Words About Video Games

41 Games: Super Mario Bros.

I guess I was 6 or 7 years old when I first played Super Mario Bros. I played it for the first time at a friend's house. I was 33 by the time I finally rescued Princess Peach.

There are a couple of reasons for that. The obvious is that this is an old console game with no save system. You play until you run out of lives, and then you start over from the beginning.

The less obvious reason is ... as a kid, I didn't really care? Sure, I liked to see how far I could get. I'm pretty sure I even reached the last castle once--it seemed familiar when I played it this year. (Maybe I even beat it already and forgot?)

But it was okay that the princess was always in another castle. It meant that there was a new level lying ahead. A new set of challenges.

And if any game is about the journey and not the destination, it's Super Mario Bros. I got the NES Classic last year and booted up Super Mario Bros. and I remembered everything about those early levels, the ones I'd played countless times. And it was still fun.

Of course, I can't separate that assessment from the deeply personal place this game occupies in my life.

One of my favorite gaming stories to tell is of my Dad playing the opening moments of this game, and trying to avoid that first mushroom because he assumed it was poisonous. When I was a kid I thought that was hilarious. But that's not why it's one of my favorite stories.

On the contrary, it's because his reaction and mine so aptly illustrate how video games create their own semiotic systems, which players adapt to so readily that they no longer see them as strange. It's why video game tropes are quite possibly more powerful than tropes in other media--because gamers are constantly internalizing new rules and realities. It's why game players and critics across generations, races, genders, and platforms can sometimes seem to be speaking radically different languages about the same thing.

But I appreciated something new about this game when I played it again last year (and beat it this year.) It's not complex. To win, you need only understand three things: how to walk, how to run, and how to jump. And it feels good doing all of these things, still. Precise, but forgiving enough that you don't feel cheated.

And the funny thing about my Dad's mistake is, the game does teach you what the mushroom does. You just have to wait before you hit the start button and let the automatic demo run--it teaches you just about everything you need to know. Mushrooms make you grow, getting hit by a goomba will shrink you down again, falling in a hole will cost you a life.

There's more, but again, you can beat the game knowing just that. What else is there is there for you to discover through exploration and experimentation. Which is why playing those same early levels again and again never gets old.

I have video of J, last year, playing the game. She gets remarkably far for a two year-old. She still struggles with walking and jumping at the same time, and I think it'll be a while before she starts exploring the levels for secrets.

But that video is proof to me of the timelessness of this game. No, it doesn't have anything to say. Yes, it has been surpassed graphically and design-wise. But I don't know if there will ever be another video game that's been played and enjoyed by three generations of Harwicks. I hope there will be, but for now, there's Super Mario Bros.