Like many, I began my gaming story with an original Nintendo Entertainment System and a Super Mario Bros. cartridge. When I was younger, my mom would periodically take me to a small town in southern Arkansas to visit family there. These family members included my Nana, Pop, aunt, uncle, and three cousins. The youngest cousin, Mason, was my best friend. He was one year older than me and it was a friendship forged with a love of SpaghettiOs, cartoons, and videogames. My first gaming memory is playing Super Mario Bros. with him in the den of my aunt and uncle's house.
I do not believe this was my first time playing the game. This particular memory has me running through World 1-1 with familiarity. At age four, I KNEW where the first mushroom was. I KNEW where the hidden extra life near the cliff was. I KNEW where the Star was. The first actual play sessions must be lost somewhere in my mind before my memory began, because at that point it was instinct.
Mason and I would sit side by side on the floor in the glow of the television for hours-- handing off the controller, or paddle as we called it, to each other any time one of us completed a level or bit the pixelated dust. We played a plethora of other games, including Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3, as well, but the original was a staple of every visit. As our family visited in the living room, we would be in the den kicking shell and saving princesses. I wouldn't say we were loners but we weren't nearly as sociable as the rest of the family. Shy guys stick together.
Early on, I didn't have a "regular Nintendo," so going to Mason's house was my only opportunity to play. That was, until my dear sweet Nana got me one of my very own for my sixth birthday. It was hooked up to the 13-inch wooden panel TV in my parents' bedroom. I remember coming home from kindergarten and playing after that day's episode of Power Rangers, of course. It was nice being able to play without making the three hour drive, although slightly jarring to go it alone. My little sister couldn't help, try as she might. Her two-year-old thumbs just couldn't handle it. But all in all, life was good. I had a Nintendo of my very own. What could be better? Another trip down to see the family would answer that question.
As my mother and I walked into the living room of my aunt and uncle's house, I noticed something that looked suspiciously like my old plumber friend running and jumping across the TV screen. WHAT was this? It was familiar but strange. It seemed like Mario, but the game was more colorful, flashier, had better music and ... oh my God, is that a dinosaur you can ride?! It was Super Mario World on a new machine, a Super Nintendo.
This was the first Mario game I remember NOT knowing how to play. Not only was I learning a brand new game, but I had to learn to control it with a new paddle. It was curvier and had more buttons. Oh man, did it have so many more buttons. Mason, acting as the older brother, as Mario, showed me how to get through this new World.
We had a favorite level, Vanilla Dome 3. It was set in a cave with a flowing river of lava that we had to ride across on rafts made of skulls that I can only assume came from those who had fallen before us. Our favorite thing about the level was a very goofy-looking dragon, named Blargg, who would rise up from the lava and throw his stupid face at our raft. Too slow to be the threat I'm sure he wanted to be, Blargg's appearance brought laughter, nay, glee, almost every time.
We did eventually get so good that we had to make new challenges for ourselves, our favorite being what we called "the can." When playing as "the can," one holds down on the D-Pad the entire time so that Mario is always crouching and using the jump button with the left and right buttons to navigate the level as what looked to be a hopping moving can. We still take the can challenge to this day.
Super Mario World was one of the first tangible examples that something I already loved could be improved upon. Before seeing it, it never even crossed my mind that my videogames could look better, sound better, and be better than what I already knew. It didn't end there.
One summer afternoon in 1996, I remember seeing a TV commercial for Super Mario 64. This marked the first time I saw something new related to Mario that Mason did not show me first. A very excitable man yelled about the game while standing in front of game play footage, imitating Mario's moves. Strangely enough, I was not into it. This wasn't videogames as I knew it. Being confined to a 2D space until that point, I believed a 3D world would be too difficult to navigate, too difficult to enjoy. I was a stodgy old man refusing to accept new technology at the age of eight.
Sometime that fall, Mom and I made another trip to see the family. When I walked into the living room, I saw a Nintendo 64 on the floor and Super Mario 64 on the TV. Should I have even been surprised at this point? Mason was playing through Bob-omb Battlefield and showed me how you could play each level multiple times for different Power Stars. He handed me the new, even more perplexing, paddle and asked me if I wanted to play. Still feeling my initial distaste from the commercial, I reluctantly gave it a shot, hoping we could play some real Mario after.
I'm not sure if I've ever reversed an opinion so fast in my entire life. One run up the mountain and I was having fun. One flight of the Wing Cap and I was sold. Contrary to my initial impressions from the commercial, running around this 3D space was captivating, and flying around it was exhilarating! I felt free. It was easy, and it was fun.
Super Mario 64 is one of the few games I've 100% completed. The motivation behind this stemmed from the supposed appearance of our dinosaur friend, Yoshi, waiting for us on top of the castle if we obtained all 120 Power Stars. I remember Mason telling me about it and showing me a picture from a magazine of Yoshi in the game. A picture in a magazine! This wasn't just the playground rumor mill-- it had to be legit. Collect everything and we could ride Yoshi. IN (3D) SPACE!
Collect Power Stars, obtain hats, and defeat Bowser thrice we did. The canon outside the castle did open and Yoshi was indeed waiting for us on top, just like the magazine prophesized. But instead of being able to ride him like we naturally assumed, all he had for us was a "good job, kid," a pocketful of extra lives, and a new special sparkly jump. And then he just bounced.
This might have been the first time I was truly disappointed after putting so much effort toward something. All I wanted to do was ride around on Yoshi in the fully 3D world that had won my critical heart earlier.
I learned the same lesson twice in Super Mario 64: Things aren't always what they seem. Loving the 3D world after initially thinking I wouldn't taught me to give things a chance. On the flip side, the Yoshi incident taught me that sometimes hard work comes with disappointing results. Life lessons of an eight-year-old.
I was brought into three generations of new Mario games at that house. Contrary to what you may think from reading this, Mason and I did play other things besides Mario, and actually did do other things besides play videogames. And like with games, he led me to other interests including anime and music. One day in summer 2002 he brought over a Trigun DVD that would introduce me to the world of anime and a new geeky fandom that would become just as prominent in my life as videogames. He is also largely responsible for the music I listened to back then, mostly nu-metal, that led me to some of the music I love most today.
I really did play the part of the little brother, of Luigi you could say. I was very prone to hero worship and copying, to his annoyance, I'm sure. I did eventually branch out on my own during my later high school years, growing into my own music, anime, and yes, videogames. But it was those early years, those nights staying up late playing Mario with my cousin and best friend that laid the foundation for a love of videogames that will last for the rest of my life.