How an Italian dungaree-clad plumber laid the foundations for lifelong friendships.
People who were partial, or who possessed some kind of console, will understand the importance of playing video games when you were growing up. They were sometimes the only shared interest you had with your siblings, cousins or friends. They injected into Christmases, long car journeys, and long days lying on your stomach in the living room during the summer holidays. They were intrinsically tied to happiness by way of birthday presents, or desolate sadness by way of having the console confiscated as a form of punishment. Navigating through challenging levels, witnessing first-hand skill improvement and overcoming sometimes terrifying baddies gave us our first taste of the pleasures of hard work resulting in a reward. Playing Gameboy by torchlight under the covers, going round to a friend’s house to play on the game you didn’t have (or weren’t allowed to get), the thrill of a high score, running out of lives, dying and then coming back to life. Staying up way too late at a sleepover, wrapped in blankets, numb-thumbed; with an orange Dorito mouth illuminated by whatever N64 game flickered on the screen before us.
If Nintendo is your kingdom, Mario is your king. But Mario did more for me than train me to have a good eye for timing, or put me safely on the road to arthritis. Mario was a gateway to a meaningful relationship I had with my brother, who – like many brothers out there – introduced me to games when we were growing up. He was given a Gameboy for his eighth birthday in 1990 and was pretty much incapable of putting it down for the next five years. Literally, every family video we have features my family having a lovely lunch together before my grandpa pans the camera (shakily) to the left to see my brother sitting on his own, really far away, hunched over the GameBoy, ignoring everyone.
Sometimes he’d let me have a go. He had this double-edged sword mentality where he resented me playing on it (because it meant he couldn’t) but also wanted to do the good brother thing and teach me skills. Each time it was the Christmas or Summer holidays I’d spend my time watching him play on his GameBoy, then when he’d go back to boarding school, he’d take it with him. Years passed, and I ended up getting my own GameBoy (pocket, red, with a detachable light for dark car journeys) and then, in the lead-up to Christmas 1997 my brother turned 16 and got a job in the local meat factory specifically so he could save up for a brand new N64. He did it, and I will never forget the day he brought it home. The games were expensive, so we didn’t have many. Just Diddy Kong Racing, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Goldeneye and, of course, Mario Kart. I don’t know if many games since 1996 have bettered it. Wait, has anything I’ve done since those years of Mario Kart, Super Mario 64 or Mario Party been as fun?! Maybe not.
What is it about Super Mario that sparks utter joy in those of us partial to gaming? Why do we worship a fictional Italian plumber who travels through kingdoms with his younger – but taller – brother, Luigi, on a mission to rescue Princess Peach from the clutches of Bowser? There’s such an intrinsic pleasure attached to pressing a button and seeing such a small figure leap in the air like a flea, or crouch down, or grow giant, or take to the skies wearing a feather in his hat. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario, did something so simple in giving us this little guy to play with. He somehow designed a game that, when played, tricked the player into thinking they were Mario. As you race along Koopa Beach in a kart, or somersault through the clouds in a cornflower blue sky, or hop-skip-and-jump through neon green meadows looking for stars and coins, the rest of your own world and your worries disappear. It’s just utter bliss. Your mind and Mario’s small figure morph into one being: the synapses in your brain clicking and whirring, communicating with your hands and fingers through the buttons on the controller, guiding Mario’s every move and manoeuvring his small form to dodge danger and launch himself through a brighter and more vivid world than your own.
It’s hard to explain to you if the impact Super Mario had on my life was in some way special or not, purely because I suspect my experiences won’t differ too much from yours. Most people born sometime in and around the 80s and 90s tend to harbour affection for this little Italian dungaree-clad plumber for one reason or another. It really gets to me when people say negative things about video games. Playing Mario Kart for hours with my brother, or spending all night at a sleepover playing Mario Party with people who would become my lifelong best friends, were some of the most important times of my young life. I learned perseverance, trial and error, how to control my competitive streak, and the importance of the prevailing of good over evil. Most importantly I discovered that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never beat your older brother.
Visit the Moleskine store to see this digital legend come alive on paper.