Life, death, Super Mario Bros.

I started thinking about life and death way too early in life, and it’s all because of Super Mario Bros. I remember being really little and having my mom try to explain life and death to me in a way that was mostly harmless. When you die you go to heaven. It seemed like a satisfying enough explanation at the time.

But then when I started playing video games I remember the bigger picture coming sharply into focus. Before my family had a Nintendo we just had a Gameboy. Everybody knows Nintendo’s title character Mario, and how in his first game, Super Mario Land, you run from one end of the screen to the other, jumping on bad guys, landing on platforms, eventually making it all the way across to the other side.

And playing that game really made me start thinking about death. It wasn’t when Mario got killed by an enemy or fell down a hole. That wasn’t really death. There were always one-ups to find, extra lives to spend. Even if you totally ran out, you could always just reset and start over. No, what really got to me was the timer on the top right of the screen. If you didn’t get to the end of the level by the time the clock ran out, you just dropped dead right where you stood.

Even worse, as the clock got closer to zero hour, the game kind of paused for a second, and this nervous high-anxiety music clip would play, telling you, “Shit dude, you’re almost out of time. Let’s get going, now!” And then for the rest of that level, as if to heighten the stress, everything would play in fast-motion. Like not only are you almost out of time, but the little time that you have left is going to seem like much, much less.

It sucked because, especially if you were a little kid, and you hadn’t yet mastered the hand-eye coordination necessary to make it to the end of the game, every once in a while you’d finally get past that Ancient Egypt level, to that world where there are little pixies that hop across the screen. And you just wanted to look about and enjoy it for a minute, to try and discover hidden passageways, secret coins. But you couldn’t, because if you spent too much time f’ing around, you’d run out of seconds and it would be all downhill from there.

Or even worse, those levels where you’re in a submarine or an airplane and the board kind of scrolls by itself. You just move up and down and shoot bad guys, and the map moves forward whether you like it or not. At least you can’t run out of time here, but every minute or so a wall made out of blocks comes at you from the right. And so you have to shoot a perfect path across, so when the wall finally gets to where you’re at, you can hopefully slip through the hole that you made or you get crushed. These are all pretty literally representations of time and space and life and death, and I really did understand them at some level, even though I wasn’t even ten years old. The feelings of dread that I got back then, although I’m only able to correctly label them now, they’re the same exact feelings that I get as an adult when I wake up at four in the morning short of breath, dry in the mouth, realizing that my life is this huge illusion, a blip on the cosmic map of what is and what isn’t.

I assume through stuff that I’ve read or conversations that I’ve had that some people go through their whole lives without worrying about stuff like this. Maybe these people didn’t play Super Mario Land as a little kid. Maybe it was holding this little world in my hands, in grayscale, with a very finite amount of time to complete a very simple set of objectives. And even if I did somehow manage to beat the clock, and the wall, and Tatanga, there wasn’t even a guarantee that the batteries would last to the end. We even had this expansion battery pack for our Gameboy that held like eight D batteries. Where was all of the energy getting sucked out to? Why was this thing perpetually running out of juice?

But nothing in Super Mario Land made me feel as helpless as when I’d play Super Mario 2 for the NES. Anybody who grew up in my generation remembers how, after getting through the easy, intro levels, Mario 2 got really hard. There were all of these doors and rooms and you needed specific keys to open everything up. Anyway, there were these certain keys guarded by these circular statues. They weren’t threatening at all, until you touched the key they were there to protect. Once you picked it up, these statues came to life and started flying through the air. They’d fly by once, do a little circle move, try to kill you, and then fly off screen. And they’d keep coming back, following you, terrorizing you for the rest of that level. You couldn’t kill them, you couldn’t shake them, you just had to hope and try and jump out of the way.

And I’d get these same feelings, a huge hole emerging in the depths of my stomach, a physical sensation that I was getting sucked through this hole from the inside out. And again, hindsight is key here, but it’s the same fear of death, fear of time. The knowledge that as much as I’d like to stop time or make it go away or try to get out of its line of sight, I can’t. It’s just going to keep coming. And I can’t jump on it or make it go away and one day that’s going to be it.

And as a little kid these statues would follow me after I had unplugged the Nintendo. I’d imagine them in the periphery of my vision, always far enough behind me that I couldn’t quite get a fix on their exact location, but gaining on me, picking up speed. As much as I wanted to hide away or outrun them or whatever, they were just coming at me, this slow steady pace.

Whenever I’m walking or riding my bike and I’m on a path or a long road where I can see far ahead of me and far behind me, I always get that same sensation, like I’m Super Mario and I’m on the one of those linear levels, and I can see in front of me, all the way toward the end of the path, and I see where I’m at, somewhere, and I’ll look behind to where the road meets at the horizon and I always feel like I can see those same statues moving towards me, far away for now but moving in, closer and closer, steady as she goes and coming at you fast.

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