Wednesday, 9 July 2014

And so the Legend Begins

Today, 9th July, marks the birthday of a literal and figurative icon.  He is perhaps the second greatest icon in the history of games.  The character is a plumber by trade, and his task was to climb up a series of ramps, girders, and lifts to rescue a gal kidnapped by a giant gorilla who rolled barrels and oil drums at him.

Originally called only "Jump-man" by the inimical Japanese programmers at Nintendo who created him, Mario is today 33 years old.

According to many - Wikipedia included, the "Mario" franchise is the most lucrative series of games in the history of electronic gaming. Over 33 years, and including five separate branches (Super Mario, Mario Kart, Mario Sports, Mario Party, and Mario RPG) nearly a half a billion units have been sold.  445 million game units have been sold.  By comparison, the second best-selling series - Pokemon - has moved about 250 million.

To people of roughly my age, Mario, Pauline, and Donkey Kong (the 'characters' in the initial game) are sort of cultural talisman.  I was eleven years old in 1981, and I can remember, clearly, the first time I stood in line to put my quarter on the façade of the console, which was the M.O. for those waiting to play.  In truth, it was a token, as the first location in our area to have Donkey Kong was Chuck E. Cheese, itself an icon of the era.  My father had come home, practically beside himself with glee, reporting about the advent of (what he at the time called, erroneously) "Barrell Kong," and described the game he had heard about on the radio on his way home from work.  We were off to Chuck E's a couple of nights later, when Friday arrived.

Chuck E. Cheese, as an aside, was the creation of Nolan Bushnell, the guy who founded Atari in the early 1970s.  Of course, Atari produced what some consider the catalyst of the video game industry, "Pong."  Pong itself debuted in a pizza joint in Sunnyvale, California, less than a mile from the HQ of the company I co-founded twenty years later.  I think it is now a comedy club called Rooster T Feathers; it was when I fled California a few years ago.

The world of nerd-dom truly is flat.

Donkey Kong at the time represented to us a huge breakthrough in games.  The most popular game, Pac Man, was primitive by comparison - here was a game with multiple scenes and a sort of story behind it.

Some months later, a Donkey Kong upright console appeared in the local grocery store; I used to beg my mother for a quarter to play while she did the week's shopping.  It was always a risky proposition, as our town had by then passed an ordinance that those under 15 could not play video games without a parent accompanying them.  I don't know if the city fathers had decided that video games were some sort of mind-altering vice, or if they feared kids would sneak out of school to play.

In any case, the city of North Olmsted, Ohio was just next door, and it had no such restrictions.  And it had the best game room around, so my friends and I would often ride our bicycles out to the mall where "The Great American Game Room" (it was in the food court of the local mall, long ago closed) was located to partake of the corruption.

I must have spent hours and hours playing Donkey Kong, Pac Man, Dig Dug, and later, Zaxxon - itself a marvel of simulated 3D imagery.

It's funny, but I now have a son who is almost nine.  He is close to the age that I was when Mario appeared.  At the time, of course, 'Mario' was "Jump-Man," "Pauline" (the girl Mario tried to save) was simply "Lady," and Luigi did not even exist.  My son loves Mario and all of his worlds.  To my irritation, he spends more than a small amount of time watching a guy called "Zach Scott" (his real name, I think) broadcast recordings of himself playing Mario Brothers, adding an inane commentary.  It's now my turn, I guess, to be annoyed about my son's video game proclivities, just as surely as my own parents were three decades ago.

I do not know if the Nintendo people had even an inkling of what was spawned in July 1981.  I would guess not.

You really never can tell.

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