Dreams Cannot Be Shared: Super Mario Bros 2 and Living Memory

SMB2 gifI really like platformers in general, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Super Mario Bros 2 for the NES. It’s perhaps the game I played most on the NES growing up, a game I would return to again and again. It didn’t have the arcade brevity (and punishing difficulty) of the original Super Mario Bros, and it wasn’t the lengthy, (for the time) epic quest that SMB3 represented. It nestled comfortably in the middle, weird and unassuming, a game that was quintessentially un-Mario in its origin and mechanics, and because of (in spite of, if you’re not feeling generous) those differences, it’s quite possibly my favorite 2D Mario game.

I played through the majority of SMB2 in a single sitting as a way to reflect on some of the difficulties Jackson’s been having with the game, and spent much of the time talking about why the game is special to me, but I will reiterate in brief: by removing a timer and making many of the enemies relatively passive, SMB2 is a game that rewards a sort of experimentation of its limited mechanics. Finding secret mushrooms behind magical doors, riding enemies and projectiles across gaps and over spikes, leaping (with Peach, always) into the void in hopes that on the far side of the wrong way to go will be a secret—Super Mario Bros 2 is a game that unfolds its dreamlike narrative with a dreamlike logic that nearly requires you to simply surrender to its whim and take an inquisitive, fast-footed and clear-headed approach to rolling with the punches. It’s too thinky to be a twitch game, but too demanding to be a puzzle platformer, which means that it stands astride the two countries of platformer design and dares to try to marry the two.

I loved this strange mishmash of ideas as a kid, but as an adult I find it even more intriguing in how it evokes the design of Super Mario 64 and 3D Land. The 2D level is turned into a sort of de facto playground, where the malleable rules and constantly strange design asks you to play with its shifting demands as though it were a space made for your expression. You can float across whole segments as Peach, or get down and dirty with Toad to sprint headlong into every obstacle, tethered to the ground through a paltry jump. It is an open-endedness that defines those really stellar moments in 3D Mario, when challenges become not just about the destination but the surprising moments you have trying to get there. Jumping on the spouts of whales and pulling up a turnip only to manifest a rocket ship isn’t that different than in Super Mario 64 when you first leap into a hidden painting disguised as a wall, or in Mario Galaxy when you realize that an Ice Flower allows you to ice skate over water, twirling for no other reason than twirling is beautiful and freeing. Super Mario Bros 2 has that same sense of play, narrower due to the more focused scope of games of the era, but no less potent for it’s limitations.

But watching Jackson has thrown all these opinions into disarray. He’s been struggling through SMB2 for over a month now, and while he’s getting better his episodes have been an exercise in frustration for both he and I. Him, because without the open summer days and childlike tenacity I had back in the day the game has become a slog of seemingly ceaseless punishments and arbitrary rug-pulling. Me, because I have to watch something I have a lot of nostalgia for disappear under the harsh light of Jackson’s lived experience. I joke that he’s just bad at video games, but honestly we’re just good at different video games, but in the moment I watch as something I feel deeply about gets needled to death by a child who is playing it wrong. And as much as I know that’s a bad way to think, for his sake including my own, emotionally it’s such a struggle to grapple with his troubles and frustrations in a way that is healthy.

Jackson wrote about his experience with Super Mario Bros during his first morning video, and I talked to him about how perhaps confronting failure daily might help him feel better about some of his anxieties. I wonder how selfish that idea was, thinking that if I could have done something of course he could do the same thing. I know he did feel some of that during his experience, but he went through that experience and then dashed himself upon the rocks of a second challenge without the promise of a new lesson to learn. It’s courageous, but I sit here watching it morning after morning and I wonder if perhaps I haven’t enabled something that is legitimately hurting my friend. We’re both the type to consider a series like that honor-bound now that it’s begun, but that isn’t a commendable trait really. So I’m left wondering how this romp down memory lane for me, and this educational field trip for him, managed to go so wrong.

So much of being a gamer (games enthusiast, game player, whatever term you want) for your entire life is building up this canon in your head of the games that are Important. It almost always coincides nicely with the games you played growing up, but that’s only been ‘fine’ as long as the idea of someone’s gaming history lined up nicely with everyone else’s. Growing up we argued over Nintendo and Sega, but now I’m increasingly confronted with the idea that there’s a whole generation of adults who grew up after that question was even relevant, with their own gaming canon that seems alien and strange compared to my own. The games Jackson grew up with were games that I scoffed at as a snooty teen, too cool for Halo and Tony Hawk. Everyone was too deep in their Nth Final Fantasy to care about games like that.

I realize that this article sounds like an old person complaining that kids like different things, but I want to stress that it’s not exactly that. It’s that our gaming culture is built around a sort of presumption, though, that the important games are the games on the lists, and everything else floats by the wayside. I dragged Jackson through Link to the Past not because it was important, but because it was a childhood game I loved, but honestly wasn’t its importance part of that decision? How many times in that episode did I refer to LttP as the greatest game ever, even half-jokingly? And we picked a game like Planescape: Torment not because we were enthusiastic about it, but because it was on a list. It turned out to be great, but that wasn’t a guarantee and I still wonder how much we picked that game in good faith versus just picking a significant game to pick it. I don’t know how to undo that idea of what is and isn’t worthwhile, though, without blowing the whole thing up into pure anarchic whim when it comes to picking games.

We could do that, certainly, but we’ve also got a show to produce that people want to listen to, so some consideration has to be made towards that from time to time, right? And if all the games we choose are subject to the idea of canon and significance, how do we move beyond that into a more earnest approach? Our offline episode with Lana Polansky, and our trek through Mike Joffe’s games, are probably the purest examples of this possibility, granted by the personalities we brought on board. Maybe we should just lose ourselves in itch.ios forever? That’s honestly appealing, at least from a time commitment, but that’s not exactly what we advertise this podcast as.

All that navel-gazing about the podcast aside, I’m left wondering how to bridge the gap. Jackson had a brief moment in a recent episode where he realized the possibilities of Super Mario Bros 2, where the game suddenly clicked for him the way it always has for me. But then it was buried under the haze of uncertain territory and his wave of frustration at the game, and the possibilities shrank back down to the grind. That moment, watching it click only to dissolve under the game, lead me to write this piece. I think back to when we played Link to the Past, I think about how I’m struggling to wrap my head around Jackson’s beloved Tony Hawk’s Project 8, and I wonder if games can even be shared across time and experience like you would a beloved movie or book. Games are so predicated on prior experience and contextual understanding to even engage with them that the cost of going back in time is so high as to be nearly impossible. It’s not just that we as a culture fetishize new games, it’s that old games are not just hard to get a hold of but also hard to enjoy on their own terms if you didn’t grow up with them.

Nostalgia is a fragile castle that we put many of our most precious personal emotions and memories into, believing that the things we hold dear are somehow dependent upon the media they’re attached to. I know, logically, speaking to you here, that this is an impossible dream. You can’t expect everyone to share your feelings on the things you held dear when you were young. But emotionally, I feel a great sadness in how endless the struggle seems, to reach out across the years and the differences, to try to reach for a shared connection that literally cannot exist in the way our hearts want it to. I can’t make Jackson like SMB2, just like he can’t make me like Tony Hawk, and just like all of us can’t make people like the things that everyone loves passionately. But we have to try, because we want to be brought closer, and the inevitable failure is a friction that wears on all of us to some degree. How could it not?

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