Upon my last trip home to visit my parents, I accidentally came across my NES circa 1987. It was covered in dust, mysteriously sticky and smelled like stale childhood and fermented sweat.
Nonetheless, my pupils puckered into hearts and I squealed with excitement. I would bring this retro relic back to Brooklyn with me and compete as One Player until the Spring! I had every intention of hibernating alone with Mario, until an old friend came to visit and shook up my winter solstice solitude plan. While I still think the majority of video games are heinously violent time sucks that turn your brain into radioactive pulp, I stand by Super Mario 3. More or less, it’s a world where an innocuous, magical plumber explores a whimsical and trippy land in hopes to help distressed royalty. Super Mario 3 is pretty PG and brings people together. *
The first world (The Grasslands) is cake. The music is buoyant and promising. There is an obvious way to clear the course and if you make a mistake it’s easy to correct it in your next life. This vibe allows the players to bond and get comfortable with each other. You can laugh and chat between jumps (for some reason we all go silent while jumping, a la girls putting on mascara) And by the time you’ve reached the 5th world (Sky World), you’ve lost your human dreams of flying and you’ve had more lives than a cat and not only are you fully invested, you’re now teammates.
Before you know it, you’ve made it past the half-way mark and you need your partner player to keep the same enthusiasm as you in order to move forward. You find yourselves coaching each other, offering sweet words of encouragement and support. “Watch out for the boomerang!” “That Gumba can fly!” “You’re doing so well!” “Take your time, you got this!” “Don’t be a penny pincher!” You even get political about prize stops. “You have less lives than me, you take the Toad House”.These linear challenges allow your friendship to develop gradually. Each world you get a little bit more chummy and a little bit more impressed with each other.
Inevitably someone runs out of lives and the game’s over. You’re exhausted, defeated, your eyes are crusty, your ass is numb, your joints are stiff, your voice is hoarse, your thumbs have calluses, and despite the fact that there’s a “pause” button, you’ve been holding your bladder for three hours.
But you’re okay because, you’re not alone. You’ve gone through the Dark Land and back with your partner and it’s brought you that much closer. You’ve taught each other patience, resilience, and the power of optimism. NES so rarely lets you win, (World 8 employs every hybrid animal/weapon and Koopa just gets more and more cray,) but thats okay because it makes us look forward to playing again. It makes us yearn to get the dream team back up and running. That king is always getting transformed and you and your partner can always power up and fight the fight…for the key that…you give to a hysterical child with a mushroom hat, who we know as toadstool…so that he can put it somewhere and….turn the dog with fleas back into a king…for a little while…until he’s transformed into a spider…or something…and then you do it again…because in Mario Land, it all makes sense and Luigi is the best friend you’ve ever had. And when the screen goes blue, you’ve got a new best friend sitting next to you.
*In moderation. I still fully support leaving the house, socializing face-to-face, rather than side-by-side, reading books and helping people in distress in real life.