I remember the first time I saw the videogame Super Mario Bros. It was at the house of two friends from primary school, twins, who lived right next to North Sydney Leisure Centre, where I went for after-school care. Sometimes I’d duck into their house for an hour or two (I’ve no recollection of whether I was allowed to do this) and sit on their sofa and watch agog while they made a chubby little plumber eat mushrooms of dubious toxology, jump on reprobate turtles and leap balletically atop flagpoles as he attempted to rescue a princess from a spiky, bad-tempered dino-lizard. Sometimes they even let me have a go. I felt the way I imagine our ancestors felt the first time they gathered around a fire.
And there was fire in the game, too, or at least fireballs if you ate one of the white flowers – something I could never get to work in real life.
When you think about it, the world of Super Mario and Luigi (the Doug Pitt of videogame plumbers), makes little to no sense. The odd creatures that populate Nintendo auteur Shigeru Miyamoto’s world seem to have been assembled either at randomly, or courtesy of acid consumed in a reptile park.
And yet I was transfixed by the athletic little plumber. Imagine being able to play something that amazing in your own home, I thought. You’d never get anything else done – and reading books would certainly go out the window – but on the bright side, the Mushroom Kingdom would have its monarch restored, at least until Bowser came and kidnapped her again in an endless succession of sequels that has made Mario the highest-selling videogame franchise of all time.
You’d think that she might have made better security arrangements in the interim – after all, the Mushroom Kingdom seems fairly well-resourced, and yet its only defence infrastructure is a duo of tradesmen, who are surely neglecting the Kingdom’s drains and sinks on account of their constant need to rescue the princess.
By 2013 standards, the Nintendo Entertainment System’s graphics were very basic. It can’t have had more than a dozen colours. And yet the machine was absolutely revolutionary – they sold 61 million of them around the world. And it began my lifelong love of videogames. For nerds of a certain age, that bleepy, bassy music first heard in the underground Level 1-2 will always be close to our hearts.
A few years later, in high school, I got my first videogame console. It was a Game Boy – which, with its monochrome dot matrix graphics, might be the only more recent videogame system that made the NES’ graphics look high-tech. But you could play it anywhere, and I absolutely loved it. Super Mario Land was my favourite game, and the first time I finished it was a red-letter day in my adolescence. In those days, you had to play platform games through from the start every time – there were no wimpy saves games.
Like many kids of that era, I became addicted to Tetris, as well, somehow convincing myself that because it involved geometry, it was somehow beneficial to play for hours on end. Although I do use my Tetris skills every time I have to pack too much luggage into my tiny car.
Nearly thirty years after I first saw Mario in action, it’s still my favourite series. I don’t like games that require too much time commitment or detail. If I can’t figure out how to play it in a minute or two, I’m not interested, which is why strategy games and lengthy first-person shooters have tended not to do much for me. I’ve always enjoyed the rule-breaking, open-world Grand Theft Auto series, because hey, we all feel like driving a semi-trailer through a crowded pavement sometimes (or is that just me?) and a recent favourite is Portal 2, which has incredibly simple gameplay but increasingly fiendish and original puzzles, as well as an excellent vocal performance by Stephen Merchant. And of course Singstar’s a favourite because it allows me to inflict karaoke on my neighbours. But simple platform games still get me every time.
I don’t get as much time to play as much as I’d like nowadays, and I’m seriously behind on my gaming – I’ve only scratched the surface of GTA IV, and the fifth episode is on the verge of being launched. But it’s still one of my favourite ways to wind down. The immersive nature of videogames is what makes them so relaxing, I think. When you’re bouncing your way through the Mushroom Kingdom, or driving around Liberty City, there’s absolutely no room in your head to think of anything else. Many videogames require absolute focus so you don’t lose your virtual “life”, and the chance to escape from everyday life from an hour or two is an enormous pleasure.
As I approach forty, I’ve begun wondering whether my generation, the Mario generation, will ever grow out of videogames. The Playstation 4 is close to launch, and the absurdly-named Wii U has an incredible-looking New Super Mario Bros game available for it. (Although at least one writer thinks that 1991’s Super Mario World remains a better option for it!) I doubt I’ll be able to resist upgrading to at least one of them so I can keep my occasional videogame habit alive. After all, if I don’t rescue poor old Princess Peach, who will? Besides the millions of other purchasers, that is.
These days, kids have constant access to videogames from a young age. I know one three-year-old who’s already surprisingly adept at Angry Birds. Today’s kids are growing up in a world where video games are available in your pocket all the time, and on the enormous screens that are already ubiquitous in our homes. Indeed, my phone’s full-colour 3D-generating capacities would utterly humiliate my beloved Game Boy. But video games, those early pixellated pioneers, will always hold a special place in the memories of those of us who still remember the first time we saw a video game being played on someone’s TV and scarcely believed that such a technological miracle was possible.
Realistically, the next time I’ll get to spend hours a day on videogames like I did in my teens and university years is when I retire. Perhaps instead of trudging around a real golf course, I’ll instead choose to play through a virtual one on my Playstation 11? My enjoyment may fade as a busy non-virtual life continues to preclude spending as much time mashing buttons as I’d like, but I certainly can’t see myself giving it up completely. And I hope I’m not the only one who sticks with them, because retirement homes strike me as the perfect opportunity for some intense multiplayer gaming. The term ‘deathmatch’ might take on too literal a meaning in that context, I suppose, but I can’t think of many better ways to go than having my cutting-edge Nintendo Wii U Me Them Together controller prised from my cold, defeated hand.