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How Super Mario Changed My Life

Part One: A childhood saviour who brought a family together

James Burns
Sep 18 · 6 min read

I don’t believe in fate. The real beauty of the future is that it has yet to be written. The road only emerges , and not before. I like thinking about the future this way; far from seeing a linear path disappearing over the horizon ahead of me, I see an endless network of futures. A possibility space.

Perhaps we are tempted to think of time as a linear stream of predictable or fated events because of how we regard the present and the past. I’m now 37 years old. I’m sure my life have turned out any number of different ways. Sheer dumb luck is, of course, the biggest contributor here; I didn’t get to choose my country of birth, or my parents, or my gender, or anything else about myself. Even my innate talents and motivations aren’t exactly by me; they are simply the hand I’ve been dealt. Similarly, many of the pivotal events that shaped my life are — if you really interrogate them — . There’s absolutely no reason these events have unfolded the way they did. In my view, the element of chance or luck makes these events profound.

Hello, Mario

One of the most influential events in my life happened in 1988. I met .

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World 1–1 is the most thoroughly analysed design in video game history.

I was at a birthday party. Even now, I vividly remember walking up the driveway of my friend’s house with my mum. An unfortunate soul in a Humphrey B. Bear costume was being accosted from all directions from sugar-fuelled kids. The remainder of the party is a series of vignettes, as memories from early childhood tend to be. At some stage during the party I’d gone inside the house, and I was standing in a large rumpus room. I distinctly remember it being cavernous and empty (maybe the furniture had been wisely shifted out of harm’s way). Most kids were still outside. A couple of stragglers had broken away from the group. One was sitting on a chair in front of a small TV. The other was standing next to them, excitedly pointing at the screen. Curiosity drew me in. I peered over their shoulders and my jaw dropped.

I will forget my first glimpse of For years I have struggled to find the words to articulate my feelings in that moment. I was only five years old, so I certainly wasn’t marvelling at “stunning graphics” or anything like that. I remember feeling that I was looking at some kind of advanced . Prior to , I’d had very little exposure to video games. Most of what I’d played had been highly rudimentary and abstract. But here was this little man in the TV, his tiny little legs enthusiastically carrying him in all directions. He occupied a world that was . The picture kept moving beyond the physical boundaries of the TV itself. It wasn’t a video game in my five year old mind; it was a little diorama, a window into a seemingly endless little world.


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I’m pretty sure I had the Action Set. Note this is the Mattel version. Nintendo did not open an official Australian subsidiary until 1993.

Adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom

The spectacle of a five-year-old almost jumping out of his skin, arms flailing, stuttering his way through a description of a plumber, magic mushrooms, and flying turtle shells obviously had an impact on my parents. I can’t be sure how big the gap was between the party and taking ownership of a Nintendo Entertainment System of my own — but it can’t have been long.

World 1–1 soon became almost another room in the house. I was lucky enough to have a small TV in my room, which meant I could get up early on weekends (something I haven’t done in a very long time) to re-join Mario and friends. At this point I was familiar with Worlds 1–1 and 1–2. Then, one fateful morning, I somehow found myself high among the trees. World 1–3.

I distinctly remember pausing the game, dropping the controller and barrelling into my parents’ bedroom. They had no idea what I was talking about, but it was as though I’d just discovered .

Over the weeks and months that followed, Mario remained an important staple of daily life for me. But he wasn’t just a fixture in my routine. He soon became a vital lifeline.

It’s not easy to write about this. Even as I compose this sentence, I can feel my chest swell with apprehension.

For the first five years of my life, I was an only child. My sister was born when I was five years old, and in the following years, my parents had another two children. So there are four of us. But in the early years of my life — I’d say really from birth through to maybe age ten or so — our family dynamics were very different. I will just say that I had a very troubled relationship with my father. Or, to be slightly more accurate, he was a troubled man. I love my father very much, and over the years he completely changed course — becoming a man I admire, and enjoy a close relationship with. But it’s nevertheless true that much of my childhood was a confusing blend of light and dark.

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Super Mario Bros. 3. The box is still relatively intact after 30 years.

This is where Mario comes in. At some stage — I’m not exactly sure when — dad began to play with me. This was a small miracle for two reasons. First, many of our interactions during my childhood were terrifying. And secondly, my dad only has the use of one hand (his right hand and forearm had become paralysed during a motorbike accident before I was born). The NES controller was just small enough, and just simple enough, for him to lay it flat on his thigh and play using one hand.

We spent many nights playing the game together. He always let me play as Mario.

If you look at my recent text messages with dad, you’ll see many of them are still about Mario. I am nearly forty years old and my dad is in his 60s. Mario is still standing between us, holding out his gloved hands, ensuring we never stray too far from each other.

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I’d feel completely satisfied to end the story here, but there’s a lot more to say; Mario and Nintendo influenced my adult life just as much as my childhood. In part two I’ll discuss working at Nintendo, and the way this shaped my career to the present day. Thanks for reading.


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