Happy Birthday, Buddy: Twenty Years Of Mario
September 13, 2005
Nintendo's own Super Mario Bros. turns twenty years old today, an anniversary that makes me think about how far video games have come since the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System and also makes me feel old. I've been playing video games for a long time, and as a young child I had a Commodore 64 computer that could play games such as Ghostbusters, ALF, and a few homebrew arcade games put together by a friend of my family. Most of the other programs in my Commodore collection were educational in some manner, be it math puzzles with a diving dolphin or a space adventure featuring Mickey Mouse.
It wasn't until I met a brave plumber from Brooklyn and went to the Mushroom Kingdom for the first time that I came to see that video games could be so much more than just spelling tutors and counting games. They could actually be fun without the need to blatantly teach. Over the next two decades Mario would be by my side as we battled both his Koopas and my illnesses.
I was first introduced to Mario at a friend's sixth birthday party where the main party game was Super Mario Bros. Everyone took turns playing the game and I was enthralled right away. At the age of six my father brought home a brand new NES from his office; Nintendo was interested in my father's foam production plant producing the foam packaging that encases NES units inside the box. When that NES wasn't at the factory, it was in my bedroom where I played far more Super Mario Bros. than was probably healthy at the time. At the time the NES was the new amazing thing on the block, and having one was big news to my elementary school friends. When I wasn't playing the game, I was drawing the character illustrations out of the game's manual, following the pixelated appearance of the items and enemies because I just plain didn't know any better. The NES had to go back to Nintendo after nine months, but Mario's adventures stayed with me. Several months later I had saved up enough money to buy a NES of my own and Mario was welcomed into my home permanently.
Super Mario Bros. 2 was released the next year and my first encounter with it was at a cousin's house. I saved up my money once again to buy my own copy, and the weeks leading up to Super Mario Bros. 3's release in 1990 were consumed by reading magazine articles about the game and saving up more money. By this point in my life I was basically turning my weekly allowances over to Nintendo after saving and counting the spare change found in the couch cushions. My parents chipped in for Mario's latest adventure, however, and the third installment of the series was a birthday present. I skipped a parent/teacher/student night to play the game; after all that build up there was no way I was walking away from the NES that evening. Super Mario Land was the inaugural game when I booted up my Game Boy for the first time, and Dr. Mario soon followed.
When I turned ten years old my parents decided to let me choose our summer vacation as a birthday gift, and I chose Seattle, Washington because I knew that Nintendo was located near there, and even if I couldn't get inside the facility it felt neat just to be near it. I was clearly hooked by now. I had all of the Mario products: trashcan, bedsheets, towels, stuffed toy, water pistol, trophy, stickers, car air freshener, comic books, choose-your-own-adventure books, fruit soda, fruit snacks, ice cream sandwiches, t-shirts, soundtrack CDs, homemade videotapes of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, homemade Halloween costume complete with giant foam mushroom, and McDonald's Happy Meal toys. I was even suckered into buying Mario Is Missing despite knowing up front that it was an edutainment title. When Super Mario Bros.: The Movie arrived at the little local multiplex when I was in the sixth grade, I rounded up a group of friends to see it. When the film lit up the screen and the familiar opening notes of the Super Mario Bros. theme echoed throughout the theater, a friend turned to me and said "Admit it, you loved that." Damn right I did.
When the first Super NES demo units trickled into stores in my old hometown back in 1991, I loved to go to K-Mart and play Super Mario World while my parents picked up an auto part or garden tool. Three months of waiting in line for the demo led up to a holiday gift of a Super NES with Super Mario World packed inside, and although I had also been given SimCity and Pilotwings, Mario and Yoshi tied up the rest of my winter break from school. Then came the spin-offs: Super Mario Kart was always a great multiplayer game when friends came over, Mario Paint was an excuse to be creative, and Super Mario All-Stars brought back the nostalgia of only six years prior. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island was the perfect cap to the 16-bit glory days of platformers, Super Mario RPG kept me up long into the night as I worked to solve the puzzles and complete the story, and like everyone else who followed games at the time I was eager to see this new 3D Mario game that the magazines were mentioning month after month.
When the mysterious and awe-inspiring Super Mario 64 arrived at Blockbuster Video ahead of the Nintendo 64's release, I was drawn to the trial level of the game just as I'd been back in K-Mart three doors down and five years ago with Super Mario World. At the age of fifteen I rented a console and the game from Blockbuster and placed it by in my bedroom television next to the NES and Super NES. I had barely played for a day or two when my chronic digestive illness flared up, causing me to collapse during a high school exam. I spent the next few days in and out of the hospital for tests, and with my condition growing worse it was obvious one evening that come morning I'd have to check into the hospital for an extended period, and I knew that by the time I was discharged the N64 rental period would be over. Despite the console sitting in my home for a week, I'd only been able to play it for about two days.
I knew I only had that night before being admitted, so I pushed aside the terrible stomach pains and dehydration to play Super Mario 64. The game was a revelation to me, allowing me to think of things in three dimensions for the first time that I could remember. Super Mario 64 was (and still is) a masterpiece, a culmination of gaming that for a few short hours helped me forget that I was bound for more medical tests when the sun peaked over the horizon. I spent the next eleven days hooked up to machines and undergoing x-rays at the local medical center. The hospital brought a Super NES to my bedside so I could play Star Fox, but it just wasn't the same. Super Mario 64 was in my blood now, and everything else just wasn't up to the experience of trying to complete Lethal Lava Land before my time at home ran out. Following my hospital stay I spent three months at home out of school and unable to eat. My parents gave me a Nintendo 64 and Super Mario 64 for the holidays to help me escape from what had become day after day of bed rest and liquid diets.
Two years later on the eve of high school graduation three of my friends and I skipped out of school early for one last round of Mario Kart 64 before we all went our separate ways. To this day that afternoon is the only time I've ever played a 4-player game, and the laughter and anguished cries coming out of us were intermixed with the happy shouts and surprised screams of Mario and the gang on the screen. The four of us spent over an hour on the Royal Raceway in an attempt to make the jump from the giant ramp all the way to the finish line, flying over the large lake in the center of the track. High school behind me, I moved on to college and put video games aside, but the release of Super Mario Sunshine sucked me back into the hobby. I picked up a GameCube and fell right back into step with my digital plumber buddy, moving on through Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour, and all of his other amazing adventures from this generation of consoles.
Mario has come a long way from his days of being merely a simple collection of pixels. He was my first great fictional hero, and in many ways he still is today. There is so much history in him and his world that I never tire of stepping back into the kingdom for another amazing adventure. Mario has been there during the joyous times of celebration and the painful times of poor health. That's his most enduring quality, actually: no matter what happens in the world, no matter how good or bad a day I've had, and no matter how my life takes an unexpected turn, Mario is always around to have some fun and get my mind off my troubles for a while. Congratulations on your first twenty years as a hero, Mario, and thank you for everything you've done for me. I can't wait to see what you have planned for the next twenty.