Semaj comes over to my apartment every other Thursday evening, and we play video games. Two men in their mid to early forties doing the same thing as 14-year-olds. Except when I was 14, I was in the Midwest. Semaj grew up in a town outside of Manchester. He has a favorite football (soccer) club, thinks driving on the left side of the road is normal, and pronounces things like pa-stuh.
‘You know,’ he confesses to me, ‘I never beat Super Mario Bros. 3.’ “You never beat Super Mario Bros. 3?” I am astonished. He never beat the NES opus, the 8-bit idée fixe. In my mind, that’s like finding out that someone never visited Disneyland, owned throwing stars, or was brave enough to jump their BMX over a board propped up against a milk crate. His childhood seems incomplete to me.
The next time he comes over I download SMB3 for my Nintendo Switch. We take turns playing. Each time someone dies or beats a stage, you hand over the controller. On my turn, I screw up the control for wagging Raccoon Mario’s tail and drop into a pit. Immediately, Semaj chides. ‘You’re not very good are you?’ “Give me a break. I haven’t played this in 30 years!” Him expecting me to start playing the game like I did when I was 14 is like asking me to sit up from the couch and do a front jump kick and hit the top of the door frame.
I could do these things with ease when I was 14, but there have been three decades of experiences between then and now. I moved away from my hometown in the Upper Peninsula, went to college, and got my high school girlfriend pregnant. Then there was a recession and a paycheck-to-paycheck grind for me.
I was deeply depressed, so I went back to school, earned a Master’s Degree, got a job at a university, got divorced, and then was deeply depressed again. But, I slowly put my life back together, spent time with my sons on the weekend, and worked on paying down my arrears.
Before moving to Qatar, my life was like all eight worlds of SMB3. I was collecting coins, jumping over koopas, and avoiding thwomps that would send me back to the beginning of the stage. The game never seemed to end. I wonder how the Italian plumber has managed to do it all these years. Every time he reaches the end of the world, Toad is frantic; another king has been transformed, another wand needs to be recovered, another Sisyphean boss stage for Mario to surmount.
“So, Semaj, why weren’t you ever able to beat this game?” ‘I didn’t know about warp whistles. I played the stages straight through. Could only make it to World 6, the ice stages.’
Ah, warp whistles. Good for jumping forward in the game but not for going back, back to easier stages. Back to a melioristic beginning, when the world is greenier, the enemies are more predictable, and the player doesn’t realize the difficulties that awaits a spry racoon-tailed Mario, who will never know the stress and emotions that gamers suffers on behalf of the sempiternal plumber.