Super Mario Bros.

I will never understand the cult of Mario.

And Mario fans are definitely a cult. The members include all the people who still keep Nintendo Entertainment Systems in their living rooms. It includes anyone who’s ever carried a Mario keychain, baked a Mario cake, or giggled at Mario fan art on a blog. GameJew, the overall-wearing troubadour, is definitely a member, and so is Martin Leung, who plays the theme song on grand piano like it’s a lost work by Scott Joplin. And I’d also count in all the game developers who got into the biz because one Christmas morning 25 years ago, they woke up to find a new NES under the tree, and the first game they fired up—the game that showed them the promise, delight, and genius of videogames—was the one about the plumber who goes up against a turtle.

I never joined the cult. In fact, until a month ago, I had never played Super Mario Bros., arguably the most influential videogame of all time. I’m not proud of that. Up ’til now, it’s been a major omission from my gaming life, like missing a vowel in my alphabet. But there’s a story there, and it’s a story of shame, loss, failure, and maybe at the end, redemption.

Let’s start here. I’m 36, which happens to be the average age of an American gamer. It’s also the perfect age to be a geek. I caught Star Wars in the theater at age 4, and I knew from the opening frames that I wanted nothing to do with a world that didn’t have laser rifles, robots, and gigantic space stations. Not long after, I played one of the first home Pong units, which my neighbor hooked up to his black-and-white TV by tying its cord to the antenna. I grabbed every minute I could with the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision at sleepovers, and on the weekends, I blew my allowance at the arcades. 

And I was terrible. Drop me off at Aladdin’s Castle, and $5 of quarters would be gone in minutes. I threw money away on games I couldn’t beat, and I never got any better, partly because I had no coordination, and partly because I didn’t care. I didn’t play games to set a high score or to overcome some made-up challenge: I played them because I loved them, heart and soul.

Some people compare the birth of gaming to the dawn of television or movies. I think it’s more like when cavemen discovered fire. Games aren’t entertainment: they’re so much better than that. They have clicks and pings and bright, eye-stroking visuals, but you can get all of that from pinball. What videogames deliver like nothing else is what old-school game theorist Johan Huizinga called the “magic circle.” They are make-believe made real by rules. Games are better than the real world, because the real world is messy; they’re better than your imagination, because they’re right before your eyes. From the moment I pushed a joystick and saw the screen respond to my touch, I was obsessed. 

But it was an abusive, humiliating relationship. Back in the golden age of arcades, games were merciless. Sure, we have hard games today, but thumb-beaters like N+ or Flywrench don’t punish you for your failures: They let you keep trying until you get it right, and they never throw away your progress. By contrast, arcade games just want you to die. They aren’t your partners; they hate you. And yet I kept pumping in quarters, just for a few minutes of play.

The early home systems could be just as brutal. This was especially true of my first console, which was a ColecoVision. You may ask, “What the hell is a ColecoVision?” Almost nobody remembers it—it didn’t have a single great title that wasn’t better as a coin-op—but it was kind of the Xbox of its day. The graphics were a step up from earlier consoles, and the controller had a keypad, which, like motion control on the Wii, was never put to as good a use as we expected.

After we got it home, I spent hours glued to the TV, and most of those hours were aggravating. The games were still “arcade hard,” including the one that came packed in with it, Nintendo’s Donkey Kong. This, of course, is the debut of Mario. He has to save the girl from a big, dumb gorilla, and as the cast of the documentary King Of Kong could tell you, it’s extremely hard. Your enemies are unpredictable, and your character is weak and slow. Even with all the time in the world to play, I don’t think I ever got past the first few levels.

Mario came back for 1983’s Mario Bros.—a game even more forgotten than the ColecoVision—and then he starred in Super Mario Bros., which debuted in 1985 for the Nintendo Entertainment System. But I never made it to the Nintendo. Somewhere in the early ’80s, I moved over to an Apple //c, then slowly stopped playing games. Anything with a joystick seemed juvenile; the Nintendo Entertainment System looked like a toy. I gave up on games right around the time they got good.

The first time I fired up Super Mario Bros., on the Wii’s virtual console, I thought I knew what to expect. I’ve played a few of the modern Marios, as well as dozens of knock-offs and homages. But I didn’t know Super Mario Bros. was funny. 

Every time I play the game, I uncover something new. I’d heard the game is full of secrets, but I assumed that these were for hardcore completionists—the players who love to sit there breaking every single block and ducking down every pipe. But even if you play casually, you still run into surprises. You’ll be bunny-hopping along, when bing, you find an invisible brick right over your head; you’ve probably passed it a dozen times and never noticed it. In level 1-2, I was jumping along a platform when I happened to uncover a 1UP mushroom, which is worth an extra life. Except it wasn’t sliding on the board: it was above it, next to the scores, in a space that shouldn’t be playable. “What the hell is that doing there?” I would’ve shouted, but I was too busy chasing it, sprinting so I wouldn’t lose sight of it, and landing, natch, right in the jaws of a piranha plant.

It’s easy to jump the wrong way or fall down a pit in Mario, and I’m convinced that Super Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto and team included these hazards simply because they’re funny. The game sets us up for our own pratfalls. Say I’ve found a brown mushroom—one that’ll boost my size and give me a lifeline in case I get caught by an enemy. I jump for the mushroom, and I overshoot and fall to my death. Cue rimshot.

Other sections of the game encourage bravado. The spinning bars of fire that litter the castle levels look intimidating, but in many cases, they’re timed so you can just run straight through them at top speed. Don’t stop, don’t wait, don’t worry: Just run. We laugh, and when Mario opens the trap door that sends Bowser to his death, the solution is pure Tom & Jerry.

The story—“guy rescues princess”—is paper-thin. But for a modern gamer, it’s refreshing to see so much of the stuff we argue about, like storytelling character development, simply and happily go missing. Cinematic action-adventures go to pains to rationalize every mission. No sooner do I catch the sniveling Nazi spymaster than he gives up the names of seven other war criminals I have to stop, and would I mind hearing all their life stories? Mario doesn’t need any of that. The princess is always in another castle. That’s why you’re going to the other castle. What else do you need to know?

Modern games also have no sense of time. As gamer journalist (and sometimes AVC game reviewer) Leigh Alexander points out, games like Shadow Complex are at war with themselves. The scripts create tension and urgency—There’s a bad guy! Go get him! Now!—while the gameplay invites us to stop, search, and collect things. Mario is simple: There’s a timer, you know how much time you have left, and usually you have enough.

As for the character himself, he’s much less cloying than I expected. Not only does he match the colorful nonsense of other early-’80s hits like Pac-Man or Q-Bert, but in the first Super Mario, he isn’t even that wacky. He looks determined; he doesn’t smile. What draws the eye is his movement: he’s either a brisk, powerful giant, or a speeding mustachioed underdog. The franchise hadn’t gotten to the doofy smile, bulbous nose, or “It’s-a me, Mario!” He’s just a little guy who’s fun to watch and easy to root for.

Mario isn’t dated: Hundreds of retro 2-D indies ape the same mechanics, and few of them even do the jump mechanic this well. But beyond that, Super Mario Bros. has a sweet nature and a sense of humor that most games today are too busy to consider. Bloodshed didn’t ruin the industry, but it didn’t make the games any funnier. And while Mario is tough—and even with my adult chops and platforming experience, not to mention the Internet, I’ll admit I still haven’t beaten it—that’s okay, because beating it doesn’t seem to be the point. Super Mario Bros. is the perfect amusement. We pick it up and we enjoy ourselves. 

Here’s another thing I didn’t understand about games until I played Super Mario Bros.: Games are supposed to be fun. And it is enough for games to be fun.

Like I said, when I was a kid, I loved videogames more than just about anything. And by high school, I set them aside—childish things, etc.—because I didn’t have time to “play.” I bought the line that videogames are silly, childish, and worst of all, a waste of time. I still remember hearing about a dormmate who spent 24 hours straight playing Civilization. As a friend of mine put it, “I would rather masturbate for 24 hours than play a videogame.”

Even after school, when I played computer games, it wasn’t the same. PC games are a break from the serious work that shares the same CPU. Playing Duke Nukem on the office LAN was just another way to soak up dot-com-worker privilege. It took me ’til the ’00s to start playing games heavily again, and even then, I kept looking for a purpose. Doesn’t science show that dolphins “play” to hone their survival skills? Can’t videogames be art? Will so-called serious games teach us to stop war? Can a game pose a moral dilemma, and teach us something about our deepest selves?

Mario ignores those questions. Stephen Totilo just asked why adults still play Mario, and he raises a great point: Super Mario Bros. really is childish. It fends off any grown-up themes or subtext, and even if you wanted to read class or ethnicity into the game, I doubt that’s what Nintendo was after. If some games take after competitive sports, and others take after cinema or theater, Super Mario Bros. is closer to a Slinky.

But here’s what Super Mario Bros. taught me: None of that matters. The guilt, the humiliation, the fear of failure—that isn’t what games are about. Games are for everybody, and they’re supposed to be fun. Yes, someday somebody, maybe Will Wright, maybe Shigeru Miyamoto, will win a Nobel for one of these things, and it’ll cure cancer and bring the utopia, but who cares? Play is unconditional joy. The cult of Mario learned that years ago. Maybe it isn’t too late for me.