Time is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies, are finite. They may indeed disperse into the smallest particles; but these particles, the atoms, have their determinate numbers, and the numbers of the configurations which, all of themselves, are formed out of them is also determinate. Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations which have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again…
— Heinrich Heine
The world! The world is alive!
— Douglas Coupland, Shampoo Planet
What? — Super Mario Brothers 3, released in 1990 for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
So? — The best video game ever made, my friend.
Really? — Yeah. I must have logged over 300 hours on “Super Mario 3,” back in the year 1999. Keep in mind that I was dating a stripper at the time, so this was time that could have probably been better used having sex with a stripper. Still, I don’t regret a single second of it.
Tell me more! — Absolutely. I never owned a Nintendo, so this was my first and only Nintendo-playing experience. I was just out of college, and was living on my friend Tiffany’s couch. We only ever played the game together, and for some reason, when we played it, Tiffany also insisted on playing the same “ABBA Gold” CD… over and over and over again… Thus, when I think of this game, all I remember are endless sweaty nights spent yelling at each other over who was fucking up worse in the game, all done to the soundtrack of “Fernando,” “Waterloo,” and “The Winner Takes It All…”
So okay then. — The Japanese are an odd people, and the “Super Mario” series of games go a long way towards proving this. Viewed objectively from the outside, they don’t make sense for a single second: you’re an Italian plumber living in a magical land who must rescue a princess from an evil spiked turtle while eating magic mushrooms and turning into a flying raccoon. Luckily, you’re too busy dodging things and cursing as you’re falling into fire pits to give a shit about any of this.
Video games are odd, because if you’re of a certain age, you get them, and if you’re not, you don’t. My mother, for instance, is a professor, and an all-around smart lady. A few times when I was a teenager, I tricked her into playing video games, and she ended up making what philosophers like to call “category mistakes.” She didn’t get which character was supposed to be her, didn’t necessarily understand how the pressing of buttons corresponded to actions on the screen, and — most vexing of all to me — she didn’t care if her character died. Basically, she wasn’t emotionally invested in the experience.
Video games are different from TV and movies in that they’re a much more immersive experience. You can watch, say, the movie Die Hard, and say to yourself: “That Bruce Willis, what a tool.” You can never do that with video games. To feel that way about Mario or Ms. Pac-Man is to court instant death. Half-heartedness or distancing is not allowed here. Unless you can really become them, you’re not going to spend the endless hours of dodging and weaving and jumping that it takes to master their lives. You’ve gotta believe. Unless you can do this, then you’re liable to view Ms. Pac-Man for what she actually is: a bunch of yellow dots with a few small red dots on top, running around on a screen. And what fun is that? No fun at all, most people would say.
Very few people would watch, say, Jaws, and shout out to themselves, “Jesus Christ! That huge shark is coming to kill me!” But this is what happens all the time with video games. You don’t say, “Holy shit, Mario’s gonna be crushed by a boulder!” You say, “Holy shit, a boulder!” Everything takes place in the first-person. No one ever says “Pac-Man’s dead.” No, it’s only, always, “I’m dead,” with a frustrated bang on the joystick.
With video games, as perhaps with no other form of entertainment, the level of identification is complete.
Whatever. — …And so, anyway, in video games you are the player. But you are also the played. …And what happens to make “Super Mario 3? the best game of all time is that it’s an intrinsically immersive and cooperative experience. First of all, it is, essentially, a two-player game. You have a far better chance of surviving and getting to the end if you play with a pal than on your own. But even more importantly, playing Mario 3 is an essentially friendly experience. Here’s Bret Easton Ellis, describing Super Mario in his novel Glamorama:
…I flop on the bed, flip on Nintendo, reach for the controls and start to play Super Mario Bros.
“Damien says that Julia Roberts is coming and so is Sandra Bullock,” Alison says vacantly. “Laura Leighton and Halle Berry and Dalton James.” She takes another hit off the joint and hands it to me. “I saw Elle Macpherson at the Anna Sui show and she says she’ll be there for the dinner.” She’s flipping through a copy of Detour with Robert Downey, Jr., on the cover, legs spread, major crotch shot. “Oh, and so is Scott Wolf.”
“Shhh, I’m playing,” I tell her. “Yoshi’s eaten four gold coins and he’s trying to find the fifth. I need to concentrate.”
“Oh my god, who gives a shit,” Alison sighs. “We’re dealing with a fat midget who rides a dinosaur and saves his girlfriend from a pissed-off gorilla? Victor, get serious.”
“It’s not his girlfriend. It’s Princess Toadstool. And it’s not a gorilla,” I stress. “It’s Lemmy Koopa of the evil Koopa clan. And baby, as usual, you’re missing the point.”
“Please enlighten me.”
“The whole point of Super Mario Bros. is that it mirrors life.”
“I’m following.” She checks her nails. “God knows why.”
“Kill or be killed.”
“Time is running out.”
“And in the end, baby, you… are… alone.”
Not to diss on ol’ B.E.E, but he couldn’t be more wrong. The essence of Mario 3 is that you are not alone. The entire world is alive. If you look closely at the pictures of the game, you’ll note that the clouds have eyes. The bushes have eyes. Mushrooms spring to life and roll around. Stars hop on the ground. The sun turns angry and chases you. Flowers snap their teeth at you. Turtles throw boomerangs. Hamsters throw hammers. Bullets leer at you with angry grins, and bombs wobble around on little cartoon feet before finally sitting down and deciding to explode. Even the little blocks that you walk on decide to come to life, from time to time, hopping at you on mad springs.
I once read a review of the Star Wars films which astutely pointed out that the movies were popular, not because of spaceships or laser beams or Jedi blah blah, but because they made space seem like a happening place to be. If you compare your memories of Star Wars with your memories of, say, 2001, you’ll see the point. In Star Wars, outer space is just filled with stuff: people and animals and teddy bears and ice monsters and beeping robots. You’re never alone. Whereas real space is, essentially, nothingness: billions of miles of dead air, broken up, intermittently, by planets and by suns that keep no one and nothing warm.
Playing video games can be an intensely lonely experience, and I don’t play them so much anymore. Think of the older arcade games, especially: Pac-Man and Asteroids; Missile Command and Space Invaders. I loved these games as a kid, but when I play them now, I get an odd sense of depression. Not only are you alone in life, fighting against a TV that could, essentially, give a shit — but you’re also alone on the screen as well — a single character, in a blank world broken up by a few sparse dots and lines, and surrounded, on all sides, by Death.
Super Mario 3 isn’t like that, and that’s why I continue to play it to this day. I’m not very good at it; I’ve never even gotten to the end. It’s a crazily long game, with nine worlds, and at least a hundred levels, not to mention mini-games, secret worlds, hidden levels, etc… I probably never will finish it. …But I’m happy just to spend a few minutes or an hour in a place where clouds smile up at me as I jump on them, and where even my potential murderers come at me in bright primary colors, with cartoon frowns of fear or joy.