(Editor’s Note: The boys and I are trying to get on a regular recording schedule for the podcast. Chris also came up with the idea of going to a quarterly schedule for the main show, so I’m inspired and ready to tackle this thing full force again. )
Relaunching our brand over the holidays proved to be a bit of a mistake, but we are nothing if not ambitious here. One of the topics for January’s episode, which will now become an early February episode, is Mario. Last time, the boys and I talked about Luigi, so this time we’ll discuss his slightly more famous brother. A month or two ago, I wrote an article about my history with Pokemon to coincide with that episode that hasn’t been released, but may later in the month. It was a fun article to write, so I had the idea to do the same with Mario to coincide with this one that will be recorded this weekend to be released next week.
My history with Mario is much longer and much more consistent than Pokemon. I’d say that it is the game franchise that I have played the longest without any extended breaks. I often make the half-joke that all Nintendo has to do is release a Mario, Zelda, and Metroid game and I will buy the console. The truth is that Mario always hooks me back in and then I play the other games once they’ve reached my price point. You may be asking two questions right now. Even if you aren’t, there are two main points that I want to make with this article. What is this lengthy history with a video game that is longer than any personal relationship other than family? What keeps a person so dedicated to one franchise for so long?
First, the actual history. I’ve been playing Mario themed games since Donkey Kong. Back then, though, he was known as Jumpman and I didn’t know–nor really care–about his rich history as a plumber. I never asked, “Why does this guy jump?” Does he have a, as of now unfound and unnamed, brother from whom he is trying to steal the attention of gamers similar to how I and my own brothers vie for the attention of our parents? Clearly, no. Jumpman’s troubles start, as they often do, with a woman. I didn’t actually play that much Donkey Kong. I preferred Donkey Kong, Jr. and the greater variety in gameplay from level to level.
So, while you could consider Donkey Kong as the start of my Mario history, I don’t. I actually started playing Mario when I would sit at the Super Mario Brothers vs. machine when neither Mortal Kombat nor Street Fighter were available. Between the arcade version of the game not being very forgiving and having to plug a quarter in every time I wanted to lay, I don’t think that I ever beat even level 1-2. Don’t laugh. Unless your name was Steve Wiebe or Billy Mitchell, you know you were in the same boat.
Eventually, our parents bought us an NES. The place where my mother worked sold their rental games at a cheap price, so we also got a ton of games with it. One of the games was the NES version of Super Mario Bros. Either much less difficult or I was able to practice more without the restriction of 25 cents per play or both, I got much father in the home version of the game than the arcade. I still did not beat the game until I learned of the warp zones much later, but I made it to world 4, no small accomplishment for me at the time. Later, came the Game Boy version (the first Mario game that I beat), and after a brief flirtation with the Genesis and Sonic the Hedgehog, I bought an SNES. That system has two of my favorite Mario games ever, the remake of Super Mario Bros 3. and Super Mario World. I bought both of them again on the Wii Virtual Console. There aren’t many games that I will buy more than once for the exact same game. Heck, I don’t even buy game series in which the sequels don’t stray too far from the formula. I’m looking at you, Call of Duty.
The game that solidified my fandom and proved to me that the series can do no wrong was Super Mario 64. Like many others, I bought a Nintendo 64 for that game and happened to get a few other games that I played a few times and ultimately pushed to the side for the gloss and glamour of my newly purchased Playstation (that’s one for you youngins). That gloss wore off very quickly once that Playstation dripped in price a week or two after I bought it.
Sony kept me hooked through a variety of great games, but I did still load up the N64 every day until I beat SM64 to 100% complete. It’s the first game that I ever did so, though I had to cheat a few times for some of the trickier stars. In between the N64 and Wii days, I played a ton of GBA. Thankfully, that system had a ton of Mario titles. From SNES remakes to new titles in the platforming series, to entirely different genres, the GBA is one of my favorite consoles ever and it is due in no small part to Mario.
I also owned a Gamecube, exclusively for the three games mentioned earlier in the article. Nintendo trie something different with Super Mario Sunshine. As with most fan bases, people reacted negatively to the change. Remember New Coke? Generally, I don’t mind change and, more often than not, embrace that companies are willing to try new and different things.
Clearly, I’m in the minority and when Mario debuted on the Wii, he did so with some new gameplay mechanics, but mostly just as SM64 with a shiny new coat of paint. Look, I’m not complaining. It continues to be a fun game enjoyed by my kids today. Liam had to buy a new copy because our old copy got scuffed. However, the game didn’t exactly push Mario forward.
The most recent Mario game that we’ve played shows that Nintendo is joining many other pop culture franchises and trying to capture the magic of the past with 2D platform games meant to remind us of where it all started. Not content with merely releasing those first games again (though they’ve done that plenty, too, through the virtual console), they have added new levels, enemies, power ups and, perhaps best of all, support for up to 4 players. Now, similar to Star Wars, I can share all of the Mario fun with my kids by playing these games. Sure, the more cynical part of my brain understands that it is about hooking that next generation to ensure sales into the future, but I ignore that part as I’m eating Aiden’s Toad character with my Yoshi and throwing him gleefully off of a cliff.
Mario has spanned the transition from 2 dimensional side scrolling zero (not really, but it works for literary purposes) to 3 dimensional galaxy exploring hero. He has survived a countless imitators, complete shifts in video game philosophy, and a terrible movie. He’s crossed generations from my father to me to my children and hopefully their children. Not bad for an Italian guy with a shady past that may or may not have been altered to protect his identity.