I’ve had a pretty lame couple of weeks. Struck with a sinus infection, I wasn’t able to enjoy Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Red Dead Redemption the day they both arrived at my front door. I know that for many, being sick is prime gaming time. But I’m not that guy. The congestion that I can feel all throughout my face and chest, like a Venom Symbiote trying to burst out of my body and take over; the demon DJ who uses my skull as a subwoofer, producing a constant, pounding bass rhythm of agony; the slow, vitriolic drip down the back of my throat that robs me of my voice and sends me running to the sink every 15 minutes to cough up horrors I dare not describe.
I’m a total baby when I get sick. Thank god for antibiotics and legitimately-prescribed narcotics.
By the end of Week One, I’m finally recovering, and eager to get down with the rest of my prime gaming time (unemployment — wee!). Still fighting what feels like a metric ton of pressure building up INSIDE MY FACE, I take a break from my brief time with Red Dead to breath in some steam and the fumes of soothing oregano oil.
That was a mistake.
Setting down the small pot of boiling water and oil, looking back to the pause screen frozen on my TV (because it’s much more important than keeping my eyes on the bowl of scalding pitch in my hands), I feel a “sensation.” It’s not a good one. Actually, it hurts. A lot. In fact, it almost feels like–
The next thing I know, I’m looking at my hand. The skin looks loose and wrinkled, like a fitted sheet that’s become slightly untucked. This is bad. I immediately run to the freezer and stick my hand in ice (I later learn, this was a bad idea). After spending a couple hours with my hand soaking in ice water (again, for your future reference — bad), still feeling like it’s on fire, I bandage it, pour five or six tylenol down my throat, and, eventually, fall asleep. The next morning, I awake with what looks like a jellyfish stuck to my hand. I rush to the CVS resident nurse-practitioner (unemployment = no insurance — wee!) who tells me I just need to wait it out. I go home.
On the plus side, there’s no pain (once again, very bad; a real doctor would later tell me that I killed the nerve endings). But there’s my Xbox 360 controller, staring at me, daring me to learn what, in my heart, I already know. Holding it in my hands, moving my thumb up and down, back and forth across its wide face is simply not possible. Does Week Two of feeling like crap, being confined to my bed and deprived of games begin now?
I look to my unopened copy of Galaxy 2 sitting on my floor. “No!” It pleads, “Try me!”
The Wii-mote fits comfortably in my mangled paw and my thumb only has to hit one, large button! Next thing I know, the real world melts away as I spend the next several days collecting coins and star bits, stars and comet medals. I’m hopping around on clouds, drilling through planets, clumsily buzzing through the air, putting that jerk bastard monkey in his place, stomping that fool Bowser Jr. (you got nothing on the Koopa Kids, you little punk), and, well, there’s no end in sight to this List of Awesome Things.
Mario games are perfect games. I’ll say it again: perfect games. Not perfect “experiences,” not perfect “art,” not perfect “interactive fiction,” not perfect “personal narrative.” It’s none of the pretentious, high-concept experiments taking agonizingly slow baby-steps on their way to becoming what they want to be. There are no growing pains with Mario, no identity crises, and it has nothing to “say,” nothing that, especially as a former art student (with all the indoctrination that implies), I spend way too much of my free time fussing over.
Mario isn’t trying to immerse me in his world and yet, somehow, he manages to do so more successfully than most games. Truth be told, the Mushroom Kingdom feels more familiar and natural to me than Liberty City, Renaissance Italy, or the Old West. I’ve been to so many places once or twice but the Mushroom Kingdom has been a constant destination for me since as far back as I can remember.
Mario isn’t forcing me to care about him or his friends. I’m not being forced information about their pasts, their relationships, their emotional states. There is no “only survivor of his ancient race”; there are no attempts to address scientific ethics; there are no tortured anti-heroes; no “ancient and evil powers”; no “sexy” animals; and no flirtations with bestiality… You know, like some other (formerly) simple and innocent mascot games. Bowser kidnapped the princess because he’s a jerk and I’m rescuing her because, dammit, I’m a good guy and that’s what good guys do. Also, it’s really fun along the way.
Mario doesn’t try too hard. He isn’t trying to say something, he isn’t challenging you with big claims, he isn’t forcing you to sit through a hideous attempt at “plot.” You always know what you’re getting with Mario. You can pick him up in bite-sized chunks or marathon through dozens of levels and challenges.
The Mushroom Kingdom isn’t a strange, oppressive, or sprawling space; you’ve been there before! Everyone knows your name, so to speak. All these faces and things are familiar. Everything about it is innocent, pure and fun — so comforting that, for just an hour or two, you can forget that you’re 24, unemployed, living with your parents, bacteria are wrecking havoc on your insides and you have a blister the size of a — I dunno — some kind of gross alien or something, on your hand (not to mention the nerve damage, chance of infection and possible skin graft down the line… and lack of money and/or health insurance).
Mario endures because he can make me go from feeling like this:
Mario endures because he’s always been there for you. And he always will be.