What makes Mario ‘Super?’
Well, he jumps incredibly high, he can break blocks just by jumping into them, plus he can double his height and throw fire out of his hands with the aid of a mushroom or a flower. By all accounts, that is a fairly super guy. On the other hand, he has incredibly poor control of his own momentum, and he dies upon immediate contact with other living things. There’s relatively little evidence to suggest Mario is anything more than an ordinary human being.
Before embarking on the journey of the Morning Mario, I’d played only recent entries in the series. To me, Mario had always been a game of empowerment, a game which allowed you to feel this precise sense of control, to experience a powerful kinetic force of momentum. I’d compare it to Spider-Man 2, a game literally about experiencing the movement of a superhero. To play Mario – be it the careening straight line of NSMB, or the melancholy tinged planets of Galaxy – is to be super, for just a little while.
This changed for me, with the ritualistic play that I enforced upon myself in going back to the 1985 NES release: Super Mario Bros. No longer was Mario this empowered character that I could control, and in so doing, find an escape. Here, every task presented a new ordeal, the harsh learning curve combined with the lack of structured progression to turn the game into an exercise in failure. I progressed forward, inch by inch, constantly reminded of my fragility and my lack of stability.
At my most powerful, with fire flower in hand, I would step forward even more cautiously, destroying every obstacle no matter how avoidable. The safety net removed, Mario became another constant in my life defined by uncertainty; I would wake up and walk into town, praying that my Employment Support Allowance would be renewed for another two months, then I would return home and record myself playing Mario, hoping I made the jump onto the tiny pillar at the end of world 8-1.
At first, it was difficult to keep going. Sure, all I was doing was playing a video game in what is essentially a safe space, but in so doing I was psychologically forcing my brain through the same patterns that lead to my regular anxiety attacks, my near-constant depressive episodes. What is the function of play when it serves purely to replicate the harmful effects of living unemployed and mentally ill under late capitalism? I get more than enough of that in my day to day.
Eventually, as my good friend and co-host of the show Matt believed, the Morning Mario became therapeutic in a way. I’m not talking prescriptively here, games are not a replacement for legitimate mental health assistance and they never will be. But as a sort of personal exercise, the Morning Mario proved incredibly effective. Having to fail daily, and fail publically with no way to back out or move the goalpost, forced me to confront my daily anxieties, and gave me a safe space to create coping mechanisms that I can attempt to apply to areas of my life with stakes that remain incredibly high.
For example, my brain tends to catastrophize, to treat each failure as unacceptable, no matter how small its effect on my life actually is. My support worker tell me this is an effect of my Aspergers syndrome, that it’s called “rigidity of thinking,” and I should try to forgive myself, work through each change at my own pace. When I miss the platform, I have to remember to tell myself that it’s fine, and I’m going to be trying again tomorrow. When my application for Student Finance is rejected, I have to remember to tell myself that it’s fine, and I’m seeing my support worker tomorrow to discuss and fix the specific problem. When the bus leaves without me, I have to remember to tell myself that it’s fine, and there’s going to be another one in nine minutes.
Much of this came from the unforgiving design of Mario, a game that evolved out of the arcade, near impossible to get from beginning to end on a single quarter (despite the fact that you can’t actually insert quarters into a NES). But I would argue that although the aim of the exercise was to fill gaps in my history and play the Mario games, all these effects would have happened with any other game. For as much as the design of Mario forces the player to find success and learning within every failure, what truly created this therapeutic effect was the daily play. The ritual. The decision to accept a set of circumstances and refuse to change them when they become inconvenient. When changing is not an option, coping is the only other way to adapt.
Matt’s playing CastleVania right now, and going through many of the same trials and tribulations. It’s interesting to watch a completely different person with their unique learned coping mechanisms undergo a similar challenge. This ridiculous retro project the both of us are undertaking has made me realise innately what Matt expressed in his article about Let’s Plays, aptly titled: The Intimate As Public Display. Games are not things we play, they are things we play with, and no matter how trivial the context, there always exists an intimate relationship between the player and the game. How could there not be? I have to invest my energy into a game in order to give it weight and meaning, for otherwise I’m just pressing buttons and turning pixels different colours upon a screen. I’m not sharing a playthrough of Mario; I’m sharing my processing of failure, my learning and my eventual success. The game is simply an effective conduit.
One ‘season’ in, I’m going to call the Morning Mario a resounding success, and I’m excited to continue when Dracula falls to Simon Belmont’s hand. I was scared upon beginning this ridiculous quest that I’d push people away with a series that invited people to witness my vulnerability, so I’m even more glad that it’s been my most well-received piece of video work yet. Thank you for coming on this silly little journey with me, it’s fun for all, and it’s helping me grow. Soon, we shall awake in a dream land of Shy Guys and Birdo, for the Mario Never Ends…
(Oh, the answer to “What Makes Mario Super?” is ‘Me,’ by the way. I wasn’t gonna close with it because it’s the cheesiest thing on earth and you all guessed already, but, well, here we are. You happy? Good. I’m off to bed. See you in the morning.)
Jackson’s work on Abnormal Mapping is funded by Patreon. If you enjoy it, and want to see it continue, then click here to help fund him!