Thursday, January 6, 2011

On Super Mario All-Stars (Wii) and Nostalgia

My girlfriend's sister bought me Super Mario All-Stars - a limited edition game for the Nintendo Wii - for Christmas. I was excited for it for a few reasons: 1) I love the games. 2) Since it was a "limited edition," I tracked it on Amazon, and it looked like it sold out on several occasions... so I was genuinely surprised when I opened the present, and 3) The disc came with a couple of extras, which I will talk about later.

But first, the games. As anyone who grew up with video games of the late 1980's can attest, Mario 1 and Mario 3 are untouchable. They are simply two of the greatest games ever created. I never really cared for the acid trip that was Mario 2, but that's beside the point. Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels is infuriating, and I'm glad my younger self never got the chance to play that game because I'm pretty sure controllers and possibly televisions would have been broken. No matter what, this particular collection of games is worth the price.

It should be noted that I indeed have Mario All-Stars for the SNES emulator on my "homebrewed" Wii. So I didn't exactly need this disc, but the extras included pushed my desire for it over the top.

The thing I was most excited about was the soundtrack disc that was included. Music from the Mario games is iconic and embedded in my consciousness. Unfortunately, only half the disc -- 10 tracks -- is made up of actual music, and even that has a lot left to be desired. It pretty much begins and ends with the basic themes of all the games from the NES days up through Super Mario Galaxy on Wii. It's still a pretty cool thing to have but I was left wanting more. As for the other half of the disc? Sound effects. That's right: If you've always wanted high-quality audio of Mario hitting a coin box or descending a warp pipe, your desires have been satisfied.

So I moved on to the booklet, hoping for some insights as to why Mario became so popular or how the programmers went about actually making the game. Instead we get a bunch of drawings, and some one or two-sentence quips from the producer or music director. In a word: disappointing.

Nintendo had a chance to do something really special with its greatest franchise, all centered around a set of games that are nearly flawless. Instead, they swung -- not for the fences, mind you, but more of an "excuse-me" swing -- and whiffed hard. They didn't even bother to change the title screen which still reads "copyright 1993," nor did they change the directions in-game from an SNES pad to the Wiimote. Even the little things were missed. I'm not sure I agree with the "F" the Onion AV Club gave it, but it wasn't a whole hell of a lot better. It was a money-grab, plain and simple, and not a particularly good attempt at one.

Yet, I will still come back to the game time and again... because of nostalgia.

(I'll warn you now: This part will bum you out.)

I used to think the sole reason for nostalgia -- specifically of the childhood variety -- was because we look back at that time in our lives with such wistfulness. It was idyllic and carefree. Of course, the truth is that though there were certainly good times as children, it wasn't always great. It could have been merely unpleasant; perhaps you were bullied by a bigger kid or got made fun of incessantly by someone. Or maybe it was tragic, like being abused by a parent. Every one of us falls somewhere on that scale, and every one of us found solace in something, whether it be a video game or a baseball card collection or a book. Anything to escape.

Now? We get to worry about bills and jobs and lovers and kids. What is there for us to take solace in? (Yeah, the lover or the kids... but those worry you, remember?) Denis Leary had a good idea when he said that it was (paraphrasing) "A cookie, a cigarette, or an orgasm." Then put on your fucking helmet and go back to work.

Pushing us farther down that road is the sobering thought that everyone and everything we've ever loved will someday die. Jesus. No wonder we cling so desperately to the past despite the fact that life is forever moving forward, a clock that never stops ticking, not even when you do.

Even so, I'll keep right on playing my NES games or listening to 90's alternative rock or anything else that reminds me of a time when the end was light years away. It's no substitute for "now" to be certain, and like the rest of us I'll be rolling with the punches the best I can. But can you really blame me (or anyone else feeling nostalgic) for ducking out of the present every once in a while to embrace the past?

(Coming up next time: More on nostalgia, particularly music and sports. I know it would fit here, but my thoughts on that are still jumbled.)

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