Disclaimer: This is a very personal story, one I’ve been meaning to write for a while. Given my career path and retro-gaming area of expertise, this is just the best way I could tell it creatively. Please don’t mistake my tone for trivializing a serious issue. This is a very important topic to me.
I write to you today a survivor from the seventh layer of my own personal hell. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to live through one of the most excruciating painful experiences known to man, then you’re about to get a fresh reminder of those long sleepless nights and dreary days spawned by powerful painkillers.
I’m, of course, talking about kidney stones. Over the course of my 30 years of existence, I’ve suffered through about a dozen of these calcified demons, and I work hard everyday to drink enough water and manage my diet to make sure it does not happen again.
I’m roughly three years kidney stone free since starting this management, and I’m grateful every single day that I wake up pain-free. However, the slightest lingering pain in my lower-left back can still send chills down my spine for days on end until I feel it’s safe enough to relax.
Yes, kidney stones are among the absolute worst, and I’m here to help with the aid of video games. More specifically, NES classics that are bound to help you better understand exactly what kidney stones are and how to react to them.
These are five NES classics that you should play when your kidney has literally stabbed you in the back and sent torturous, jagged rocks through the most sensitive area of your body.
Konami’s excellent NES SHMUP Life Force is actually a spin-off of its better known SHMUP series, Gradius. This classic improves the established formula in a few ways, but what’s even more unique about it is that it takes place entirely inside of a living organism.
Levels design themselves based on different areas within an alien body, and both common enemies and boss fights tend to be a twisted combination of mechanical and biological in design. Who could ever scrub from their memories that horrific brain boss at the end of level 1?
Players take control of a little white jet that navigates these thin tunnels, and one bullet or wayward enemy is all it takes to wreck your mission. Crashing into the ground also causes your ship to explode, and it is here that we find our similarities to kidney stones.
Some who have lived through kidney stones might think that the most overrated part of the experience is when it actually leaves your body. The image of passing a stone while going to the bathroom is enough to make anyone shudder, but it’s actually the easiest part, in my experience at least. Mine have been relatively small compared to what others have seen, though. A pinch of pain, a sudden spurt, and poof, it’s over.
Even so, I think most would agree that the hard part is actually the journey from the kidney into the bladder through the ureter. Kidney stones only hurt when they are in motion. They are sharp, jagged little beasts that literally slice you every single millimeter along the way. Could be two months, could be half a week, but you’ll know exactly when that thing is moving every inch of its journey.
I hope the imagery is catching on here. A small, sharp white object navigating through thin tunnels surrounded by living tissue. Just like a kidney stone, the jets in Life Force are of no risk if one can successfully guide its way through each level. Skilled players try with all their concentration to navigate, shoot, and dodge in tight quarters to make sure the worst doesn’t happen.
But when that jet steers the wrong way and crashes it jagged edges into a fleshy corridor… game over, man.
Little Nemo: The Dream Master
Capcom’s 8-bit interpretation of the 1989 remake of Winsor McCay’s classic comic. Little Nemo: The Dream Master is an excellent Mega Man clone that oozes personality. It sets itself apart from others using a unique mechanic that allows our hero to overtake the bodies of animals, contriving their powers to aid in traversing this brutal game’s torturous levels.
Nemo can take the form of a frog, mole, or gorilla and ride on the backs of lizards or hornets. And the way he can whip these animal buddies into obedience is to lull them to sleep by feeding them candy. Sweet, sweet, lovely candy that puts them right to sleep before he pounces.
Now, obviously the image of wonderful candy that puts monsters to sleep is every kidney stone sufferer’s personal savior. Delicious, wonderful goodness that not only tastes like your favorite arranged flavor but also sends you off to dreamland after a quick dose or two? Absolutely!
Kidney stones can be rough enough to deny anybody sleep, and even then, sleep is the only relief from the constant pain that these horned abominations can delve out. I remember waking up some mornings during my trials and just praying, hoping to everything that the day would not come and that I could just magically be whisked away to an unconscious state.
Luckily, drugs do allow that, and in North America, it’s not much of a problem.Take your pill, go to sleep or at least walk around in a relatively pain-free, barely aware state. In Japan, where I have had several stones erupt, it’s not quite so simple in that the medicine doctors prescribe aren’t exactly taken… “orally.”
I don’t think I need to spell it out any further, but I would definitely prefer Little Nemo’s dream candy to what the official solution is.
Nintendo doesn’t dive into licensed properties very often, but did you know that one of its original arcade games and NES launch titles was actually a Popeye game? Don’t get too excited. There’s not much to it, and this second-thought projects feels more like a bad Donkey Kong knock-off than anything else.
Still, Nintendo working with a popular character that is not one of its own? That’s enough to churn anyone’s curiosity! How exactly does the spinach-swilling sailor tie into kidney stones? Well, pretty easily, actually.18
So, you’ve done it! You’ve passed the stone and you’re back at the hospital for a follow-up appointment. Like a good patient, you caught the devious cretin in a filter provided by your doctor, and his lab assistants have had ample time to study it and tell you exactly what caused it.
What was it? What did I put into my body that could have possibly caused me such ill-fortune? I mean, I eat a lot of french fries and get a real sweet-tooth for chocolate this time of year. Could that be it?
“No,” the doctor says. “Those certainly don’t help, but this stone was actually caused by calcium oxalate.”
And what is the most common food that contains calcium oxalates? You guessed it… spinach! I’ve improved my diet a lot over the last few years, mostly thanks to this thing called “marriage,” but back when I was suffering through kidney stones, I ate a lot of junk food.
One of the few healthy foods I genuinely loved was just that… spinach.
And it was also the cause of all my pain and sorrow in the world. The doctor instructed me to eat it with a special Japanese fish to cancel out the oxalate reaction or try a substitute like Japanese “komatsuna” which doesn’t have calcium oxalate, but it’s just not the same.
I love spinach, so much, and being banned from it just makes me crave it more. After playing this horrible Popeye game for hours on end, though, that should be enough to kill any love for the leafy vegetable. Ugh, what was Nintendo thinking?
Sorry, no spinach. Still, that’s the sacrifice one must make if they want to remain healthy. Management and balance. It’s not always junk food that must be cut.
Super Mario Bros. 2
Needs no introduction. Super Mario Bros. 2 is not the real Super Mario Bros. 2, but anyone who says that we should have gotten the actual one back in the day is just plain wrong. This is an excellent game, and it is aging just fine alongside its NES brothers.
Now, kidney stones generally occur within older people or those who are overweight. During the peak of my kidney stone era, when I had three in a single year, I maxed out at about 195 lbs, the heaviest I have ever been in my life. Not severely overweight, given that I’m a pretty tall guy, but definitely not an ideal weight either.
However, the doctors said that it was not enough to garner such frequent kidney stones in a mid-twenties year old man, and one figured that there must be an underlying problem besides my diet. Turns out, he was correct.
Unknown to both my parents and me, my left kidney is actually a “double pelvic/double ureter” kidney. This means that it operates as two separate kidneys and both have ureters that connect to the bladder.
It’s not exactly a dangerous situation, but it can lead to an increase in kidney stones. Water is important for a kidney to function properly as it keeps them hydrated, and flushed kidneys means less chance of calcified chunks to take form. However, with a split kidney, water will usually travel to the larger, healthier, and more “normal” half, meaning that the weaker, smaller half tends to be drier unless the body is constantly hydrated.
This smaller half was the reason for my kidney stones. Fine, I keep myself hydrated, and if things get too serious, the doctors say I’ll still have the larger half working properly if the lower half ever needs to come out. Surgery is “unlikely” if I treat my body properly, but “unlikely” is not a word hypochondriacs, like myself, want to hear.
“I have a defective kidney.” The psychological impact of something being “wrong” inside your body is a heavy burden on anybody’s soul. Even if the situation is not immediately dangerous and problems can be picked up from a mile away now that I know about it, the idea of something “wrong” inside took a lot to get over.
But hey, it’s okay! Super Mario Bros. 2 has a lot of elements inside of it too that other Super Mario Bros. games don’t have. Lifting enemies above Mario’s head, POW blocks, an entirely new army of enemies to battle, Princess Toadstool and Toad as playable characters. Super Mario Bros. 2 might be “defective” and “wrong” on the inside, but it’s still a beloved game that hangs with the best of its legendary siblings.
Likewise, my kidney might be strange and weird, but it still functions. The doctor also graciously reminded me that it has kept me going for 30 years, so it can’t be that useless. Hopefully, it has many more years of health now that I know how to properly treat it.
If you can’t tell by the length of this section, coming to terms with this was actually harder than passing the kidney stones themselves. Getting the bloody thing out is only half the battle. The rest is figuring out how to stop them from forming.
No fifth game. Why is that? Because when you have a kidney stone, video games are the last thing on your mind!
You can’t sit and enjoy your hobby because a sharp piece of waste is constantly tearing your insides. You’re constantly exhausted because you can’t sleep at night, and when you can sleep, it’s because you’ve taken drugs that knock you out through chemical induced “fake” sleep.
Constantly lingering on the verge of consciousness, constantly fighting back tears of pain, constantly drinking water to keep the flow moving and ureters flushed, constantly releasing that water. Sitting on heating pads, family members propping you up if you need to walk outside or even to the john.
Seriously, who has time for videos games when your body is in such a ragged condition like this? Who can concentrate and dedicate the grueling attention required by this brutal era of level design? If you play anything on your NES, it might as well be Wheel of Fortune or something that doesn’t require quick reactions or a whole lot of focus.
Because attention is something you have very little give when the horrible bits of evil are traveling through your body.
Take care, drink a lot of water, stay in shape, and treat your kidneys nicely. They are two of the most important organs in your body, and if you respect them, they’ll do their job and keep you alive. Mistreat them… they will stab you in the back.