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A Time to Build: Paper Mario 1988

12:20 PM on 11.15.2008

[Editor's note: SurplusGamer talks about his attempt at making a videogame at the young age of seven for his A Time to Build Monthly Musing topic. -- CTZ]

This topic had me stumped for a couple of hours, not because I couldn't think of anything to write, but because there are too many things I could say on this subject. Gaming has been a part of my life for as long as I remember. Not only that, but as soon as I began to think about the fact that games are things actually made by real people, rather than materializing out of thin air, that whole process of creation has fascinated me. I can't help but think back to where this fascination started. See, you may be surprised to learn that I made my first NES game when I was six or seven-years-old.

Well, kind of ...

For a while I had my BBC Micro but I found out (I don't know how) that I would be getting a NES for my birthday and that was something else entirely. I'd played on a friend's NES and was well aware that they were the Best Thing Ever, so this was cause for no small excitement. There was only one problem:

My birthday was a full month away!

Now this might not seem like such a big deal, I know. However, you might not remember in those days a month was like a whole year in today's currency. So as well as being incredibly exciting it was also like slow torture. I'm only grateful it wasn't Christmas, when things got so exciting that a single day could last a decade. Even so, I knew something had to be done and a plan was quickly formulated: if I couldn't get a real NES now, I'd just have to build one.

To give you an idea of just how determined I was about this, my last attempt at building something was when we made a pencil case at school for arts and crafts. Or rather, everyone else in the class made a pencil case, while I accidentally made something that more closely resembled Cthulhu. You'd think that might deter most children from embarking on Project NES but not me! I wanted Mario and I wanted it now.

In my mind, I was an engineering genius. First, a box with a square hole in it to make a TV, using cardboard borrowed from my Dad's supplies. Along the bottom end of the 'screen' I cut a slit and through the slit I could poke long pieces of paper, at the end of which I could stick my sprites: Mario, the Goombas - the possibilities were endless. Then came my pride and joy: instead of simply drawing the level on the back of the screen, I could cut another slit in the top of the box, and simply slot each level in as and when I needed it.


Engineering. Genius.

"But what about the game logic, the enemies, collision detection, items, that sort of thing?" I hear you cry in perfect unison. Nonsense! I didn't need any of that, I had my imagination. In fact I must have been an awfully fair-minded child, as the first time I tested the game I died on the first screen, despite being in control of both Mario and the single Goomba. That just went to prove that the system worked!

Triumphantly, I gathered everything up to show my Dad, who regarded the thing doubtfully.

"This'll keep me going, until my birthday!", I insisted.
"No ... no, it won't", he replied in a derisive tone, one that I like to pretend was so mentally scarring, that I blame it for all the problems I've had in my life since.

Of course, he was proved correct later that evening, when I accidentally sat on it, bringing my bold experiment to an abrupt close, by which time I had already learned how limited my previously much-trumpeted imagination could be. Is the moral of the story to be that the imagination is no substitute for a good videogame, then? I hope not. I prefer to simply look back fondly to the days when I could believe that, given naught but a few bits of paper and some glue, anything was possible - if only for a day. And, of course, good things came to those who waited.

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