I live in Los Angeles in 2009 because of a dinner party in Memphis in 1987. Obviously a lot more went into than that, but it was one fateful autumn evening in the Memphis suburbs when my life changed: I discovered Super Mario Bros. We were over for dinner at a work friend of my father's, The Dixons, and my siblings and I were antsy before the meal and, in all likelihood, misbehaving. So we were sent up to the room of the youngest Dixon (Shane, if I remember right) because he had something to show us.
In his room on the floor was a small grey box with wires sticking out of it. On the television (he had a television in his room!) was the most amazing thing my 8-year old eyes had seen: a guy in white overalls jumping around the screen and throwing balls of fire at goofy-looking turtles. I wasn't a stranger to the concept of video games -- the neighbors down the street had a Commodore, but that was always kind of weird to me. This…this "Nintendo" had boxy controllers, cartridges with sleeves and artwork, it had a gun you could shoot the screen with, and a robot. It had a freakin' robot.
But most importantly, it had Super Mario Bros. After the "10 more minutes" routine failed to work, we got shoved back into the car and drove home. The Christmas morning of that year, my sister -- the smart one -- took measurements of some of the boxes under the tree, deduced that the smaller ones were games, and the bigger one must be the Nintendo system. She was right, and that's when I became a full-time gamer.
Since then, Super Mario Bros. has been my most beloved franchise, the only one that still, after 22 years, gets me really excited each time a proper game in the series comes out. Of course I love Mario. I grew up with the guy.
My whole family quickly became Super Mario masters. The kids would spend most of the day trading lives and working through the 8 worlds, each learning from the previous failed attempt. And though we mostly supported each others' runs, we were kind of hoping for quick death so it'd be our turn again. Looking back at Super Mario Bros., it was the perfect challenge for our age group: the levels were difficult, but were just within grasp, and if you screwed up, you pretty much knew why. So many memorable moments in that game laid the foundation for my gamer skills: Following the 1-UP mushroom along the ceiling in 1-2 and grabbing it on the fly; running from Lakitu in 4-1 before figuring out that it'd be better to take the risk and knock him out; Figuring out the hidden route in World 4-4's repeating section (how on Earth were you supposed to know that?); Getting the timing down on the trampoline jumps to avoid Bullet Bills in World 5; Making the "run over the gaps" jump at the end of 8-1, and oh man, the soul-crushing challenge of 8-2. Perseverance paid off in spades. What a perfect game.
Super Mario Bros. 2
I first found out about Super Mario Bros. 2 when Nintendo Fun Club blossomed into Nintendo Power. This was back before the Internet, so we didn't have things such as "pre-release hype," "expectations," and "disappointment." So when we got the game for Christmas that year, the significant changes to the gameplay didn't really phase me. Yes, it was incredibly weird that I was able to jump on an enemy and not only would he not die, I could ride him to new areas. And oh yeah, the screen went up and down now, too. But I instantly fell in love with the game, even if I rarely used Mario & Luigi in any of the levels (Toad for his pulling speed, Princess for her float). It was also my first recorded instance of controller rage: on New Year's Eve of that year, while my family was hosting the house party, I was getting closer and closer to the final battle with Wart. It didn't happen that night, but a couple nights later I finally made it to the end…and died. A lot. It was the first time my mom had to tell me to calm down, that it was just a game, and if I couldn't handle it then maybe "we should give it a rest for a while." (I've been much worse since then, Mom.) Finding that to be completely unacceptable, I calmed down, grabbed the last big vegetable I needed and crammed it down Wart's throat in victory.
It wasn't until much later that I found out that I was really playing "Doki Doki Panic," but that's why I've always loved SMB2. It was special because it was different. Best moment in that game, by the way, was mastering the ice-sliding sequence in World 5: a demanding test of jump timing and momentum management that has yet to be reproduced in a Mario game.
Super Mario Bros. 3
The place: Pizza Hut, Muskego, WI. The time: right after Friday night's basketball victory. The grade-school shattering moment: discovering Super Mario Bros. 3 in a sit-down cabinet (for some reason). We'd all seen The Wizard at that point so we knew what was up, but this was our first time playing it for ourselves, and as soon as we got home, the begging commenced.
Super Mario Bros. 3 was amazing, there's no other word for it. A return to the Mushroom Kingdom was a return to form, and the new importance it placed on power-up items opened up new possibilities and changed the series for the better -- Mario using gravity to whip around space in Super Mario Galaxy can be traced back to using the Raccoon Leaf to slip the surly bonds of earth for the first time. And it introduced the idea of having an overall strategy for progressing through the 8 worlds, namely hoarding the rare powerful items to use against Bowser's armada. (It's only acceptable to use the P-Wing and fly above the airships if you've cleared it on foot at least once. Be a man.)
SMB3 gave us so much: the overworld map, the Tanooki, Frog and Hammer Bros. Suits, Kuribo's Shoe, Piranha Plants that could shoot at angles, warp whistles, sliding down hills, Jenny Lewis (kind of), end of level bonuses, turtle shells you could pick up, an actual item inventory, the Koopa Kids, airships, Boos, Thwomps and Dry Bones…and all it asked in return is our love.
(And I still think they should bring back the Mushrooms that go left.)
Super Mario World
Look at all the pretty colors. My best friend's dad worked for Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee, and would frequently go to Japan on business. This is the only reason I believed him when he told me about this "new Nintendo" that's coming out soon, because that's usually the stuff of hurtful lies that started fights on the playground. Sure enough, the Super Nintendo blew us all away, and we ended up getting one for Christmas. But that wasn't soon enough for me, because I had rented a system and Super Mario World a couple months before. Mom and Dad balked at writing a $200 check for the deposit (that's what we had to do back then), but I made a sound argument in my favor. From the time I brought it home and hooked it up to the time it was 30 minutes overdue, I played the ever. living. crap. out of Super Mario World. I beat the game before we had to take it back, but because my save file didn't say "100%", I didn't really beat the game.
SMW took the overworld map from SMB3 and made it way better, adding the ability to replay levels, multiple exits that opened up new routes and areas, Ghost Houses and Fortresses, and not just one, but two hidden bonus worlds. And when it comes to Mariocide, I am the world's biggest monster thanks to Special World: Tubular. Navigating Balloon Mario through a field of floating Charging Chucks and Volcano Plants remains one of the most difficult gaming moments I've ever put myself through -- and, when I finally got past it, the most rewarding.
SMW is significant due to the addition of Yoshi, the spin jump, near-perpetual flight, and amazing graphics and sound (for the time). I still go back and forth between SMB3 and SMW on which is the better game -- it's like picking your favorite child, or because I don't yet have children, two really awesome t-shirts.
Mario in The Next Dimension
For some reason, the wait between the 3D Mario games seemed much longer than the 2D games -- excruciatingly so. Probably because I wasn't much of a kid anymore, and probably because it took such a gargantuan effort to move the series to 3D in the first place. The words already written about Super Mario 64 do it more than enough justice: one of the most significant games ever made, the near-perfection of 3D platforming on the very first try, it goes on and on. And though I completely agree that Mario 64 is brilliant, it took a long time for me to adjust to the fact that a 3D Mario game is very different from a 2D Mario game. The platforming elements are more adventurous and explorative, and the 3D space opens up new design possibilities, but it's also a bit slower and less precise than the 2D games (one less dimension to mentally grapple with, I suppose). What's personally significant about Super Mario 64 is that I was so thirsty for information about the Japanese launch of the Nintendo 64, I stumbled upon N64 fansites and Usenet groups talking about an IRC channel about video games. It was there I met many of my friends today, including some who got me an internship with Electronic Gaming Monthly and on the path to professional writing (and thus, G4 in Los Angeles).
Though I understand the criticisms levied against it, and of all the main entries of the series it is my least favorite, I will always be a defender of Super Mario Sunshine. It would have been nice to be FLUUD-less for more of the game (the Mario-only obstacle courses were brilliant moments), but the focused tropical setting made for a great summer game, and you could have considered FLUUD to be a permanent suit in the vein of SMB3. The later, more vertical levels, offered up some great platforming as well. What makes me most sad about Sunshine, though, is that for me it marked the beginning of Mario's decline as a videogame/pop-culture powerhouse. It had a lot working against it: GameCube was the first Nintendo console to launch without a Mario game, the tropical setting was a bit too focused for some people, the ad campaign was completely awful, the platformer genre in general was starting to be usurped by the FPS…
I didn't realize how bad it got until Nintendo's E3 press conference in 2006. Wii was on display for the first time, and the demo reel started up showing games coming soon. There was Super Mario Galaxy, a brand new 3D Mario game for a brand new system, announced with zero fanfare or special mention during the press conference. The game looked amazing, but Nintendo's priorities were obviously shifting. When people first started describing Super Mario Galaxy as "Super Mario Bros. 3" in 3D, the pre-release hype took hold, and the game turned out to be (in my opinion) the best game released this generation, and in 20 or so years, I'll be writing a similar article about that game as well.
I might be worried about the waning influence of the plumber brothers, but the industry of 2009 is a lot different than the industry of 1987, and all things must change. What I'm not worried about is New Super Mario Bros. Wii, or Super Mario Galaxy 2. As long as Miyamoto and his teams live and breathe, the series will always be in capable hands. It's what got me into gaming, and it's the only game I'm really, really good at. And when a new Mario game is released, no matter where I might find my life and career, that's-a-me…first in line.