Super Mario Dad: How Video Games Helped Shape the Writer Within

It was Christmas, back in either 1986 or 1987, when my Dad was finally able to save up enough money working as a chef at Dino’s Restaurant on a bustling Central Avenue in Jersey City to surprise me with my first ever video game console––the original 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. Prior to that, my video game experience was limited to watching my older brother and sister play Pong and E.T. the Extra Terrestrial on their Atari 2600. It would be years later, after my Mom passed on and my brother and sister moved away that I would befriend a boy named Jeremy who introduced me to the game that shaped my adolescence and unlocked my creative potential. That game was Super Mario Bros.

I was enthralled by the strangely enchanted Mushroom Kingdom and its magical Fire Flowers and dancing Stars; a realm teeming with more and more wonder with every world completed and danger lurking behind every corner, from sour-pussed Goombas to man-eating Piranha Plants and big bad Bowser himself. And at the very end, a princess waiting for her shining knight––a stout little plumber named Mario.

The little plumber that could.

These were the pre-16- and 64-bit Nintendo days, before Wario Land and all the other Mario sequels and spin-offs. These were days when two red buttons and a control pad had the power to connect players to a realm of imagination and boundless possibilities, and all I wanted was to fully immerse myself in Mario’s trippy, pixelated world over and over again. And on Christmas Eve of 1986 or 1987, it seemed more within my grasp than ever before.

The next morning, I unwrapped that massive present and shuffled past the NES console, two controllers, the Zapper, Robotic Operating Buddy (R.O.B.), and two other games, Duck Hunt and Gyromite, searching for the key to my Mushroom World. You can imagine my disdain when I didn’t find Super Mario Bros. anywhere in that box. Now don’t get me wrong, those two other games gave me hours of enjoyment zapping ducks and mazing my way through red and blue columns. But it wasn’t long after the holidays that I asked my Dad if we could go to Toys R Us and buy a new game.

But that game wouldn’t be Super Mario Bros. either! Through a simple mistake, we ended up buying Mario Bros. instead. Again, I was a bit disheartened when I saw a frumpy little Mario jumping up knocking turtles and crabs onto their backs and kicking them into oblivion instead of the fireball-hurling “Super” Mario resolved to rescue the beautiful Princess Toadstool from the scaly clutches of Bowser. This version seemed too mundane for me, I suppose, and at the time, boring.

The original arcade sensation!

But in a way, it was this lower profile prequel that would prove most special to me. Of all the games I came to own––classics like The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and yes, eventually Super Mario Bros.––the only one my Dad would play with me was Mario Bros.. We would play every day for an hour or two once I got home from school. I soon found that I was spending more time indoors with a controller in my hand than outdoors with my friends. More importantly, I was spending time with my Dad, which I came to appreciate in the years to follow. There were even days when I’d come home and find my fifty-something year old father hunched in front of the old rabbit-eared 13-inch TV in my room playing a few rounds by himself and racking up the high score. Once he’d get snipped by a crab or scorched by a fireball, I’d opt in as Luigi for a few phases, and afterward he’d cook up a hearty dinner and I’d run off to start my homework.

Then came the 1990s, and throughout my grunge and college years, I started to miss the old Mario Bros. days with my Dad, and no other Mario-based game came close. Super Mario Land for the original Game Boy was a swell play, what with Mario flying a plane and all, and Super Mario World shone through in 16 bits of glory, was all that and a dinosaur named Yoshi. But I missed the simpler life of ridding the sewers of pesky critters while collecting some coin. So at one point, I went out and bought a Game Boy Advance just so I could play Super Mario Advance, which included a pretty faithful version of the 8-bit classic alongside my all-time favorite Mario game, Super Mario Bros. 2. Even now, I might still cave in to the urge to run to the nearest store and pick up a Wii if Nintendo had reissued a new version of Mario Bros.; or I might ask to borrow my friend Greg’s Virtual Boy and spend hours staring into the red three-dimensional void playing Mario Clash.

But then again, I might not.

Creatively, I owe a lot to my Dad and Super Mario and all those old school side-scrollers I played when I was a kid. They opened my mind to worlds hitherto unknown and helped me create worlds using words instead of pencils (my first artistic passion was drawing.) It was the Castlevania game series by Konami that got me writing stories in the first place. I used the characters of Simon Belmont and Dracula and many of the myriad monsters in between to pen my own original tales around them on an DOS word processor while waiting for my sister-in-law to finish work. That was back when I was ten or twelve years old. By the time I got to high school and had graduated from NES to Super NES, I used the characters in Capcom’s Super Ghouls and Ghosts to architect my first five-act play, The Legend of Jonathan Graco: Ordeal of Love, which was to be the first play in a trilogy. (At that time, I’d been reading lots of Greek tragedy and Shakespeare.) I found inspiration in the gameplay and the simplicity of the stories. Who knew that by drawing from games like Final Fantasy II and Top Secret Episode I’d learn the basics of story structure without ever opening a book on fiction writing? Or that borrowing from the Belmont legacy would pave the road to A Beautiful Unlife, my very own vampire tale with its very own original characters?

So on this 25th Anniversary of Super Mario Bros., the red-dungareed plumber will always hold a special place in my heart and keep the pipework of my mind teeming with the good times spent at play with my Dad, which also pushed me towards other games that would lend a hand in piecing together the man I am today.

Am I still a big video game buff today? The quick answer is no. Today, I’m a writer. My A and B buttons have long since been replaced by 26 letters with which I create the worlds that once inspired me. And there is no pressing pause in this day and age ’cause you’ve only got one life to play. The little boy who once tapped away the hours with Mario Bros. is long gone, was left in the whale’s belly along with the Side-Scroller Era. But something new had emerged as a direct result––that time spent with Dad as Mario, myself as Luigi, all the various games and the hours they nurtured unconsciously with story and sound, and the work I’ve created as a direct and indirect result are more satisfactory than any first-person Call of Duty or Halo can ever hope to mimic.

Yes, today I prefer writing in the first person, not playing in it.

My Dad, circa before I was born (and judging by that couch and his shirt, late '60s/early '70s?)

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Have any video games had a lasting impression on YOU? Tell YOUR story in the Comments!

8 thoughts on “Super Mario Dad: How Video Games Helped Shape the Writer Within

  1. Great post, John. It hits home for me and I would think many others of our generation. By the way, Duck Hunt was the only video game my dad played with me.

    1. Thanks for reading, Phil! And thanks for sharing your DUCK HUNT story. I think my Dad might’ve played that game with me, too, if we had a second Zapper 🙂

  2. ‘ kicking them into oblivion instead of the fireball-hurling’

    Epic imagery and what a heartwarming homage. I’ve always felt a strong synergistic connection between the influence of video games in my childhood and my own personal cinematic style as well.

    That said, you should give gaming another chance 😉
    (even though your last line was bad ass)

    1. Thanks for reading, Raffi, & for your wonderful reply. I’m glad to see you also felt that same relationship between gaming & creation. And y’know what? I may give gaming another chance after all; if I can make a little “Mario time” once a week for a couple of hours, that could be fun & nostalgic all at once, maybe even spark some new ideas.

  3. I can only say that Mario will be always popular

  4. A touching testimonial to your father, and the power of memory to give shape to the meaning of our lives. Grateful you moved on from just A/B controller to 26 letters.

    1. Thanks for giving it a read, Michael. Glad you enjoyed it!

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