In October of 1996, a month before my 11th birthday, I was contemplating a major decision in my life, one which I did not entirely understand at the time. Should I pick up a Sega Saturn, and wind down on my video gaming years, as I was clearly losing interest in most games at the time? The system was in its twilight years and soon was going to come packed in with three free arcade games (Virtua Fighter 2
, Virtua Cop
, and Daytona USA
) that I could fiddle around with until I got bored of them. Or would I pick up a Nintendo 64 with that weird controller with the third handle? A new Mario game was launched with it which I had heard nothing about (this is before I had a steady internet connection and before I started subscribing to Electronic Gaming Monthly
), and I wasn’t interested. I was bored with Mario.
Super Mario Bros.
was common place – almost as common as owning a TV. Even Super Mario World
felt old fashioned at the time, something that kids would play only if their parents weren’t nice enough (or too poor in some cases) to buy additional games for them outside of the free pack-in game. I was so lost and just plain ignorant, taking for granted the stepping stones of the past. Luckily, one October afternoon I strolled into Wal-Mart with my parents to discover a new Nintendo 64 kiosk off in the distance.
A young brat with a bowl haircut was busy stretching Mario’s face, giggling at the expressions and sound effects and to me the game looked like some Mario Paint
type bullshit. I was hard to impress. Luckily, his mother walked up and pulled him away while he screamed and cried reluctantly. His misery was my epiphany. No one else was around. I stared at the controller in bewilderment. I didn’t know how to hold the damn thing, and so I did what was familiar and rested my left hand on the far left handle. Once I realized the d-pad didn’t control the hand, I tried the control stick, still leaving my hand on the left handle and awkwardly reaching over with my thumb. I tinkered around with Mario’s face for a minute, pressed start, and then chose a new file.
The 3D graphics as introduced by the opening cinematic with the Lakitu camera man flying around Peach’s castle were a sight to behold. The unreliable camera man finally focused on the ground where the green pipe appeared with Mario jubilantly hopping out, and I fell in love with the game at this moment. Everything felt natural. Even though I wasn’t holding the controller the right way, I could run, walk, tip toe, I could slide and shimmy against the fence by the bridge, and…whoa! I could swim! Jumping into the water didn’t kill you! Yes, swimming was difficult at first, but isn’t that the case in real life? The physics made sense. If a hill was too steep, Mario would lose his footing and slide back down on his belly, and if I dove into the wall on the side of the castle, it would stun Mario temporarily. All of this was overwhelming, and it was complemented by the sight and sounds of the waterfall in the background along with the chirping of the birds. Simply stunning.
I’m OCD with information in games…I’ve heard every codec conversation in Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2, I’ve talked to every NPC in every RPG I’ve played (that’s the reason I don’t play RPG’s anymore) and I’ve read every single sign in every single game I’ve played. So I read every single sign in the castle garden, trying to absorb as much information as possible, and something was racing through my mind. Where in the hell is the damn z-button on this controller? I finally managed to bend down and look under the controller to see that there was a trigger button. You know, with those kiosks, the controllers are attached to the device, so I had to get down to find it. And then it made sense! Put your left hand on the center handle and holy sh…now I can long jump! Moving around was a piece of cake then. I was dancing in the garden - jumping and then diving, triple jumping, long jumping, slide kickin’, somersaultin’, flipping off of the tips of trees – I was a maestro with a Nintendo 64 controller in hand. I was a natural with style.
Suddenly, the screen went black, and then Mario thanked me for playing and told me to let somebody else play. I looked behind me to see a small crowd of people, parents and kids who were watching in amazement. “Play again,” a child half my aged said. Everyone else seemed to approve. And so I played again, this time venturing into the castle, humming along with the castle theme. I could not believe that there was even more game beyond Peach’s garden. At the time, I wasn’t aware that this was a revolution in 3D gaming, and I had no idea what exactly were that gameplay mechanics that made it unique; I was only ten. What I did know was that it was truly something special, and that it was a world I wanted to be a part of, even if it was completely imaginary. It was the ultimate form of escapism, the reason I have spent far more of my time in game worlds than the real world, the reason I will love video games for the rest of my life.
I heard my mother calling and so I let go of the controller, letting the next kid take over. She asked me what I was playing.
“I don’t want a Sega Saturn…I can play those games at the arcade. I want a Nintendo 64 with Mario 64. Can we get it today?”
“You have to wait until your birthday,” she said. I knew the wait would be painful, so I did what any kid would do at that age. I bugged the hell out of my parents about Super Mario 64
. That’s all I would talk about. I was obsessive about it. I knew I was getting one (I was spoiled and always got the things I wanted), so I would always spy outside through the kitchen window, where I could see my dad pulling into the driveway after work. One day I saw him opening the backseat door, and at that point I ran out through the front door. It was still a week before my birthday, and there was no way he could conceal the Nintendo 64 since I was already out there. I was hopping around in our front yard repeating, “Am I going to have to wait? Am I going to have to wait?” He smiled and told me to ask my mother. I think they were tired of my pestering.
By the end of that day, we were hooking up the system to my bedroom TV. I turned on the system and heard the chime with “It’s me, Mario!”
“You cost me 250 bucks, Mario!” my dad exclaimed. My mother told him to hush. We all laughed, and they watched me play for a while, and even though my parents still don’t play video games even to this day, I think they then realized my true passion for video games…that it was something that was never going to go away.
In the following weeks, I would still stop by the kiosks at Target, Wal-Mart, and other places to flaunt my Super Mario 64
skills. When I was asked if I had played it before or if I had a Nintendo 64, I would simply say no. So what if I was lying to them? I just wanted to relive that wonderful experience again and again.