I was four years old in 1985 when the Nintendo Entertainment System was released, which means I had an awesome Christmas that year as well as many, many years afterwards. What can I say? Everything important I learned came from lessons in 8-bit graphics.
Of course, the system came with Super Mario Bros., one of the acknowledged greatest games of all time. Even three decades later, I can still take that first level with my damned eyes closed. That's because way back in the day, the people who made home consoles forgot that you no longer made money by intentionally killing the lead character as often as possible.
It meant that every single tiny mistake sent you right back to the beginning. Of the game. It was a horrible, sadistic way to treat your customer base since only perfect memorization, reaction speed and timing could save you.
I decided it was time to see how my own offspring would do against the unforgiving hoards of the Koopa Troop.
It's not her first video game. I got sent several 2K releases of Nick Jr. shows like Team Umizoomi and Bubble Guppies for 3DS a while back and she took to those like Frog Mario to water. Those games, by the way, are excellent for small children because they teach math, patterns, movement and other whole educational television lessons with the easy-to-use interface of the 3DS stylus.
They're also boring as shit. You can't lose, everyone is pleasant and helpful, and there are no bad guys. As a learning tool, they are amazing. As games, they reek.
Though I killed the disc drive on my Wii after playing, oh, 400 hours of Xenoblade Chronicles on it without ever removing the disc, the virtual console still works just fine. Add to that the fact that the Wii controller is functionally identical to the original NES controller, and re-creating my own childhood after a brief download duration was a snap.
Now, I've also got New Super Mario Bros for 3DS as well, and part of me wondered if I should go with that instead of the classic. It's prettier, after all, and more in keeping with graphical norms that she's used to.
Within moments of her trying out the original, though, I knew I'd made the right decision. True, Mario games look better than they ever have, but there is something so accessible about that simple 8-bit color palette that clearly speaks to young children. There are no blurred lines. Everything is simple, definite and finite.
Having grown used to the stylus-based interface of the 3DS, the idea of moving with the d-pad using your left thumb and hitting the buttons with your right did not come naturally to her, and it was just plain weird to me how watching her have to think and look down to check her hand position pulled me right back through the many years to the days when my own hand-eye coordination was still in development.
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There is something in playing an actual game where you struggle against an enemy that just cannot be replicated in a purely educational mode. Of course she died a dozen times before she ever got anywhere, but on that 13th attempt, she just managed to accidentally hit the jump right at the moment when it would stomp that poor first goomba. I truly believe that bad people are reincarnated as that mushroom.
Emboldened by that success, I watched her grin huge as she started racing through the level, jumping pipes and gaps, avoiding or killing her enemies, and learning that terrible lesson that once upon a time you also couldn't go backwards in a sidescroller. It was exhilarating. Yes, learning math is important, but learning to bend a world to your will is also important. Learning to be the hero against overwhelming odds is important. Learning to recognize enemies? Really, really important.
Unfortunately, I also got to watch that frustration born of brutal, unforgiving games grow on her face and being expressed in deep sighs of "Ughhhhh." That's something I remember, too. In fact, my father refused to buy me wireless controllers as a kid because of a bad habit of throwing the ones I had when I missed particularly difficult jumps or encountered those birds in Ninja Gaiden. There's a white-hot rage that takes over your mind when you realize that essentially a cartoon is kicking your ass, and that is a difficult thing to wrap your head around when you're a kid.
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Through luck or genetic memory, the kid managed to make it all the way to the flagpole at the end of World 1-1, igniting the triumphant victory fireworks. I have a theory that everyone gets fireworks their first time. The victory yell that accompanied her beating that level was louder and more exuberant than any I have ever heard her make over an educational accomplishment.
She kicked ass...then she died and had to do it all over again because when you consider World 1-2 objectively, you realize that the difficulty ramps up ridiculously from the level you just finished. She started over again a few times until she decided to have a tea party instead.
How much good or ill video games do young minds is still as hotly debated as it was when I was a kid. All I know is, I have never had a better time being Luigi to someone's Mario than I did sitting next to my own kid as we saved a princess rather than pretending to be one for a change.