I'm 33 and, with mixed emotions, I play games that star Super Mario.
The people who sell Mario games would say it's great to play Mario games. Mario is for everyone.
My gut tells me that playing Mario, the adventures of a fat plumber in a Mushroom Kingdom of warbling enemies and happy conflict, is juvenile.
My mind tells me I'm a more ideal Mario player than any 8-year-old kid.
Grown men play Super Mario games, so I feel that it is time for me, a grown man, to figure out why and whether this is a habit I ought to quit.
Last year, as I have done for most of the years of my life past age 10, I played Super Mario games. I played new ones, such as New Super Mario Bros. Wii and, during plane flights and subway rides and while lying on a couch as my wife read a book, the Nintendo DS game Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story.
Mario games are fun. They've been fun for me since the 80s. But I'm in my 30s. Mario games are in their 20s. They act young still. As I get older, I don't always want to. And yet there's joy in the gameplay mixes with the sensation of being an adult possibly playing with a kid's toy.
Bowser's Inside Story features Mario and Luigi exploring the cavernous — but cute, always cute — stomach and intestines of Mario nemesis Bowser. It's all quite colorful and jolly. The bad guy has a fantastically bad way of speaking. He's Fawful, one of those kids'-fiction bad guys. I don't remember the specific moment when I felt I might be too old for this Mario game. It may have been while I made Mario use his hammer to smash little bad guys or maybe it was when Bowser accidentally ate something that made him sick. Possibly, it was during the many moments that the game's joke-filled script made me laugh; not that I'm too old to laugh, but why am I here to witness all those jokes and puns about beans and unbrushed teeth?
This was kid's stuff that I was enjoying — good natured, colorful, clever kid's stuff, but, still, kid's stuff. It was a cross-generational kind of thing, like a Pixar movie at best, but, well, not very adult.
Mario's not alone in not feeling quite right for me. I've thought in recent years that maybe Call of Duty is too Michael Bay for me and that, well, certain games aren't enough Mario in the way they teach players their ideas. But as I played Bowser's Inside Story, there was that reaction again: Maybe I'm too old for this.
Then I remembered a kid I met at a party a year ago. This boy was one of the few children there, disinterested in the conversations of his parents and other adults there. He had a DS. In it, he had New Super Mario Bros., his first Mario game. I mentioned some of the older ones, ones made before he was born. He'd never played them, never heard of them.
Maybe, I thought, he was too young to be playing Mario.
What Kids Miss About Mario
There was another moment while playing Mario and Luigi that I can recall specifically. I was in control of Mario and I encountered a character who gave Mario the ability to strap a blue shell to his back. Mario could crouch down, tuck his limbs into his shell and slide across the screen. This new power essentially made Mario into a turtle. That provoked a different reaction: This is something a kid couldn't appreciate, not really, not completely.
How could a anyone under the age of, I don't know, 33?, appreciate the fact that when Mario obtains the shell power, the game shows blocks of power radiating to all corners of Mario's world, a clear — obvious! — homage to the exclamation-point block-radiating in 1990's Super Mario World. No child of the 21st century would understand that.
How could a kid appreciate this marvelous twist of a Mario world's power dynamics, this turning of Mario into the very kickable shell that gamers used to make Mario punt across the screen in most of his games since 1986's Super Mario Bros? In this moment in Bowser's Inside Story, Mario had become his enemy, had assumed the role of his turtle victims, an idea that was more than 20 years in the making. Oh, but the blue-shell-power was in 2006's New Super Mario Bros., Mario experts might point out. The point still stands.
It's the discovery of the blue-shell-power that enriches me as a Mario-playing man. If one strives to experience fiction that possesses emotional maturity and thematic complexity, Mario games are not a form of entertainment that offer meaningful depth. That feeling of unease in my gut as I play a new Mario game might be the unease I'd have if I sat in the part of the bookstore that sells pop-up books and started reading one after the other. But the blue-shell-power discovery triggers my memories of older elements and abilities from older Mario games. It gets me thinking of variations and rule-changes. I'm suddenly a connoisseur of fine music recognizing how a new master performer has chosen to compose a classic slightly differently, maybe with an added instrument or new flourish.
The making of video games involves yearly advances in the arrangement and physics of interactive worlds. Playing a series of well-made games designed across those years offers me the ability to enjoy nothing less meaningful than progress and the evolution of thought — thought in the context of designing an interactive Mushroom Kingdom, but layered, increasingly complex thought in that context nonetheless. That is what satisfies me and what I can't imagine any child who didn't start with Super Mario Bros. appreciating it quite as much as I do.
New Mario games, kids, feel as if they might have been made for old me.
Other Men Who Play Mario
I asked some other men who play Mario whether they're ever conflicted about playing. The 46-year-old Michael Abbot, who runs the Brainy Gamer blog, has played Mario games since they were only made in two dimensions. He's never beaten the eighth world of Super Mario Brothers, but he's stuck with the series. He's never been embarrassed to play the Marios, he said. Nostalgia is a big part of the appeal, but not all of it.
"When I play a game like New Super Mario Bros. Wii, it's like biting into a tasty cake made from a favorite recipe, but with a few surprise ingredients baked in," he told me. "The older I get, I find I'm less hungry for 'innovation' and more appreciative of thoughtful, creative refinement. Mario games, especially the last two big ones, Galaxy and NSMBW, seem to embody that ideal."
Matthew Green, 28-year-old writer for Kombo.com and PressTheButtons.com knows there are other, non-Mario games targeted to him. "I'm part of a demographic meant for Modern Warfare and Madden, but I always look forward to a trip back to the Mushroom Kingdom," he wrote to me. He told me he keeps playing because he grew up with the games and they make him smile.
The Mario games also make these men feel young. Green: "There's a sense of wonder and a spark of imagination at the heart of the Super Mario Bros. games, and as children we pick up on that right away. Then, over time, most people lose that spark. School, career, social engagements, relationship drama, mortgage payments, credit card debt, medical ailments, and other things that we pick up on our way to and through adulthood weigh us down and we forget the simple pleasures of saving the princess from a turtle despot with an eye for annexing kingdoms and galaxies. Those of us who continue to play Super Mario games and who make them a part of our adult lives found a way to keep that spark alive."
Who Really Plays Mario?
I asked Nintendo for data about who plays Mario games. They didn't have any to share publicly, but I did get a range elsewhere. "The idea that Mario games are simply just for kids is foolish, and Nintendo knows that," Jesse Divnich, vice president of research group EEDAR told me. "The dominant demographic for New Super Mario Bros. Wii are males and females over 24 years old."
Divnich said that a look at Nintendo's commercials gives us a good idea of who the company believes is buying its products. "With Nintendo, nearly all of their commercials contain people of both genders and of all ages. They do that for a specific reason, because nearly every one of all ages, races, and creeds buy Nintendo products." Specifically about Mario games, he added, Nintendo uses "the brand name of Mario to pull in the older crowd and the cute lovable graphics/gameplay to draw in the younger crowd." At least Divnich gave me that out. It's the gameplay that is there for some of us older players.
"Dude Fights A Turtle"
I found a man, a gamer who doesn't try to play Mario. He's no doubt seen those Nintendo commercials. He's relented enough that he played a recent Mario game, Super Mario Galaxy, and "appreciated" it. But 36-year-old Chris Dahlen, an avid gamer and writer about games for Edge Magazine and his own Save The Robot blog, is immune to the marketing and has never seen the nostalgia. He grew up playing PC games, had a Colecovision, then missed most of the early Mario era.
"Today, I feel like a kid in a fundamentalist Christian camp who's never even read the Bible," he told me. "Intellectually, I know the franchise, I can name the characters, and I'm aware of the new releases… But I do not 'get it.' I do not have the religion. I don't know why everyone's in love with this simple, paper-thin character or his cartoonish pals and nemeses."
Bear in mind, he's played and appreciated the Mario games, but I can't expect him to care about the blue-turtle-shell-power power and the 20 years of layered ideas. I certainly can't expect him, a grown man, to be charmed. He gets, say, Spider-Man. "He's a classic underdog hero," Dahlen e-mailed to me. "But Mario? There's nothing. Nada. Dude fights a turtle."
Nothing is for everyone, and there are all sorts of things we outgrow as we age. I remember a news report about a police officer who was suspicious that any grown-up would play the cute Nintendo game Animal Crossing. I am aware of the people in my life to whom I will never relate the story or the jokes of a good Mario role-playing game.
I know that as a 33-year-old man, I cannot consider Mario games to be the most natural fit in my life, the most appealing or relevant fiction. I'm not sure that they keep me young. I'm not sure their draw is nostalgia. I like them as progress-markers, as time capsules of thought about designing interactive adventure in a specific and unreal world. I like them despite the fact that their fiction is increasingly irrelevant to me, because, by contrast, their gameplay and their design is more relevant to me by the year.
Sometimes playing a new Mario game is to witness the evolution of a thought, the advancement of a set of physics and rules that order a fictional kingdom. Other times, I am witnessing a bad idea, an evolutionary mistake. But always, I am witnessing living thought, tracked across the years, something a kid couldn't understand, not until he's older. Not until he's, maybe, 33.