Look, I don’t mean to burden you with my problems, but seven months of quarantine have me feeling so lonely and isolated that there are moments when I’m not 100% sure I still exist. Apartment confinement has taken enough of a toll that I find myself lapping greedily at every droplet of social interaction like a rat at a water bottle, and occasionally addressing my tomato plants by name to ask if they have any fun weekend plans.
When this whole pandemic mess began, eight thousand years ago, a handful of enterprising technological people realized that this would mean an indefinite end to in-person events, and attempted to replicate the party-going experience with group video calls—my favorite of which were hosted by Nark and involved everyone getting naked and performing for each other. That was a fun way to feel connected without actually being in the same room, but now Nintendo’s found a way to do it better.
Mario 35 is a free-to-play game available on the Nintendo Switch now through March of 2021, and it is my new obsession. At first, it feels like yet another port of the familiar old 1985 Super Mario Bros, the NES platformer that we have played so many times and in so many forms that if someone asked you to sketch a map of World 1-1 you could probably create a pretty reasonable facsimile.
But this version adds something new—34 new things, in fact, because you do not play in isolation. Instead, you are matched with nearly three dozen online players who run and jump through the game all at the same time. And when you stomp on an enemy, it doesn’t die—it’s sent to menace one of the other players. Your goal isn’t to make it to the end of a level as fast as possible; it’s to outlast everyone else as more and more enemies pile up.
The game has clear echoes of Tetris 99, a 99-player version of that game; and of course there's a bit of Fortnite and PUBG and every other battle-royale in there as well. Nintendo released the game on the occasion on Mario's 35 birthday, and if I'm being cynical about these kinds of things, I have to guess it's because Microsoft and Sony have new consoles coming out and Nintendo has, well, not much, so at least they can trot out Mario to hold our interest.
As I played, I found myself thrown into two different memories: At first, it called to mind those sexy Zoom parties, with dozens of Internet weirdos calling in to a central meetup to spend time together. In that context, we were there to get naked; with Mario 35, we’re there to play SMB. But over the last few months, the online sex parties wore out their welcome for me; it’s weird to make an appointment for such a thing, counting on your libido to be ready to play at the particular time and date of the call.
In contrast, Mario 35 is ready for you whenever the mood strikes—not a sexy mood, unless you have an extremely specific fetish, but in the mood for the deeply satisfying jumping and bouncing physics of one of the most playable games ever made.
The longer I spent with the game, the more I found myself slipping into a much more distant memory, that of being in the basement of a friend’s house and taking turns with those uncomfortable rectangular NES controllers. It was 1987 when my neighbor got an NES, and after school seven or eight of us would regularly charge down into their basement and pile onto a couch, with a handful of kids overflowing onto the floor. We’d practice the game and learn to get along and make fun of each other and be loud and social in the way that kids are, and nobody can be until we all come out of hiding.
It was a musty basement, with hideous wood paneling and a cat-scratched vinyl sofa that stuck to your skin. I missed that place, and I forgot how much I missed it until Mario 35 reminded me that I used to crowd together on a couch to laugh and shout at the screen, everyone around me sharing the tension of every jump over a pit or lunge for an enemy.
Though Mario 35 gives you no information about other players aside from their name, and you have no way of interacting with them other than tossing koopas into their way, just knowing that there are 35 people all playing SMB at the same time, loosely together, flung all over the world, just feels right.
The game is communal, it’s neighborly, it’s… and I’m not sure if there’s any better word for this… basementy.