Beating Bowser

On the importance of nostalgia as I grow older thanks to the journey of beating Super Mario Brothers 3.

Nintendo’s NES was originally released in the US in 1985, four days shy of my second birthday. It was the first move by Nintendo to move from the arcade into the home. Almost 62 million units were sold worldwide before it was eventually discontinued, but not before it had an impact on my life.

I can remember video games at home before Nintendo. The parents would code games into our personal computer, but at the time I was too young to fully appreciate them. I can vaguely remember watching my brothers play King’s Quest and a specific scene where there was gold under a bridge, but that’s it. The NES was the first gaming system that I really got to play.

It was 1990, after we moved to Orlando, that we finally got it. It was a brisk Florida night, probably January. We drove to Wal-Mart and went in as a family. I remember us rolling the Nintendo box out to the van and I held the box in my lap the whole ride home. I was ecstatic. We got the NES with Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt, and man I could not wait to get into it.

It was a family game system, I clearly remember both my mom and my dad playing with us. We’d gather in the family room in front of the TV and we would take turns and pass the remote, or we would have boys play Mario and girls play Luigi.

On level 3-1, the first above ground dark level, there is a place where you can bounce a turtle shell off the steps repeatedly before taking the flag. The way Mario games work is that if you chain events together the points awarded continue to increase until it begins awarding extra lives. So if you repeatedly bounce a turtle shell against a wall such that you can keep jumping on it without hitting the ground you could gain a very large number of lives.

Super Mario Brothers 3-1

My dad excelled at the timing needed to rack the lives up. Even if I was playing the game by myself, when I got to that point I would pause and go run and get dad and ask him to come get the extra lives for me.

As I grew bored with Mario my dad issued a challenge: $100 if I could beat Mario twice back-to-back. And I can say that doing it is perhaps my greatest video game success of all time. I don’t think I’ve ever come close to that level of satisfying when it comes to beating video games.

See, when you first beat Super Mario Brothers it loops you back to the beginning but this time all the goombas are replaced by the beetles. In the first Mario the power-up was fire, which killed all the bad guys except the beetles. This was a brilliantly simple way for them to make Mario more difficult for the second run. So I had to beat the game without using warp tunnels to skip any levels. I did it of course, otherwise it wouldn’t be part of this story. As far as I can recall I used that money to buy more NES games, including Super Mario Brothers 3.

Super Mario Brothers 3 was the video game which I can easily say was the most impactful on me as a kid. It was mainly just me playing, sure my mom and my sister might play, but my dad sort of waned in terms of his interest.

This week I connected our original NES to our 55″ tv and proceeded to lose myself in the nostalgia of playing Super Mario Brothers 3 again. The NES is actually my wife’s and not mine, and is in perfect working order.

The first game I put in was Super Mario Brothers 3. As I played it, I kept laughing out of joy as things I had forgotten about came flooding back to me. But even more often than that I found myself simply automatically going towards hidden areas or secret power ups. It was as if I was at the fairground standing in front of the Zoltar machine wishing to return to my childhood. I sat cross-legged on the floor far too close to the TV and enjoyed the world of Mario.

Super Mario Brothers 1 required players to always move forward, never backward off frame. This let players know that the important thing was exploration and continuing down the rails of the game experience. Super Mario Brothers 3 rocked my world because it not only allowed me to go backwards on levels (and sometimes required me to) but the ability to navigate a map and choose which level I wanted to play. Sure it was still a limited pool of options but at the time it felt like a completely open world for me to explore.

As I played again, I found myself doing things without thinking. Ducking bad guys and jumping traps without thinking, pure muscle memory from twenty years ago. I played Super Mario Brothers during my formative years, the time when ‘my brain was a sponge’ and I have, in the annals of my mind, locked away hundreds if not thousands of facts and tricks to the game.

Meanwhile I can barely remember what I ate for dinner three nights ago.

Super Mario Brothers 3 - 1-2

Last night though I can clearly remember it. After playing on Friday and then leaving the Nintendo on overnight I sat down and beat Super Mario Brothers 3 on my first play through. I think it took roughly four hours of play. I beat every airship, though I had two warp whistles I didn’t use a single one. I kept maybe half a dozen levels unbeaten since I could bypass them, and then on level 8 I put to use the clouds and skipped several of the levels. Oh, and I got 30 extra lives on level 1-2.

Beating Bowser on Super Mario Brothers 3 is a theoretically simple task: You have to use Bowser’s size against himself. Every time he lands you want him to land on the bricks such that he breaks a level of them. The area you face him on is three rows deep, so you need him to land in the same area three times. When he does, he falls through and tumbles to his death. It’s easy enough once you understand how it’s done, but definitely still requires twitch timing. And I did it in the first go.

When this screen came up I had a gut wrenching moment of panic trying to remember if indeed this was just another castle, but thankfully it wasn’t. And I was left to enjoy the end of this epic love story.

Super Mario Brothers 3 Win Screen

This screen is literally the end of the game. There’s no denouement sort of wrap up, or epilogue. In today’s world where usually there is a story of richly animated wrap-up, this brief finale made me laugh out loud. The NES is my time machine, transporting me back to my childhood, and reminding me just how amazing many video games of that era were are.

Thanks to my brother Adam and my sister Charlotte for their assistance and proofreading this post.

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