to save a certain percentage of my daily feeding allowance and curbed my affection for playing games. For months I filled the void that was my game life by doing something else. Every now and then, when I’d made progress in savings, I’d be forced to think about spending it all on playing games, but I persisted. In school, when I would see my friends assemble to play, as usual, I would resist the urge to fall in line. And when I learned that I was been labeled a snub, I blocked my ears to such false accusations and distractions. I could see my goals. I could see the end of the tunnel, I made up my mind and stuck to my gun. I persevere through thick and thin, through the jeers, the belittling, through the ruins, until that morning when I went to the electronics store, and there I was, at the end of the tunnel of my despair and suffering, with a console in hand that might be of no good.
The first thing that could go wrong, that could potentially mark a brutal end to my struggles of owning a Game Boy Advance, fortunately, did not. I plugged in a new set of batteries and watch the LCD display light up. I heaved a sigh of relief and with a smug on my face, I thought, so this is it. It was a eureka moment that made me immediately forget everything I had gone through to get here and I smiled wildly, alone.
But my joys were short-lived. I was confronted with the first catastrophe immediately after the game loaded. Then, one by one, I continued to peel off the layers of tragedy.
The first problem was the language. The soccer cartridge I had been given was written in an Asian dialect that I knew absolutely nothing about. Navigating the game felt like I was in a maze. At first encounters, I would guess-click on certain options, memorize them, then eventually run into a cul-de-sac. The only way I learned how to go was forward, and when that failed, I would turn off the console and restart, learning my path through and through like a maze rat. It was the classic, sheer brute-force search, exhaustive, yes, but the only forward motion I could make. Soon enough I began to get the hang of it — every failure was something new learned or an old mistake corrected.
I spent a lot of sacrificial time learning how to navigate the game on the console. In between, came the second problem: the console consumed a lot of battery power. I had yet to even start a match before the console flickered off. At first, I was shocked but receptive. It must have been a problem with the battery itself, I thought. My initial reaction turned into anger, then frustration, and eventually, acceptance.
After spending a considerable amount of time navigating and replacing the batteries multiple times, I could finally play the game. My joy was reignited but it was merely a spark. I was not far into the soccer match when the console went off, again! I was angry but believed it was a given that would be alleviated by just turning on the console again, then resuming where I left off. But that wasn’t to be the case. Unlike today, where consoles have dedicated memory space to save games (and the progress made on them — there’s also the Cloud), the Game Boy Advance saved the progress of each game on its corresponding cartridge. And because the console and cartridge I was given at the store had seen the best of times, saving on the cartridge was impossible — or maybe I just never understood how to make it work.
At this point, with all the presented problems, I became pessimistic about my purchase. But even if I could live with the burden of spending incessantly on batteries, to fuel my addiction, or accept that every potential soccer game played was ephemeral, I couldn’t deal with what was the final nail in the coffin of my experience with the console: keeping the secret to myself.
As far as my parents or household were concerned, the whole idea of owning a gaming console would have been dead on arrival. I knew right from the onset that I was going against the rules but even though the devil may cry, and the world may end, I was never going to give up on the reality that had consumed me whole, I only needed to be careful.
I would only play whenever no one was at home or watching. And I also had to be careful not to leave any traces. I had struggled to own a console to escape servility, to be free, but there I was, in captivity of my own doing. It felt like I was locked up in a prison I helped design, except that I didn’t have a blueprint tattooed on my body.
Maintaining the console became both a financial and emotional nightmare. I was consumed by self-pity and regrets. I didn’t regret buying the console, I never have, but I berated myself for my naivety. I strongly believed things could have been different, and I blamed the turn out on a lot of things, mostly my insufficiencies and those around me. I bore the pain all alone, day in and day out, every day, for weeks, and months.
I receded, like a hermit, into my house of cards. As I deteriorated, the console became more addictive. Even though I had learned and seen the worst of the console’s antics, I would still spend my feeding allowance on new batteries, while I “recharged” old one’s under the sun. Soon enough I was piling up a lot of batteries, enough to bother about answering for them.
There were nights when a sudden cold breeze would chill my spine and I would cry for what I wanted but didn’t have. I had everything to kill but time, until one day, like a miracle, when hunger slowly replaced my addiction to the console, and I started to think less of it. At that point, I was also entering a new phase in my life: preparing to go the university. This was an exciting prospect that helped further my distraction from the console.
I had been admitted into the Federal University of Technology Akure’s (FUTA) pre-degree program to study Marine Technology. It was 2011; I was sixteen, and that period was both exciting and polarizing because I had never stayed alone on my own, never been independent, or left my parent’s home for the prospect of a new one. But I knew I would survive. Days before I left for FUTA, I locked up the Game Boy Advance console as a symbol of reciprocity. And I moved on with life.
Sometimes during those long months that I was away at FUTA, I received a call from my younger brother. He had discovered the console and asked for my permission to own and play it. His demands took me aback and reopened old wounds. I felt sorry for him because he had no idea what predicament he would be getting into with the console, but I didn’t let him in on it. I worried about his safety but I surmised that there are some things a man must come to on his own, and decided not to rob him of an experience he dearly desired but unbeknownst needed. I gave him my blessings and I never heard any complaints from him.
Almost a year later, when I finally got back home, after I failed at my first attempt to get into the University, I questioned and learned from my brother that my parents had noticed and complained about his addiction to the console, and spend on its maintenance, that they simply decided it was best to dispose of it. Unlike me, my younger brother was gutsier and reckless with the console, he did not bother keeping it a secret.
But that’s how my brother told me the story years ago. Today, he doesn’t remember any of it. Not even online images helped jog his memories. My mother has a different version of the final days of the console.
I remember the console vividly: it is colored in a trident of purple, black, and light grey, operated in a landscape mode, and deliberately hunched back, to house the cartridge at the top and battery at the bottom, giving it an unbalanced shape when placed backside on a flat surface. Below the screen that equates the console controllers on the flanks, is the famous inscription: GAME BOY ADVANCE.
My experience of owning a Game Boy Advance was a long time ago, but it is one that has always stayed with me. It is a painstaking bargain that taught me more than I bargained for, right from the moment I conceived of it, until long after. Even years after its demise, I would be hunted occasionally, not so much by the console than it is by the travails I went through. In a twist of fate, it was a show of a lifetime, and I got a front-row seat at naivety, insufficiencies, and ultimate failure; a first-class experience of the harsh realities of life. But it also taught me patience, perseverance, and acceptance. And in a world filled with such beauty and peril, I might just have been handed a trump card at this Cirque du Soleil.
As the years have gone by, I have continuously piled up failures and successes, wins and losses. I’ve continued to play my part as best as I can, after all, in the grand scheme of things, that’s all we all can ever do.
My family came to visit sometime in mid-2022. My younger brother and I gamed a long time away, on one of the next-generation gaming consoles, the Xbox Series X. It ships with a one-terabyte internal SSD drive and has an expandable memory storage of up to two terabytes. We played FIFA 2022, on a 65’ inches OLED LG TV, at a 4K resolution, at 120 frames per second (some say that it doesn't get better than this). The game started slowly with me missing a couple of scoring chances. It was an intentional plot to not go too hard on my brother. But before I could blink, he let me know I had misjudged his gaming expertise.