Becky Reviews Console Classics: Super Mario Bros.

Essay

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Are you familiar with the myth of Sisyphus? According to the ancient Greeks, Sisyphus was a king with the distinction of being a first class toolbag. As punishment for his life-long jerkery, Sisyphus was made to push a boulder up a hill — forever. Every time he neared the top, the boulder rolled back down again. No matter how he tried, no matter what new strategy he came up with, it would all end right back where he started.

I thought of Sisyphus a lot last week. I thought of how he must have felt, staring back up at that miserable hill he knew so well. He would have known every rock, every lump, every blade of grass. There was no point in trying to reach the top, but he was compelled onward nonetheless, forced by the gods into an eternity of futility and madness.

Kind of like Super Mario Bros.

“Why is it called ‘Super Mario Brothers’?” I asked my significant other as the title came up.

“What?” she said, holding the coveted Player One controller.

“Are their names Mario Mario and Luigi Mario? Why is Mario the only brother named?”

“Because no one likes Luigi.” She paused as the first level appeared. “I remember this,” she said.

And oh, so did I. I was whisked back to my kindergarten years. I was in my friend Matthew’s living room. I was standing in front of his TV, getting frustrated with the controller. He was good at Super Mario Bros. I was not. I was far more interested in playing dinosaurs or trying out his skateboard. I never saw anything beyond the first level.

This time around, I was determined to see it through to the end. I’m an adult, dammit, and that means I have things like critical thinking and patience and reflexes. Or so I thought.

For those among you who have never played Super Mario Bros., let me explain the basics. You run along, jumping up to grab coins and mushrooms that grant you special abilities. If you run into a bad guy, jump on his head. This will either kill him or knock him out. Jumps must be timed carefully, as there are patrolling enemies and moving platforms to deal with. Grab more coins. Grab more mushrooms. Keep forging onward.

Eventually, you will realize that you have been doing this for three hours.

What was it about this game that encouraged me to stay? The obstacles were aggravating, and the gameplay wasn’t even exceptionally interesting. I have greatly enjoyed the gimmicks in recent platformers such as Braid (which plays with time), Trine (which plays with class abilities and physics), and VVVVVV (which plays with gravity). Super Mario Bros. has jumping. That’s it. Okay, I guess there’s the Fire Flower, which lets you shoot your enemies from a few steps away. Other than that, it’s jump, jump, jump, ad infinitum. But for some intangible reason, it’s fun. Sweet fancy Moses, is it ever fun.

…sometimes.

As I played, I oscillated between joy and fury faster than the speed of sound. I felt elated at the end of a level, for it meant that I had finally timed a jump properly, or cleared a row of Goombas unscathed. But it was typically all for naught. The next level would be an entirely unknown set of circumstances, and my lives would fall away like autumn leaves as I tried to adapt to challenges that appeared without warning. Once my lives were gone, I would begin again, but not at the beginning of the level. Oh, no. I would start at the beginning of the world, much like Sisyphus before me. It did not matter that I had already proved my ability to get through the early levels. The game did not care. If I could not be flawless, then I was doomed to start again.

As the hours slipped away, one question nagged at me: What was I even doing there? Yes, I know from vast amounts of pop culture saturation that the point is to rescue Princess Peach from Bowser (which I assume is a futile effort, as Peach will undoubtedly have already used her keen intellect to craft a cunning escape plan and reclaim her iron-fisted rule over the Mushroom Kingdom). But the game had given me no introduction. No cutscene. No scrolling text. I was just this shockingly nimble psuedo-Italian plumber, running forward through a brightly colored world of mushrooms and turtles that wanted to kill me. I say running forward because there is no going back in this game, quite literally. If you miss some coins, or if an invincibility-granting star bounces tragically behind you, you cannot retrace your steps. Once something scrolls beyond the left edge of the screen, it has vanished from existence.

“Maybe it’s a metaphor for life,” I said. “No going backward. Only forward.”

“Uh-huh,” Player One said dryly.

“No, listen,” I said, leaping onto a moving platform. “Think of all we’ve learned. No going backward. Don’t reach beyond your grasp. Be patient. Learn from your mistakes.”

“Ah,” she said, as I soared off the platform, my miscalculated jump sending me into oblivion. “How very deep.”

But I was grasping at straws. This game means nothing. Nothing. There is no lesson. There is no purpose. There are only coins, more coins, and running ever on because there is nothing else you can do.

As I died endlessly, I wondered if I would ever see the end of the game.

“This game is going to beat me,” I said in an email to my friend Chimp. He’s a Nintendo aficionado, and served as my Warp Pipe spirit guide.

“You wouldn’t be the first,” he said, and then filled my inbox with pictures of Mario in a tanooki suit.

I stared at that rotund, mustachioed plumber — looking like the most gleeful furry the world has ever known — and with that, it clicked. The Cult of Mario made sense. The obstacles within the game were frustrating, sometimes bordering on needlessly difficult. But any ire one might feel is quickly soothed away by happy colors and whimsical creatures. My parade of demise was set to an infectiously upbeat tune. I was reminded of my friend Rud’s high-level bard in a past D&D campaign. With over twenty-five (modified) points in Charisma, you had to like him. You were forced to like him, no matter how infuriating his character was. Similarly, it’s hard to stay mad at a game with smiling clouds and chubby mushrooms.

Player One and I began to laugh at our failures. A clumsy fall from a block. A leap into a Goomba’s face. A skidding stop off the edge of a platform. Our incompetence delighted us.

Once I realized the degree of patience that the game required, I knew I would not complete my journey through the Mushroom Kingdom before I wrote this article, or perhaps ever. One of my biggest character flaws is impatience under stress, a trait that Super Mario Bros. triggered in record time. You see, this game is not so much about critical thinking as it is about muscle memory. The only way to succeed is to do run through the level again and again until you can do so perfectly. And then you must retain that perfection, as you will inevitably return to that level after failing later on. Could I do it? Yes. Do I have the time to not only practice, but to find the inner calm that this game demands? No.

In other words: I will probably never beat Super Mario Bros. And I’m okay with that.

After accepting my limitations, I experienced a moment of peace. I believe it was akin to what Zen Buddhists describe as “the loss of ego.” I acquiesced to the Nintendo masters of the world. I would not see the psuedo-Italian plumber to victory. That glory did not belong to me.

But then, unexpectedly, a ray of hope appeared. Sometime later, I found myself alone in the house. For no apparent reason, I turned the console back on. This time, I chose Super Mario World. Yoshi was there waiting for me, ready to carry my weary legs. There were text boxes giving me hints and button combos. There were save points, and with them came the promise of a new day. And on that day…I would win.

Next time: Final Fantasy III

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.


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