The Quintessential Video Game

NES controller

There’s any number of real-life archetypes of kids we’ve all known in school: the guy who was the class clown; the girl who was amazing at sports; the nerd, the bully, the cheerleader, the loner, etc. It’s of course narrow-minded to view people purely through the lens of these labels, but no matter how concerted our efforts are to not judge a book by its cover, nobody in modern history has ever struggled with instantly discerning which category people generally fall into.

Not surprisingly, we’re also equally adept at applying this skill to ourselves, and being creatures that naturally seek out comfort, it’s no wonder we tend to gravitate towards like individuals, forming groups, which can lead to much more insular cliques. There’s certainly something to be said for having a strong support network, but the downside is, aside from the obvious result of increasing a negative sense of competition between other groups, even if quite similar (a group of jocks, for example, can take rivalry with another separate group of jocks just as easily as the unathletic, atomic-wedgie-receiving dweebs), that it can also diminish our awareness of even the very existence of other types that our own don’t commonly if at all interact with.

Here’s where I’m going with this: that despite dividing ourselves into distinct and sometimes isolated classes, there is one type that we ALL knew growing up. Maybe you yourself even were this person: I’m talking about that one kid in class who was the first to have everything.

This isn’t something anybody seems to really care about much or even notice at all in high school (at least among boys, as that’s the only experience I can speak to), but in your elementary days, it’s a status symbol that makes a kid look like a prepubescent Ron Burgundy: kind of a big deal, albeit with a higher voice.

When I was that age, there actually were two kids that fit that bill. The first was an individual we’ll call “Carlos”, because I’ve never in my life personally known anyone with that name; at least, not that I can recall. Anyway, Carlos was a jerk. I frankly don’t care to remember him much, but he’s worth at least mentioning as he really was the epitome of this sort, and it takes exceedingly little effort to see why that would be: namely, his family was, in a word, rich. Like, I’m talking more money than it’s physically possible to spend in one lifetime. And so, to the shock of no one, Carlos was as spoiled rotten as a pumpkin patch in early December.

I can still distinctly remember Carlos in the 1st grade bragging to us on the school bus that his dad “had a hundred dollars”, and nobody believing him, because $100 is the highest amount of money a 6 year-old can imagine, let alone comprehend. But even he himself, while aware at least on some level that his family was well-off, didn’t seem to fully grasp just how disgustingly, filthy, stinking rich they were. He had just about everything a child’s heart could desire, and he treated it all as mundane as the air we breathe. But what kid that age can truly appreciate what you have? There’s no conceivable way you don’t take that for granted, and however much I might want to, I couldn’t possibly ever hold it against him. Having said that, it affected his behaviour regardless, and all those around him felt the brunt of those effects.

As you might expect, Carlos was hungrier for attention than a streaker on ice skates. And, as you’d also anticipate, this manifested in acting out in whatever way he could, and only got progressively worse as he grew older. He was the epitome of a trouble-maker, and though I won’t detail the majority of his activities, let’s just put it this way: however bad you can imagine he might have been, he was worse.

But for Carlos, most of his worst shenanigans were all side-quests; a way of pushing the envelope when he got bored of his normal routine. Sadly, though predictably, his regular brand of attention-seeking typically was resorting to pushing around weaker kids, and unfortunately for me, I was, shall we say, an easy target.

Not needing to get into the details, let’s just put it this way: he bullied me mercilessly.

I’m sure without even knowing anything about the situation, you probably still have a pretty accurate idea of what this likely entailed, so I’ll just skip over that part of it. How he bullied me isn’t really relevant, anyway; what matters is that he did, for years and years, and there was never a thing I could do about it.

Lord knows, I wasn’t his only victim, either.

This even continued through a personal attempt to, so to speak, kill him with kindness; being as profoundly naive as I was (and admittedly sometimes still can be), I really thought I could make a go at trying to be friends with him. We would have been around 10 at this point, and I’m not sure how the logistics of this got worked out, but somehow I arranged for us to “hang out” at his home. You know….like how friends do.

It always had looked like quite a large house from the outside, but walking inside was like Hermione Granger had put an extension charm on it: as it turned out, only the top third of the house or so was actually visible from street-level; the rest was, if you can believe it, buried in the ground, as though the basement itself was the size of 5 modest homes stacked on top of each other. Walking in the front door essentially put you on the top floor of an otherwise underground, bizarrely-designed open-space mansion, with gargantuan sloping staircases running up and down either side, making for a truly dizzying effect. If you’ve ever visited the Guggenheim museum in New York City, that’s about the closest reference point I could give you. It was of course rectangular in shape instead of a spiral, but it had the same feel of total spatial openness, and was just about as large to boot. And this kid LIVED here. “Carlos lives in a goddamned castle!”, I kept thinking. There’s a scene in Tim Burton‘s first Batman film where Vicky Vale is having dinner with Bruce Wayne in his impossibly huge manor, and as they’re sipping their soup, sitting across from each other at opposite ends of a comically long dinner table, he jokes that he’s not sure he’s ever even been in that particular room before; straight-up, I felt like I could have explored Carlos’ house for a month and never discovered every room. At least, that’s how it felt at the time.

At any rate, I made it inside (with no recollection of how I somehow navigated past his especially mean Rottweiler he had chained up guarding the entrance) and, with wide-eyes, taking in the Olympian scale of his domicile, it quickly became apparent that I was not welcome. His mother was friendly and inviting enough from what I recall, but Carlos was none too happy that I was there. In retrospect, I suppose this meeting must have been arranged by my parents calling his mother and her agreeing, because it was immediately obvious this was not something Carlos had consented to. AT ALL. I couldn’t tell you how many hours I was there, but it was non-stop pettiness. If a person’s brain fits the size of their skull, it would also seem a person’s ego fills their living space, because I’d never encountered before in a human being such a display of self-importance and entitlement. I was there on the assumption we were going to, well, I didn’t even really know what…..play with toys? Play videos games? Watch TV or movies? Whatever it was 10 year old boys did then to have fun, I guess. But Carlos had other ideas: namely, making a personal game out of sabotaging my efforts to engage him as a friend.

I can only remember bits and pieces now, but a few things do still stand out. One thing was that I was a huge Ghostbusters fan, and while I had a lot of the toys myself, Carlos’ collection was of course even huger, and I remember practically drooling seeing them all in his room, but excitement quickly turned to disappointment and embarrassment after being told I wasn’t allowed to touch any of them. I also remember him having a giant bucket of candies that were sort of like sour fruit roll-ups, but were smaller, thicker, and individually wrapped, and he sat there eating them purposely trying to tantalize me with how good they looked, but then wouldn’t let me have one. I vaguely recall us playing Mortal Kombat on his Genesis (and feeling rather impressed his mother let him play the version that actually had blood), and him being both a very poor loser and a very poor winner, whatever the outcome of each match was. But then, the one thing that I remember as clear as day and will never forget as long as I live was that at one point, the phone rang. Carlos’ mother answered, and then handed the phone to me as it was a call from my own mother, who was just checking in to see how things were going. The reason this is burned into my memory is because after only getting out a few words, suddenly, the call cut out and the line went dead. I looked puzzled for a moment, until I turned around to see Carlos there with a Grinch-sized shit-eating grin on his face, giggling uncontrollably and proudly displaying the fact that he had disconnected the phone cable from the wall. I took my cue and left. Thankfully, it was a short walk home.

There was another somewhat similar incident a couple years later in which I was invited back, but only because it was a birthday party and I’m pretty sure his mom forced him to invite the whole class. Or at least all of the boys, because I don’t recall any girls there. It must have been 1996 because he had an N64 then when nobody else did, and of course, true to form, he wouldn’t let anybody else play it. I also have a memory from this event which I’m sure I’ll also never forget until the end of my days being that it was one of if not the only time in my life where I legitimately thought I was going to die. As mentioned previously, he not only had a huge house, but also a monstrous piece of land, with a back yard seeming to my eyes like a complete forest; at one point during the party, we were all gathered out back, and his older brother brought out his ATV (because of course he had an ATV) and started driving it around, chasing people with it. Carlos shouted to his brother to “run him over!”, naturally pointing to me, and the next thing I knew, I was running for my life. I ran like hell. Looking back occasionally over my shoulder, certain death was never more than a few meters behind me, and so, I ran harder and harder, my painful breathing and heavy panting syncing perfectly with quite literally crying out in fear. Thinking back, I’m sure his brother wouldn’t actually run me over, at least not intentionally; more than likely he just thought it would be funny to scare the crap out of some little kid, and stop short if he had to. But, I didn’t know or think that at the time, and accidents do happen, too. You just never know. I walked away that day unscathed, but things could so, so easily have turned out differently had his brakes failed, or had I taken a single misstep and tripped, or had one of a hundred other unanticipated variables gone awry. I’ll never, ever, ever, ever forget the sheer sense of pure, utter panic; the absolute terror of prey fleeing a predator; and the laughing. Everyone, standing, watching, pointing, laughing. I never went back again after that. Mind you, I wasn’t invited again, but I was glad for it. Even today, I wouldn’t go back save to burn the place down.

By the way, that was a joke, not an actual threat. Please don’t call the police.

Anyway, the point is that attempting to gain a friendship with him through osmosis by just sort of assuming and behaving as though we were friends wasn’t doing the trick, and all the other bullying I’ve eluded to at school continued as well. Oh well, can’t say I didn’t try.

As I said, this pattern continued throughout his life, or at least this period of it. Luckily (for me), by the time we got to secondary school, our paths never crossed much, except for on the bus there and back, and even then, our direct interactions were minimal at most. But I never failed to notice that despite not having to endure him myself any longer, his behaviour hadn’t actually waned, but rather that his choice of targets and methods simply changed and continued to evolve.

In the end, this ultimately culminated in a certain event which, while I won’t describe it, suffice to say marked the end of his involvement in my life. I never saw or heard from him again afterwards. What happened to him in the last 15+ years is unbeknownst to me, and honestly, I don’t particularly care to know. But I wish him no ill will. Wherever he is, whatever he’s doing, I hope he’s well. Maybe if we met today, we could be friends, but who knows. I don’t need everyone to like me. And for my part, that’s about all I have to say about him.

 

BUT — this isn’t actually about Carlos.

***

As mentioned earlier, you’ll recall I stated there were two kids I knew who fell into the “first to have everything” camp. Who I really want to talk about is that second kid, and the only reason I’ve been going on about Carlos all this time was that I wanted to underline the stark contrast between them, because this other kid exemplified how being well-to-do need not transform you into a greedy, selfish, narcissistic, insufferable thug.

This kid’s name was Daniel, and that actually is his real name, which I have no problem using in this case because he was one of my best friends.

Daniel lived just a few doors down the street from me, so it was lucky we got along, because that kind of residential proximity for a kid is a terrible thing to waste. We very commonly went over to each other’s houses and spent many an after-school hour together being boys. I especially enjoyed going over to his place, though, because he too seemed to have everything before everyone else. His family was nowhere near as wealthy as Carlos’ family, but make no mistake, they were financially comfortable, and they always had the coolest stuff. Now, mind you, we’re talking about kids in the late 80’s to early 90’s here, so the “coolest stuff” to us included things like a basketball net, a skateboard, an above-ground pool, or even an automatic VHS tape re-winder (the luxury!). Later in the 90’s, Daniel was also the first person I knew to ever own a DVD player, which they paid $1,000 for. Seems somewhat steep by today’s standards, but come on, you can’t put a price on quality home video entertainment. Anyway, here’s where this is all leading:

Daniel had an NES.

My family didn’t even own a computer until the late 90’s, and it took us even longer to finally get internet. Additionally, there weren’t any convenient arcade locations nearby (of course, I never got an allowance either, so I wouldn’t have had any quarters to spend anyway), so the only video games available to me at the time were consoles. I was lucky enough to be gifted an NES eventually one Christmas, but until then, if ever I wanted to play video games, I’d have to hope to be invited over to Daniel’s.

Thankfully, I did. Quite frequently, actually. And it was there that I got my first taste of electronic gaming. I remember his set-up so vividly: his house had a tiny room just to the left of the front hall that his parents let him and his older brother use specifically for this purpose. They had a modest CRT monitor set up high on a shelf, and a wooden bench without a back in the middle of the room for players to sit on. Being that age, it seemed we practically had to look up a mile to actually see the TV, but we sure weren’t complaining. I also remember Daniel kept his NES controllers wrapped up in a sliding drawer just below the TV when not in use, which for some reason impressed me. He also kept his games in the same drawer, of which he had a fair number. I recall us playing a lot of P.O.W. and Duck Hunt, and being that Daniel was a hockey player, he was also especially fond of Blades of Steel. I’d always play as Toronto, he’d always play as Edmonton, and he’d always hand my ass to me. I could never get a feel for it at the time, though he should see me play now; not to brag, but I’ve since become quite the force to reckon with. And it only took me 25 years! Of course, the joke’s on me since, aside from it being kind of a lame skill to have to begin with, I’ve got nobody to play with now anyway. But I digress. We played a variety of other stuff too, all of which he’d introduce me to as I was more or less out of the loop about all of it. Somehow, he was very well versed in the Nintendo library, so most if not everything I first learned about video games was through him.

And it was there, with him, in that tiny room, where I first played Super Mario Bros.

I might be mistaken about this, but as far as my memory can be trusted, I believe it was the first video game I ever played.

My grandfather would occasionally take me to the mall where they did have an arcade, but given he didn’t understand basically a thing about gaming, he wasn’t about to spend more than a dollar or two for me to have a little fun while I was there, so I mostly played pinball as that seemed to be the best bang for my tokens. I do recall that I played a little bit of Pac-Man, though I wasn’t very good, and I believe I also was a fan of Popeye, but those times were far and few between; I’m fairly certain my first experience with video games ever was playing Super Mario Bros. with Daniel down the street. We did also play a lot of Super Mario Bros. 3, in fact probably more so, but for some reason, the former was the one that always stuck out in my mind more, as well as the one I looked forward more to playing.

It quickly became the very thing that I associated most with video games in general. Something about it had a power over me that I couldn’t resist. The perfect combination of its graphics and aesthetic look, its now iconic music track, its classic and absolutely brilliantly conceived level design, the way it felt when controlling it, and its ease of play yet clever gradual increase in difficulty, not to mention all the great power-ups and secrets to uncover, all came packaged together in a way that to my young impressionable mind affected me like a drug high, and it wasn’t long before I was hooked hopelessly. In fact, it’s fair to say I obsessed over it pretty hardcore. Though I’m ashamed to say, I quickly began to look forward to visiting Daniel more for access to his Nintendo than anything else. I needed my fix. We did things other than play video games, too, but by and large, that was the staple of how we spent our free time. In fact, my obsession became so great that it started to be almost the only thing I could think about. Before finally getting my own NES, I kid you not, I would literally pretend to be playing it. I’ve always had a highly overactive imagination, even to this day, and so I wasn’t going to let the lack of owning any actual video games myself stop me from playing them in my head.

I remember at one point, just in case you needed more proof of how far my obsession went, I got a shoe box and drew inside it a scene from World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros., as though the box were a TV displaying the image, and then on the underside of the box’s lid I drew my best rendering of an NES controller. You might be tempted to think that’s nothing more than a creative arts and crafts project, but for me, it was serving as a surrogate; the closest approximation to the real thing I was capable of conjuring, and I really actually did pretend to play it as though I were somehow manipulating the characters on the “screen”. I showed it to an older kid once who I wasn’t really friends with but for some reason went over to his house once anyway, and even though he was only a year older than me, even he could see my imagination was maybe a little too advanced. But the truth is I was desperate to play, and if the only way I could was in the world of make-belief, then that would just have to be good enough.

You’ll be happy to know that once I at long last owned an NES myself and could finally play practically any time I liked that my obsession, rather than getting worse, instead lessened to a more healthy level. Video games were still my favourite thing in the whole wide world, but now that my appetite could be more readily satiated, I at least wasn’t having dreams about them anymore. No, that wouldn’t happen to me again until I first played Ocarina of Time some 10 years later, but that’s another story….

But now, with my own NES (which I begrudgingly had to share with my little brother who was barely old enough to play at all) I could finally start having Daniel over for our adventures in gaming. The game we probably played the most was Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, which was ideal because it had a great co-op mode. Hilariously, if you’re feeling particularly vindictive, you can actually pick up and throw the other player, and we used to do that to each other a lot; even though it’s meant to be a cooperative experience, we still approached it pretty competitively, and we took these micro-transgressions against each other in the game very personally. I’m not sure if this is ironic or not, but it seemed that I also had more success in the game when playing with Daniel’s older brother, and I think he resented this. I suppose in fairness I could imagine myself being horribly jealous if I were in his shoes. So, I’m not sure if what happened next was intentional or just an honest, coincidental mistake, but one day, Daniel asked me if he could borrow the game; I lent my copy to him, and never saw it again. The story was, supposedly, one of his friends was over to his house and they were playing it, and he asked Daniel if he could borrow it, and Daniel lent it out as though it were his to do so with, and then it just never got returned.

Today, I’ve since purchased a second-hand copy of the game, but just out of morbid curiosity, I feel like I’d give anything to know how many times my original game exchanged hands and where it finally ended up; whether someone out there still has it in their collection and still plays it, whether it got stored away in a box and is collecting dust in someone’s attic, whether it got sold off and is sitting on the shelf of a used game shop, if it’s listed on eBay and is currently getting bid on, or if it just got tossed out long ago and is rotting in a landfill somewhere as we speak. You see, I actually still have every other game I ever owned as a kid, and I keep my collection close and protected, like they’re my babies, so it’s kind of like that one game was a stray sheep that got separated from the flock and was forever lost, and all I can do is pray it’s okay.

Daniel, I know there’s virtually no chance you’re reading this, but if you are: you owe me a copy of Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers on NES. And with the box, dust sleeve, and manual, too, thank-you very much.

***

But getting back to the topic at hand: my point in all of this is that Super Mario Bros. wasn’t only my introduction to the entire medium of video games, but likely is the sole reason for why I remain a voracious gamer nearly 3 decades later. And not to overstate the matter, but I think one could make a strong argument that it’s the single-most important video game ever made. Yes, games like Pong and Asteroids kick-started the original video game craze, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong ushered in the golden age of the arcade, the Atari 2600 popularized the home console and brought gaming into people’s living rooms more so than anything that came before, and the more recent Nintendo Wii gained the reputation as the console that managed to get even grandma to join in on the fun; but it was the mighty Super Mario Bros. that not only put a face to the industry with worldwide recognition, revolutionized the idea of side-scrolling platformers, introduced brilliant graphics with fun gameplay mechanics, had genius level design and near-perfect controls, showed gamers across the globe the potential of what gaming could be, and indeed became the absolute standard to which all game developers strived for and all games thereafter were measured against, thus changing and moulding the medium forever, but then, to top it all off, it may well be said to be single-handedly responsible for resurrecting the entire video game industry itself.

After the infamous “video game crash of 1983”, both consumers and retailers were jaded and burnt-out, wanting nothing to do with games at all. Anything so much as associated with gaming was treated like the plague. The outlook was grim. But worry not, dear reader: fast-forward to 1985, and Nintendo’s little console-that-could, the renowned and now revered NES, was born. The great grey box, after having finally arrived in North America from the shores of Japan, had at last come to save the day, and not a moment too soon as the patient was hemorrhaging terribly and left almost without a pulse. But while Nintendo’s marketing tactics were brilliant in their own right, the console itself wouldn’t manage to achieve its main objective, not to mention reach the level of notoriety we today take for granted, without its so-called “killer app”, and thus, the introduction of Super Mario Bros. on store shelves reignited the spark of interest previously lost in the hearts of gamers. The NES’s initial launch titles helped to get the ball rolling, but it was the legendary first adventure into the 8-bit Mushroom Kingdom that really caught on like wildfire, opening the eyes of old and new gamers alike to a digital world they’d never experienced before, and truly solidified the reality that gaming was finally back now, better than ever before, and this time, was here to stay for good.

Super Mario Bros. triumphed over all games that preceded it, influenced all games that followed, and practically on its own turned an entire generation of kids onto the hobby. Its impact is undeniable, and wholly indelible to everything video games are and ever will be.

I suspect I am not alone in feeling this way. Surely, there must be any number of people out there who also grew up with the game and were equally as taken with and influenced by it. In fact, if you approached any gamer of any age today on the street and asked them to name 10 random video games off the top of their head, at least one Mario game is almost certain to be among those listed, if not the specific one in question. To wit, Mario is often cited as one of the most recognizable fictional characters on Earth. And if you need more convincing than that, I’ll bet anything you’d get just about the same response if you asked the same question of people who aren’t gamers; even if they’ve never played a single game in their entire life and couldn’t name even 10 video game titles, Super Mario Bros. nevertheless has an extremely high probably of being a game most have at least heard of and are of passing familiarity with. That’s its legacy.

To this day, it remains the game I picture in my mind’s eye anytime anyone so much as mentions “video games”, and to me is synonymous with the medium itself. It’s by no means my absolute favourite game I’ve ever played, but I’ll say this: if all games in the world were going to be destroyed forever, and I was given the opportunity to preserve just one, this would be my choice.

 

In short, Super Mario Bros. is the game.

***

If games be the food of love, play on.
– some poet dude

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