It’s unusually quiet in the Italian diner. The lights are dimmed and only flickering candles in tacky glass bottles illuminate the place. The buzz from the street outside is sparsely heard. It’s February and cold. Nobody wants to be out.
The waiter comes and fills a glass with red wine for me.
“Garlic bread, sir?”
The patron of the joint stands at the bar and his piercing eyes scan the room, he’s not in a good mood. Italian music plays in the kitchen. When the waiter goes to fetch my basket of bread I can hear it for a
moment as the door swings open and close.
Then, a tiny figure appears in the doorway. The silhouette steps out of the shadows and joins me at my table. “It’s-a me, Mario!”
Mario hops on the chair across my table and greets me with a smile. His bushy moustache curls up and he politely taps his plumber hat.
“Hello, Mario”, I say with a hint of contempt, not unlike the infamous “Hello, Newman” from Seinfeld. Nintendo’s flagship protagonist does not seem to notice it. He greedily digs his hands in the bread basket and starts munching on the freshly brought garlic bread.
“Anything to drink for you, Mr Mario?” says the waiter who just brought the crunchy refreshments.
“So, why do you hate me?”
We both got a glass of wine and made our orders. The basket is already empty. I try to get a little more comfortable, and give my table guest the benefit of the doubt. But it’s not easy.
“I don’t hate you, Mario. I just don’t understand why everybody loves you so much.”
Mario gives me a concerned look. A bit like an uncle who hears his nephew is really into UFO watching.
“People like me because I have been with them all their life. Since they were kids they played my games.” The spaghetti arrives. I have pasta with pesto and beef, Mario picked tomato and cheese.
“Yeah see, I never had a Nintendo as a kid”, I explain. “I played on the PC. I grew up with Wolfenstein 3D, Commander Keen, King’s Quest and Gabriel Knight.”
“But then you should be able to relate!” Mario exclaims. He is a bit irritated now. Perhaps assumed I didn’t understand nostalgia at all. He has a point of course. I shouldn’t be annoyed because people have a different experience than me.
“But it’s more than that”, I sputter, searching for words. “People claim some sort of superiority because they played Mario back in the day. You’ve become some sort of mascot for arrogant conservative gamers that don’t want things to change. Because your games didn’t have checkpoints, regenerating health and infinite lives.”
Now it’s Mario’s turn to be lost for words. He mumbles a bit, takes a bite of pasta and finishes his wine.
“I see your point!” he finally says. “But that’s something I never asked for. I just want to be fun game character. That’s what my games have always been about. Uncomplicated, straight forward fun. Maybe you associate me with gatekeepers and petty nerds, but Mario games are the most accessible of all. Casuals, old school gamers, children. I’m for everyone.”
“I loved Mario back in the day!” The patron suddenly says. He paces towards our table and refills our glasses. “This is on the house. Mario, I love you. These new games with all the violence, I don’t understand. But I remember being a little boy and playing on the SNES!”
“See?!” I say when he’s off again. “That’s the other thing. Whenever I’m talking about my hobby, about modern games, there’s non-gamers that don’t understand it. And then they just reminiscence about their childhood and playing Nintendo. People don’t get it, they think videogames are dumb toys or something.”
“Oh now who’s the gatekeeper?” Mario scoffs and sips from his freshly poured wine. “Can we get some olives over here?”
The patron hurries to bring a bowl to our table. Olives, mozzarella and pickled tomatoes. Mario’s just abusing his popularity now.
“These people just like old games and you get all haughty that they don’t want to play your favourites.”
“Okay, fair enough.” I chuckle and scoop a few olives from the bowl. The little plumber might be acting a bit cocky now but he has a point. I must admit I underestimated him. I give him an observing stare: neatly dressed, washed and groomed, that moustache is always well kept. I suspect he comes from a conservative family, Roman catholic probably. His mother is one of those stereotypical Italian moms. That’s why Mario is always so bound on saving Princess Peach, being chivalrous with the ladies was part of his upbringing.
“Okay, but riddle me this”, I say. “People always admire the fluent gameplay of your titles. But artistically, purely looking at the narrative, the lore and the artistic direction of your games. It’s always the same. It’s always this colourful world, the same characters with their cartoony interactions. It has the depth of a pancake.”
Mario is surprisingly fast with his reply.
“Does that bother you? Maybe that’s just the type of game people want.”
“Yeah, well, maybe. But other games don’t get the same credits. Unravel was released last week, and people praise its looks and its atmosphere, its originality. But the reviews still note that the gameplay could be better, that the puzzles are too simplistic. They don’t cut it the same slack they do with you. No reviewer ever mentioned you and Luigi and Bowser are always the same, lazily recycled characters with no meaningful story behind them. There’s no review saying: New Mario game, excellent gameplay, but could use some work in terms of originality.”
Mario shrugs his shoulders and chews his food. I see in his eyes that I hit a painful spot. He doesn’t like to talk about this.
“Maybe”, he says curtly and immediately takes another bite. “But that’s the credits I built up over three decades. Don’t you think I deserve that? Yarny is cute, but a newcomer. You can’t expect people to love him immediately as much as they love me. Unravel needs to build a reputation. But I doubt it will grow in such established franchise as mine.”
“Well yeah”, I sneer, “because you didn’t have much competition. It was you and Sonic. If you were to make your debut now, it would be ten times harder.”
“Absolutely, but I inspired many other games. They all profit from the pioneering I did.”
Ouch. He has me in a tight spot now.
“But you don’t have to be a dick about it!” My reply sounds petty I regret it immediately.
“Well yeah, some people are dicks”, says Mario and shrugs again. “But you just keep doing your stuff, and write about all your favourite games.”
“Okay, and you just continue bouncing off turtles”, I say and chuckle. We toast.
“You’re okay, Mario”, I say. “But I’m still not a fan.”
“That’s okay”, says Mario, we just come from a different place. “Thanks for the pasta.”