Super Mario Land and the magic of mental bookmarks

Somewhere, hidden beneath a metric ton of stuff that’s slowly accumulated in my closet or one of the million other places I haphazardly throw things into and then forget about, lies a cartridge of Super Mario Land. I can’t quite remember if it’s the same one I had growing up, but part of me suspects that it probably is. If you’re thinking, “Oh no, he’s about to launch into another of his boring childhood stories that only tangentially involve games,” then you’re totally right! Unlike many of my other stories, though, this one is more than mindless blathering, instead serving to illustrate how strong of a mental bookmark games are capable of being. Just so we’re all on the same page, what I mean by a “mental bookmark” is a reaction that’s just short of synesthetic and that’s caused by two influential or memorable things happening in a short span of time to the point where they become inextricably linked. An example most people can relate to would be listening to a song while talking to a boyfriend/girlfriend to the point where hearing that song causes you to think of that person, even years later.

Music is usually the big one, but these kinds of bookmarks can be made by any combination of senses. Paintings, perfumes, foods—just about anything that has enough of an impact on you can create these types of mental bookmarks that instantly sends your mind back years. Something I’ve found is that games, especially older games, are uniquely good at this; whether it’s the individuality in playing style that player control allows or the musical limitations that forced composers to rely on catchy, repetitive melodies, the format is ideal for creating these types of bookmarks in a way that modern games and movies aren’t.

The other day I saw a link to a Nintendo rewards program that I vaguely remembered making an account for. Apparently it’s going to be shutting down in the near future, so the rewards were updated to include several virtual console games and physical rewards where before the section of available rewards was pathetically sparse. I only have a single Nintendo 3DS game (Fire Emblem, naturally) and a 2DS, so I figured I would finally redeem the codes that came with them and see if I could afford anything. Several frustrating hours of being automatically logged out later (the site was getting hit by people scrambling for the physical rewards and behaving erratically as a result), I had 150 “coins.”

As it turned out, that was exactly enough to afford a digital version of several old Game Boy games. I considered many of the options such as Kid Icarus and Metroid 2, heavily leaning in the latter’s direction, but when I went through my small pack of “favorite” Game Boy games that I keep with my Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance, I realized that I had cartridges of just about every game available on the site except for Super Mario Land, which had vanished at some point over the years. Figuring it the better option since it had gone missing, I chose it, got the download code, and soon had it sitting on my 2DS menu.

The title screen did nothing for me—an interesting little tidbit since the menu also happens to be missing any kind of background music—but the second I started playing the actual game, it hit me like a bag of bricks. When I was in third or fourth grade, my family moved to this huge house. I don’t know the exact details thanks to some serious parental shielding that kept any of the ugly details out of sight, but my parents would look after abandoned unwed mothers who had nowhere else to go, offering them a place to stay and get back on their feet. Some would come and stay for a length of time while others would drop in and out weekly for reasons I never quite understood. It all came back to me as I played, from playing in the backyard to picking plums from golf courses before sunrise in order to clear the courses of obstacles and obtain fruit that could be donated to the hungry. I remembered playing with frogs in a swimming pool, getting a lecture from my dad when I made a crude joke during class, kicking around a Koosh ball, and even a room with glass doors and the cardboard box I used to read books in for hours at a time.

What came back most of all, though, were two of the girls. I don’t remember their names, but that’s hardly surprising since I can barely remember my own name half of the time. No, what came back were two specific memories. The first was of going out and walking to a nearby thicket with one of the girls to pick raspberries and blackberries, the former of which have (probably not coincidentally) ended up becoming my favorite. The second, more relevant memory is of handing over my old “grey brick” Game Boy to one of the other girls who would always let me watch her play through Super Mario Land, a feat I was unable to match back then.

The game is incredibly limited to the point where you can only shoot a single fireball at a time, and they travel without any sense of gravity, meaning shooting a fireball in a closed space is a bad idea since you have to wait ~5-10 seconds for it to disappear before you can shoot another. Beyond that, the physics are atrocious, nowhere near the standard set by the console games; Mario controls a bit like a runaway truck, taking off in one direction and refusing to stop moving in that direction once he jumps. This makes platforming, a critical part of the game, needlessly frustrating, especially since the game lacks a saving feature. Still, the more I played, the more I was taken back to those lazy kid days when I’d vicariously bask in the glory of victory, hunched over a Game Boy so that the screen was visible to both of us (this was long before handhelds were backlit).

It’s amazing when you think about a colorless, no-frills platformer being able to instantly resurrect vivid, forgotten memories from 15-20 years ago, and thinking back to those days never ceases to make me smile. For one, it’s yet another gaming memory involving females in which their gender doesn’t factor into how they interact with games at all despite the constant refrain of some that women are systematically looked down upon in gaming. Beyond that, knowing that the tiny gray cartridge couldn’t have possibly held more than a half a megabyte of actual game and yet was able to create such a strong mental bookmark makes me happy. I mean, how many more stories are out there as a result of older games like this? I’m sure there are an untold number, so don’t let anyone ever tell you that old games are good for nothing: even at their worst, they can end up packing more of an emotional whollup than the most sophisticated modern media.

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