Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The 23-year Itch: A Super Mario Land Story

It’s about minus 300 degrees outside and the wind has blown more than a few aloof geese clear into outer space. But still the children file outside for recess. Bundled up like tiny artic explorers, some have footraces, some play basketball, and others, hopscotch.

Huddled in a forgotten entryway near the edge of the soccer field, young Matt’s icy fingers clutch his well-worn Gameboy while his friends, Tom and Joey, watch the tiny screen as best they can over his shoulder.

It’s the final level of Super Mario Land 2: The Six Golden Coins, in all its green and grey glory. Mario suffers death after death: falling down pits, bursting into flames, taking 4,000 pound bullets to the face. The recess bell rings, and Matt and his friends walk back to class, slightly dejected. “We’ll beat Wario’s castle tomorrow,” Matt says.

That was the last time I played my copy of Super Mario Land 2.

Everybody’s got something they wish they could go back and change: The one who got away, the last thing you said to a friend before parting ways, a college presentation that looked so good on paper, but fell flat in front of the class. I think that’s part of the reason entertainment products like Back to the Future are so popular. Except Back to the Future preaches that time travel is always the problem and never the solution. So we learn to live with our old shortcomings, even if they do nag us once in a while.

For me, one of those things was never finishing Super Mario Land 2 back on that chilly day in 1993. There’s a heap of other things I would do differently if given the chance, but for some reason, that’s always stuck out in my mind. I only recently figured out why: unlike when I stuffed the family cat into the trailer of a toy truck or when I let one rip in front of the girl I liked, finishing Mario Land 2 would not require a time-hopping DeLorean to rectify.

For the last five years or so, my cousin James and I have gotten together each week to play video games. We’ve had a few great victories over the years, like beating Jason in Friday the 13th, killing Jaws, finishing Super Mario Bros. 3 half a dozen times in one night, and getting past that accursed spike puzzle in Beggar Prince, a little known Sega Genesis/Mega Drive RPG.

So when I started thinking about my unfinished Mario Land 2 cartridge for the 1,000th time in my life, I got the itch to finally take down that bastard. And I knew just the guy to help me do it.

James loaded up a Mario Land 2 ROM on his hacked Wii, and the game sprang to life on a television approximately 700 times the size of my original Gameboy screen. We quickly discovered that Super Mario Land 2 is “piss easy,” as James said. With every completed level, my confidence rose. Maybe my younger self just wasn’t very good at this game. Maybe this will be simple, I thought.

Finally, Mario stepped into Wario’s castle and I promptly guided his face into a massive fireball. I took a deep breath. It was go time.

That’s when I told James about my vendetta. He knew that save states where out of the question. He knew I was going to be the one to take us home or lead us to destruction. And he gave his blessing.
As I relearned the layout of that accursed castle, our stock of lives dwindled. Drowning in lava. Eaten by piranha plants. Careening into endless pits. It must have been nearly an hour later and I was getting frustrated and fatigued. Why does such an easy game have such a ball-busing finale?

The Angry Video Game Nerd once said that playing a difficult section of a game many times can cause the skill one had acquired to fade away. Maybe that was happening to me?

I gathered my wits for one last serious go at the castle. Of course if I lost, I’d have kept trying. But that’s “trying” with quotation marks. We all know that feeling where your willpower drains away like summer rain on scalding pavement. I had one more good run left in me.

In fourth grade, I had said that I would beat Wario’s castle “tomorrow.” Yesterday was 23 years ago. I knew if I told James that we would beat Wario next week, it might mean “never.”

About a billion rooms into the castle, farther than I had ever been, a massive, disembodied face sped towards our tender, exposed plumber. I stomped it and cleared the screen.

“Wario’s just up ahead,” James announced. “Two more faces to go.”

While I had been having a serious internal crisis over a decades-old video game meant for small children, James had looked up a video walkthrough. Back in the day, I’d have killed a man with a Slap Bracelet for even a few tips in a dog-eared copy of Nintendo Power.

With James’s guidance, I stepped into the final room. From his pixelated throne of age-old regret, Wario eyed me disapprovingly. He looked much more psychotic than in later games. It was actually kind of disturbing. I wondered if anyone had written a sub-par creepypasta about it yet, for YuriofWind to rip apart on his YouTube channel.

“Stand on the statue!” James yelled. Sure enough, in the middle of the room was a statue of Mario, and I hopped on top of it as directed. I provided a convenient perch from which to whack my longtime nemesis.

I don’t really remember how it happened after that, but what I can recall is my heart pounding out of my chest. That kind of thing used to happen at the end of every video game I played. Not so much anymore, what with save states and infinite chances.

As the protagonist of Silent Hill 2 once said, “The old Gods haven’t left this place.”

One last stomp, and Wario was defeated. James gave me a giant high-five as the credits scrolled. I snapped a photo of him in front of the screen for posterity. 

See? Doesn't Wario look crazy weird in this game?

After 23 years, I could put this tiny piece of my past out to pasture. It doesn’t seem like much, I know. And you’re right, beating an old video game with your cousin isn’t going to make headlines, or earn you more money, or look good on a résumé. Hell, it’s barely fodder for a post on a sporadically updated gaming blog. But for me, it was proving that yes, I do follow up on my promises. And it was a big ol’ eviction notice to the tiny space this loose end had been renting in my skull.

We don’t often get the chance to change the past. So even if it’s something small, doesn’t it make sense to take the opportunity?

As I waved goodbye to James and headed to my car that night, I wondered if I should tell him that I never finished the last level of Link’s Awakening on Gameboy either. 

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